The NaNoWriMo Classroom Challenge

Novels

As many English teachers and would-be writers know, November is the month for cranking out a couple thousand words in an attempt to write the next Great American Novel.  NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual challenge to produce a complete work in thirty days.  This is no mean feat for anyone, regardless of their age and experience.  It’s especially daunting for young writers who have often not written more than school assignments or a poem or two.

Nevertheless, last November, I was determined to get my students involved in NaNoWriMo.  I ordered the pins and stickers.  I pored over the website. I bought my own t-shirt.  But I couldn’t get my head around how we my students could participate in such a big undertaking.  Then, it hit me.

Inspired by the extremely different versions of “real” events that circulate in a middle school on any given day, I decided to give my students a challenge:  We would collaborate on a novel.  We would write about a single event from twenty different points of view.

Once I had my concept, I had the first of many class meetings to talk about the project.  In the first meeting, the students decided that the central event would be a student’s disappearance during the school day.  We brainstormed characters who might be affected by this — her mom, her friends, a teacher, an ex-boyfriend.  The list went on.  Then, the students signed up for their characters and went home to develop them.

Later, we agreed on some story facts (there would be a pep rally; the main character would have a twin sister…) To keep our story “straight,” the students then signed up for times of the day on which to focus.  Then, they started to write.

Each student posted his or her “chapter” to Kidblog, using the character name and time of day in the title.  This allowed everyone to read everyone else’s entries, to provide feedback and to refine story development.  The students loved reading each other’s chapters, and the experience gave them lots of practice with peer editing.

We had regular meetings to chart our course.  I’ll be honest, at some of those meetings, I felt kinship with the captain of the Titanic.  But we wrote on…and on…and on.

So, will you see our novel, To Somewhere, on a bookstore shelf someday?  No.  Some of the chapters were awesome.  But a couple of my young authors couldn’t resist throwing in a gunfight or a car chase, whether the story needed it or not.  It was hard to stick to the narrative that we had agreed to follow.  Revisions took us into December and beyond.   But, to my mind, that’s the good work of the classroom: the productive struggle.  They struggled, but they also produced.  So I would recommend the experiment, without reservations. Happy NaNo-ing!

About the Author
Devon O’Brien is an English teacher and writing coach in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. She has taught middle school and high school for eighteen years. A National Board Certified Teacher, Devon was a 2016 recipient of a Maryland Excellence in GT Education Award. Her professional interests include creative writing, brain theory, and talent identification.

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