How National Novel Writing Month Kickstarted my Teaching
May 7, 2019
National Novel Writing Month is, without a doubt, the biggest project I have undertaken in my teaching career thus far. While I have been familiar with NaNoWriMo since my early 20’s, and I knew of the Young Writers Program in passing, I more or less jumped into the unit head-first with only a basic, general idea of what I was doing: focusing on the narrative fiction CCSS standards for reading and writing, and trying to get the 30 kids in my classroom to write something. A lot of something.
First, I need to back up a few months to May 2018, the end of the inaugural year of my teaching career. I never intended to teach middle school. If we’re honest, the 6th through 9th portion of my K-9 Elementary Ed. degree program was merely nominal. I learned how to teach young kids to learn to read, and then immediately found myself in a classroom of accelerated eighth grade students, some of whom were scoring in the 99th percentile on our district benchmark. That first year was messy, as I’m told any teacher’s first year is, but I keenly felt throughout the year how much of a trainwreck my ELA instruction was. I had very little idea what I was doing with my list of standards, and a basal textbook curriculum that I probably hated even more than my students, and an incredibly supportive and patient instructional coach who has been with me every step of my learning journey as a new educator.
In short, over those 10 months, I never truly felt like I found my stride. I never reached a place where I felt like I was helping students reach the standards while getting them to enjoy and buy into reading and writing activities. The provided basal curriculum was overwhelming and needlessly complex, and the stories and texts it contained were not pieces my students could connect with. I plugged forward with it because I had little idea what else to do, but in my heart it felt wrong. My writing instruction, beyond the prompted responses to the textbook passages, was virtually non-existent. Everything felt disjointed.
So in May I began to regroup, to look ahead to next year. I threw everything I had done out the window, knowing I would need to start from scratch. I thought through elaborate units on different, interesting themes with texts that I felt would be challenging enough but more interesting than the textbook stories my students abhorred. I Googled and researched and leaned on my instructional coach and my professional networks on social media and my fantastic mother, a veteran master teacher, who has graciously spent hundreds of hours on the phone with me talking about best practice.
And then, in June, I picked up Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, 2nd ed., and it changed my life. That feels dramatic to say, but it was like jumping in a cold pool in the midst of a humid Florida summer. The path I’d long been searching for suddenly became so much clearer to me. I tossed out (with some sadness) my carefully over-planned units, and began to think through how I would help a brand-new class full of students learn to brainstorm and plan and take their own ideas to the furthest possible heights. I doubled down on my already large classroom library and spent probably way too much money on making sure I had diverse books that reflected my students as well as their interests. I prepared to dive into this whole “workshop” thing, and see what happened.
I had forgotten all about NaNoWriMo until late August, when things were crazy and stressful as I learned to navigate not only my second year of teaching, but a brand-new science lab that required me (and all our science teachers) to split my time between multiple classrooms and live off a cart. I was suddenly asked to help teach a new elective during my push-in period that I knew absolutely nothing about. A freak accident one morning in early September led to a broken knee and a month of teaching out of a wheelchair, followed by months of physical therapy. I was still trying to work through starting the first Genders and Sexualities Alliance in our school. Not to mention graduate school, my usual non-work time commitments, and all the stuff that comes along with, y’know, teaching. And then one morning on my way to my advisory class, stressed and disoriented and already in need of another summer break, my principal came up to me and said, “Hey, are you still planning to do that writing thing you told me about last year?”
I could have said no. Arguably, I should have said no- I was juggling a lot.
But writing workshop was off to a good start so far, and I recognized a clear need for more club offerings for our introverted students. So I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
I researched, and looked through all the Young Writers Program materials, and planned, and planned more. I figured out which coworkers would be able to give me rides home after my first few club meetings as my knee healed. I attempted to start a committee and get other teachers on board, but it was too new and not clearly defined, and I was not the only one juggling a lot both personally and professionally. I pushed forward anyway, figuring I could try again next year once my coworkers had a chance to see what this project was all about.
I introduced NaNoWriMo to my ELA students as an optional project they could take up as part of workshop. We would all be working on fiction, I explained, and students could choose to focus on a short story or continue to write something else entirely, but I made a pretty strong sales pitch- anyone who participated in NaNoWriMo, met their word count goal, and finished their novel would get a physical, published copy. They would be real, published novelists.
