National Novel Writing Month, an annual November event, encourages aspiring writers all over the world to write a novel in just 30 days. The success of hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world attempting to write 50,000 words in a month led to the creation of the Young Writers Program, a non-profit organization dedicated to getting kids writing their own novels by reaching for an age-appropriate word count goal during NaNoWriMo. There are enormous benefits to turning NaNoWriMo into a fiction-writing unit with your students. Here are a few:
Not only are NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program free for participants, but the YWP comes with a free Common Core-aligned curriculum for grades K-12, making implementation easy no matter what grade you teach! You can also order one free class kit each year (around August) that includes a class progress chart, stickers, buttons, and more! (If they run out of free kits or you need more for additional classes, they’re only $5 each.)
NaNoWriMo is about as authentic as you can get with student writing. With great writing pep talks presented by well-known published writers, students get to see what real noveling looks like. This is the first time many students start to understand just how much work goes into crafting the novels they read. The pep talks put students inside authors’ heads to see how they approach the process of drafting, revising, and pushing through the times when giving up is the most appealing option.
The Young Writers Program website gives your class an online forum to chat about their progress and encourage each other. If students are over 13, they can connect with world-wide participants in the forums on the YWP and NaNoWriMo websites, allowing them to experience an organic, dedicated community of writers all working toward a shared goal. The NaNo community is also highly active on Twitter and YouTube, giving student even more opportunities to connect. This connection can be a powerful and motivating experience for students.
Several big-name authors across genres have lent their pens and voices to encouraging NaNo participants, including James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, Marissa Meyer, John Green, and so many more. The advice and motivation offered by these authors goes a long way in helping students stick with their novels and teaching them what the authentic process is like.
Tons of resources for NaNoWriMo participants have popped up over the years, making it even easier to plan and find materials for lessons during your unit. In a different post I’ll go into more detail on some of my favorite resources, but to get started, check out:
There are also, of course, free resources on the Young Writers Program website, including access to a free PDF of the Young Novelist Workbook for elementary, middle, and high school. In my own teaching, I used a combination of all of these resources, chose the ones that most fit the needs of my current students, and ended up with a rich curriculum.
If you’ve been looking for more ways to integrate your reading and writing instruction, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity. NaNoWriMo officially runs from November 1st through November 30th. In my classroom, we spend October planning and preparing to write our novels, so naturally it’s a perfect time to dive into the Common Core Reading Literature standards. We look at ways authors craft fiction so we can emulate experts and styles we enjoy. We look at how characters are introduced in stories to help us avoid boring, generic descriptions. We explore hooks, leads, conclusions, authors’ use of dialogue and detail to build a story, and how we can take all of these elements and use them to make our own writing stronger. This fiction study continues all the way through November, though reading instruction takes a backseat that month so students get more time in class to write.
I adore writing workshop (and reading workshop- I’m a workshop junkie)! Short mini-lessons that focus directly on students’ needs as writers (and readers) followed by work time that is full of student voice and choice is, in my opinion, the perfect instructional model to get kids writing, reading, owning it, and improving. Throw in conferencing with students or small groups and workshop checks all the differentiation and personalization boxes, too. NaNoWriMo is a perfect complement to workshop, because students have plenty of time to write, get personalized support from me, and can work with one another to share ideas and offer support.
But even if you haven’t adopted workshop, NaNoWriMo still works for you. Traditional direct instruction, flipped or blended classroom, no matter what you’re doing, NaNoWriMo is a completely adaptable experience. You can pick and choose which elements to focus on and how to structure your teaching to best fit your style and your students.
Instructional method isn’t the only thing you can customize in your NaNoWriMo unit- the whole thing is completely customizable! I’ve seen kindergarten students work as a class to create a 250-word ‘novel,’ 5th-grade students write 5,000 words, and 8th grade students write 25k. The experience truly fits for any grade level and your unique students. You can also decide how much instructional time you want to invest, how much time you want to give your students to work in class vs. outside class, etc.
I start my unit in early October with brainstorming, novel planning, and fiction study. Then we write, write, write throughout the month of November. I let instruction take a bit of a back seat, and I focus mainly on lessons about adding descriptive details, what to do when writer’s block hits hard, how to write more authentic dialogue, and other topics that will help student meet their word counts and improve their writing mid-stream.
