National Novel Writing Month: Turning Students into Excited Writers in 2020

On October 27, 2013, Karina Yan Glaser logged onto the NaNoWriMo website and signed up to write a 50,000-word novel in the span of 30 days. The book that she wrote that November would be called The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street and would be published by HMH in 2018. Although spending November writing an entire book may sound like an unusual challenge, Glaser was by no means alone. That year, over 300,000 other individuals signed up for the same challenge.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, begins November 1 and ends November 30. The website nanowrimo.org has been a hub for a virtual community of writers since 1999 and can be used to track word count by day, track achievements and milestones, and chat with friends also participating in NaNo. For those writers who have made this a yearly tradition for themselves, it's a month of no hesitation and little editing. Just steady, constant writing and an awful lot of coffee.

“NaNoWriMo taught me that every first draft is terrible and that the only thing preventing me from writing a book is the fear of the blank page,” Glaser said of her own experience. “Now I draft all of my novels using the skills I learned during NaNoWriMo.”

However, this challenge is not strictly for caffeine-fueled adults who want to sacrifice their entire November. The Young Writers program caters to educators who want to challenge their students to become more passionate writers.

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program

In 2018, more than 100,000 students participated in the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, or YWP. An offshoot of NaNo, the YWP provides workbooks, classroom kits and an online classroom for educators to utilize all year long. Students are able to set their own word-count goal and then race against the clock.

Marya Brennan is the Director of Programs at NaNoWriMo and a former middle school teacher who used the YWP in her own classroom.

“[It is a] trackable, exciting goal … that was extremely motivating for my students,” Brennan said. “Finding a project that would be meaningful forever for them became super important to me. I knew that writing a novel is something that they would always remember.”

For the most part, the experience is completely digital, as it has been since it was first founded. The YWP can be used with other virtual writing programs like Writable to meet teacher and student needs for the year.

“You can run a virtual classroom, you can chat with their students, you can see their progress, you can read their novels, you can access all of the resources,” Brennan says. “It also works if you're a parent. We've always had a lot of homeschooled children using our site because it is a self-directed learning tool.”

Naturally, giving students complete creative freedom and a self-determined word count raises some questions about managing student learning outcomes and reviewing their final projects. After all, no teacher has time to grade a student’s novel, let alone a classroom full of them.

Students can set their own word count goal for the Young Writers Program. Photo courtesy of NaNoWriMo.

Fitting YWP into the Curriculum

The YWP is a flexible program. Unlike the original NaNo challenge, there's no 30-day restriction, and students and teachers can set writing goals whenever is most convenient. There's no single correct way to prep, teach or grade for the YWP, so how an educator chooses to work with the program is up to them.

Prep

To prep for national writing month, teachers may want to begin by introducing story elements, practice assignments, and writing prompts for inspiration. Tools like graphic organizers, information skills activities, and more than 600 assignments and prompts are available on Writable to assist with this preparation stage. For Grades 6-12, instructors may use the "Graphic Organizer: Fictional Narrative" tool in order to help students outline their story’s conflict, characters, and events. For Grades 3-5, the "Graphic Organizer: Short Story" tool can help your students outline plot and setting.

“We prepped through October, reviewed our literary elements and our story structure, talked about our plot lines,” one YWP teacher said. “The energy in my class is electric. My students are already challenging each other to word sprints. They're talking about what they're going to do for their exposition, their rising action.”

Feedback

In order to get the most out of their November novel writing, students need to have the creative autonomy to write to their goal without constant corrections. However, peer review and teacher suggestions can go a long way after the process is complete. After the students have achieved their word count goals, their focus can turn to editing a small part of their story. Students can select their favorite excerpt, page, or chapter to focus on for peer and teacher review.

Grading

There are several ways to grade your students’ novels without actually having to read them. The easiest element to track is the word count that a student has set and whether or not they met or came close to their goal. Basic elements like grammar, spelling, and language can also be taken into account once all feedback has been applied to the students’ selected sections of their stories.

“I had them choose a very manageable excerpt, and revise the excerpt,” Brennan said, noting that the excerpt can also be used for other projects such as as query letters.

It's not unusual for students to continue working on their stories even after the project has finished. Some may even go on to self-publish their story, as one of Brennan’s students later did.

Both students and teachers can track writing progress each day. Line and bar graphs encourage students to keep up the pace. Photo courtesy of NaNoWriMo.

Writing as Classroom Therapy

What your students choose to write for NaNoWriMo can change your perspective on them as individuals and help you better understand their imagination, creativity, and humor. When Brennan first began reading her students' stories, it opened up a window into who her students were as individuals. Even those who were shy or quiet or uninterested in school altogether had “a rich, inner world” that she was able to explore though the program.

Over the course of the month, writing also became an outlet for troubled students and an unintentional social-emotional learning tool for Brennan. By writing about the issues they were facing at home, at school, or in their community, students had a constructive outlet for their frustrations or their hurt.

“In some ways, it was a little bit like therapy,” Brennan said. “They were working through these things, but in a fictional way.”

In the Writing Workshop offered on Writable, Steve Pemberton's autobiography A Chance in the World is used at the basis for a personal narrative exercise. Pemberton, who writes about his own experiences as a young man in the foster system, offers brainstorm charts, story map organizers, and video instruction on how a student might explore their own formative experiences. Students are encouraged to explore difficult obstacles in their lives or moments that frightened them. These lessons can help students who are relying more heavily on their own life for their writing to find the inspiration they need to reach their word goal.

Whatever your students write about, the lessons they will take away from NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program will be memorable and lasting.

"There has never been a year when it didn't have a glorious impact on my students," one YWP teacher said. "Not just their ability to write for long periods or their understanding of literary structure. NaNo helps my students learn about setting goals and committing to them. It gives them an amazing confidence boost when they reach those goals. It helps breathe life and light and creativity into my school."

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To find out more about Writable’s graphic organizers, prompts and assignments, sign up for a free trial of Writable, which has partnered with HMH to integrate its writing practice and formative assessment platform into HMH’s core English language arts programs.

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