Teaching with NaNoWriMo

Creative Writing is probably the most challenging class I teach.

It is so different from the German and English 11 classes that make up most of my schedule. There are few standards (five total) provided by the state, compared with teh 60+ standards for ELA. The distance between a beginning learner and the end point of the semester is harder to define than it is for a German-language learner.

It's more creative than writing.

And when I take into account every individual represented in the class, each exploring genres from songwriting to spoken-word poetry to story-writing, it's mind-boggling to come up with a single project that will focus this wide array of kids.

Add to this the success of my school's writing program since I took it over a mere five years ago. When I began, my first class had eight students. The next semester had six (among whom, though, were two of my All-Time writing students, Molly and Austin). Three years ago we crept into the teens. This year I have twenty-five students.

Three years ago, I discovered NaNoWriMo's Young Writers' Project (YWP), and I began to focus the group on basic skills and big ideas.

The concept behind National Novel Writing Month goes beyond merely writing a novel in 30 days. It's about setting goals for one's writing--and reaching them. A typical NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words in a month. The Young Writers' Project sets the goal at 30,000--and it allows students to adjust the goal. In my years of teaching, I have seen kids reach 60,000 and 80,000 words, and I have seen kids reach goals of 25,000 words, too.

What I really like about YWP is the lessons that come along with it, which are conventiently stored on an accessible Google Doc. They cover setting, plot, characterization--the basics that I had covered in years before teaching with NaNoWriMo. I was able to use these lessons during the month of October to teach all of my students the basics.

At the same time, I'm grooming possible NaNoWriMo writers. I added a 20% Project to my creative writing class--giving students one day a week to focus on a semester-long creative project--and I noticed that this really boosted participation in NaNoWriMo and student success overall.

During the month of November I promoted NaNoWriMo by having a kick-off party with coffee and doughnuts to get everyone started. Students spent the 90-minute block writing and reported their total word count at the end--only those who had signed up for YWP (about 1/3rd of the class) reported on the site.

I brought in past winners and had them tell the class about their success. This was really good, because these students really emphasized the devotion and organization that had made them successful. Every few days, we would look at the progress chart for our class, which showed the climbing totals.

My Winners

I'm proud to say that I had two winners this year.
Jacob is a senior who wrote a fantasy called The Shard of the East for his project. When I asked how close to the end he was at 31,557 words, he said, "Almost finished with part one of three." During our Thank God It's Over party today, he did a reading of his synopsis, looking forward to other characters and adventures that he may add later on.

Zoë is a sophomore who wrote a zombie apocalypse novel called The Laughter of the Undead. While she wrote 37,000 words during November, when you add this to the 30,000 words she had already written, she is over 60,000 words into her novel--"about halfway through," she says. 

As cool as Zoë's title is--The Laughter of the Undead, just let that sink in a moment--her characterization is the highlight of her writing. She brings characters to life, and she interweaves three different perspectives of events as zombies appear and ravage a high school.

Seattle (far left of photo above) earned a participation certificate, finishing just 1500 words shy of her goal of 15,000 words. Seattle's degree of difficulty was a little higher because she was writing a collection of spoken-word poetry called Her Name: Loneliness.

Today's a real high point of my semester. I'm just so proud of these writing students of mine!