I made this same pitch to the students who showed up for the initial club meetings, a mix of 6th through 8th graders. We brainstormed together, talked through setting realistic word count goals, and planned our writing for the month of November. I was excited, planning my own novel project to write alongside the students, and I let them into my thinking process as I named characters and organized plot points and tried to make sense out of disjointed ideas. But I was also a bit cynical- I expected students’ initial excitement to carry them through the first week or two of November, and then most of them would fizzle out and move on to something else.
And then November 1st hit, and something amazing happened- my students wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. During workshop time, my room was utterly silent beyond the sound of keyboard keys clicking furiously, or a student asking another student to “hey, read this” or “what do you think about…” And I buoyed my students’ clear enthusiasm with word sprints and author pep talks and stickers and all the other exciting things that NaNoWriMo offers as part of the month-long noveling experience. My students rushed in excitedly each day to update their novel progress trackers hanging on the wall. They called each other on the phone at night to discuss character ideas and lament their frustration with writer’s block. They wrote. And they enjoyed it.
Much to my continued surprise, the club kids kept showing up to write, too. Each meeting I fretted about having fun activities or engaging writing games to hold the students’ interest. This wasn’t a class project for kids who would be writing anyway, these students were voluntarily staying after school to participate in a writing club. But what I quickly discovered was that the students didn’t need fun, frilly activities- much like my ELA students, they just wanted me to get out of the way so they could write. I stayed after school for the club twice a week, to make sure that all through November students had a quiet place to write. It was a lot of time to invest, but my intentions weren’t entirely without selfishness as it forced me to invest time on my own novel. My students frequently asked about my own word count progress, which helped hold me accountable, as I couldn’t let them down by quitting or fizzling out myself.
My project came down to the wire- I ended up with my 52,210 words at 11pm on November 30th. My students collectively combined for over 300,000 words written in the month of November- one student wrote 95,000 words alone! I was already willing to call the month a success.
Then came December. Students kept right on writing, wrapping up plots and filling in holes and jumping into that frustrating process of revision. We moved on to new topics in ELA, but the kids carried on work through January and February, eventually settling on and submitting a ‘best draft’ of their work.
This put the ball back in my court. I didn’t have the instructional time to devote to teaching students to use the book-publishing software I’d found, so I spent a long three-day weekend editing, formatting, and uploading.
Finally, in mid-March, the result- 20 physical, published, paperback novels. 20 new young novelists.
There were many points along this journey that were validating. Watching the fervor with which my students attacked their stories, listening to them interact authentically about writing without any input or suggestion from me, watching them meet their word count goals, and in many cases, surpass them. Reading my students’ stories, uploading the covers they designed themselves, sending the books off to be published.
But probably the most validating moment was in the main office of my school (shoutout to my school secretaries who knew how excited I was and helped me watch for the UPS truck!), when I sliced open that box from Blurb and saw, for the first time, the real and physical impact of what I started a over a year before with an after-school conversation in my principal’s office. Needless to say, I cried. And I excitedly showed them off to any of my coworkers who had the misfortune of strolling through the office at that moment. And then I took them all home and cried some more.
I didn’t cry when I handed out the novels to the kids- I was nervous, actually. I had done my best with editing and formatting, but I am not a book publisher and I’d literally never done this before, so I was worried they would be disappointed by typos or slightly blurry covers or awkward page breaks. If they were, I never heard or saw those things. They were too busy showing their books off to all their friends, passing them around and comparing and reading.
I wasn’t quite done with the waterworks just yet, though. My super-supportive district was kind enough to put together a video about our project, interviewing me and some of the students who participated. We were interviewed one at a time, so I didn’t get to hear the students’ responses until the video was published on our district Facebook page. It was the end of an incredibly long week, one of those weeks where everything seems to go wrong and random student issues abound and I wasn’t sure if Friday would ever arrive. And then Thursday night the video was posted and I saw, once again, the impact of what I started, and I cried. A lot.
In a separate post, I’ll walk through the cut-and-dry of how I set everything up and how other teachers can emulate this project with their own students. I’ll lay out the timeline and spell out the specifics. But I wanted to take some time, first, to memorialize this project; mostly for myself, so that in approximately 6-7 months when I’m wondering why the hell I signed up to do this crazy thing all over again, I can revisit this and remember how much this changed me and my teaching. It was one of those truly magical once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I can’t wait to continue to share NaNoWriMo with other teachers, and I hope others are inspired to take risks and build the experience for their own students who have a story inside them, just waiting to come out.
Til next time,