Once November ends and we have celebrated our writing accomplishments, I spend the weeks leading up to winter break on revision and coming up with a plan for the break with each student. Many students are still finishing their stories at this point, but teaching about revision gives students tools to be ready when they get there.
In January I move on to other topics in workshop, but teach a short mini-lesson on revision or editing on Mondays followed by student work time. Last year, novels were due from students in mid-February. In the future, I might continue to do some lessons on revision and editing later into March and have the novels due at the beginning of April to give students more work time if they choose.
Ultimately, this unit took up about three months of instruction. That may sound like a lot, but it enabled me to cover the Reading Literature standards in a more authentic context (“Let’s look at what these other fiction writers did to create their stories so we can emulate it in our own novels.”). We covered a ton of different reading and writing topics and skills within this single unit- different methods of brainstorming, outlining a novel/ fiction story (plot structures), creating different types of characters (character archetypes, flat vs. round characters, dynamic vs. static characters, etc.), using descriptive language and imagery to paint a picture for the reader, varying sentence structure, writing strong dialogue, how to introduce characters, hooks/ leads, conclusions, different purposes and lenses for revision (what needs cut vs. added; what do I want the reader to know or experience), different topics in editing (homophones and other things the spell-checker won’t catch), and more. All of it is covered in an authentic context that connects back to reading instruction, which really helps students see the big picture of why good writers are also good readers.
But, if this much time on one unit is making your head spin or just isn’t feasible with your current curriculum, you can shorten it as much as you need to fit the time that you have. Students can brainstorm and plan their novels outside of class, focus on NaNo-related instruction or work-time 1-2 days a week in class during November, and then revise and edit outside of class if they choose. I have also run NaNoWriMo as a lunchtime and after-school club, which could give your avid writers an additional outlet and a chance to connect with fellow writers outside of their classes.
I spend the weeks following NaNoWriMo on grammar and revision instruction. I think we can all acknowledge that grammar instruction and editing in generally is rarely any student’s favorite part of language arts. However, I have found that placing grammar and editing lessons after NaNoWriMo is highly successful in terms of student engagement. Students are motivated by the fact that they’ve just poured blood, sweat, and tears into crafting their stories for a month, and they really want to polish them up to their best possible versions. We explore how typos and grammatical issues can really pull the reader out of the story, and how important it is as writers to present our words in the best possible way. Students have plenty of pages of work on which to practice the skills they learn during instruction, and they are motivated to do the work on their pieces to improve them.
I’m sure that like me, you’ve had a student or two adamantly insist to you that they are “not a writer” or “just not good at writing.” Every time I hear those words, I always feel so sad that the student’s previous learning experiences have led them to believe this about themselves. Somewhere along the way, someone- maybe a teacher, parent, or classmate- or some experience- a bad grade on an assignment that they threw their heart into, negative feedback that was inconsiderate of the personal nature of the student’s piece- has damaged this student’s perception of themselves as a writer.
From day one of my class, I try to remind my students as often as possible that each of them has a voice that is powerful and valuable, and that it is my hope to give them as much chance as possible to make their voices heard. NaNoWriMo is important to that because it creates a unique opportunity to remove fear from my students’ vocabulary- fear of not being good enough. Because the goal of NaNoWriMo is to meet a word count target, to write an entire novel in one month, there is little time to worry about the quality of writing. The focus of quantity over quality is not something that students are often exposed to in the writing they do in school.
Writing assignments often demand that students draft and turn in their best piece of work in one go. We rarely provide students the space to get all of their thoughts down on a page before going back and creating something meaningful with them, and because of this, students who need that additional time to process and create are often left behind. Rather than recognizing that there’s something wrong with the process, these students think there’s something wrong with them as writers.
NaNoWriMo shows students another way forward by teaching them that it’s okay if their first draft isn’t a polished masterpiece they’ve been taught it’s supposed to be. Students learn that it’s okay for their first draft to be a total dumpster fire- as long as they keep putting words on the page. Many authors in their pep talks or writing advice mention that writing a first draft is like filling the sandbox with sand; it is in the revision process where you build your sandcastle. This is a powerful mindset for students.
My favorite video to show students in early November comes from John Green. [Note: One curse word at 1:00] He talks about how it takes him three years to write a novel from start to finish, which opens students’ eyes to the fact that the limited time provided in school means that they don’t usually get an opportunity to take their drafts to a professional level. Students finally understand that the problem is not with their writing ability, but with the limited time they are given to exercise it. And because NaNoWriMo emphasizes quantity over quality for those 30 days, students feel empowered to let their words out without stressing about whether those words are “good enough.”
Because the focus is quantity over quality during NaNoWriMo, students are empowered to write freely without fear of whether their words are the right ones, so the volume of writing naturally increases. The external motivation of a word count goal also propels students forward, especially competitive students. There are also tons of activities to motivate your writers to write more during NaNo. One of my favorites is word sprints, where students compete to reach some sort of writing metric (who can write the most words in X minutes, who can write XXX words first, etc.). I’ll give students an optional prompt to help get their brains going (“Write a scene where a character finds an unusual item”), and then I just step back and let them write. And write. And write.
In November, an administrator could’ve walked into my classroom on any given day of the week and been greeted by the sound of silence broken only by furious key-tapping. Students are so motivated to reach their goal and write their stories that they required very little from me to start and continue writing. The daily pep talks, the excitement of getting to color in their progress on the class progress chart, and fun sites like Fighter’s Block and Written Kitten also added immediate external motivation for students to write more.
My students had a lot of fun during NaNoWriMo! The word sprints were engaging, checking in with their classmates each day to compare word counts added a fun competitive element, and they just genuinely enjoyed writing their stories. Students told me that they often spent hours on the phone with each other at home talking through writer’s block and sharing opinions on plot points and characters. The Fighter’s Block site gamified the process of writing, which was appealing to many of my students who struggled with staring down a blank page. The zany, wacky prompts and challenges we found from various website inspired all sorts of creative ideas for my students. It was just a blast from start to finish. They genuinely enjoyed writing their novels.
In keeping with the authentic nature of NaNoWriMo, students can get actual, published copies of their novels! The Young Writer’s Program partners with Blurb, a self-publishing company, to offer discounts to young novelists. The base price for a 5×8 trade paperback novel is super affordable, and my students’ novels ranged in cost from $3.50 – $7 depending on the length/ number of pages. Students can upload their own cover art, decide how to arrange the pages and what fonts to use, etc. The novels can be ordered through the Blurb website as many times as students and their families wish. The books look completely authentic, and even come with their own unique ISBN numbers and barcodes on the back. My school ordered a copy of each student’s novel for our school library for other students to check out, which was a really cool experience for our authors.
Blurb comes with free proprietary software to help you lay out and upload the novels for publishing. The first year I did this for my students (which was as painfully time-consuming as you might expect), but I think in the future I will set aside 1-2 days of class time and let students take care of this themselves with support from me. You can also upload .ePub files to Blurb, so presumably other software such as Apple iBooks Author would work, but I can’t say for sure- worth trying out, depending on what your software your district supports.
I also feel it’s worth noting that scores of teens have successfully published novels through the traditional publishing route – while the chances are slim, if a student produces something truly special, it could be worth exploring!
No matter how you choose to publish, printing students’ novels is far more cost-friendly than many people think, and the sense of pride and accomplishment students feel when their physical novels arrive is unparalleled.
Through the NaNoWriMo experience students grow exponentially as writers, and perhaps more importantly, they begin to see themselves as writers. They come away from this project with an understanding that they can persevere and achieve difficult goals- first by reaching their word count, then by sticking through the revision process to create a final published product. Students believe in themselves. As a result, for the whole rest of the school year it is so much easier to get my students to take risks as writers, because they have already seen the payoff and learned what they are capable of creating. No longer do I hear students say, “I’m just not good at writing.” My students know and believe that they are authors.
Perhaps the most important reason to give your students a chance to participate in NaNoWriMo is that they all have stories inside them- whether they realize it or not. By guiding students through the brainstorming and planning process and then giving students room, space, and voice to write, stories evolve. My students wrote everything from realistic fiction to fantasy to romance to sci-fi to noir mystery to dystopian. I learned about my students through their writing, and they learned about themselves as writers. Now, because of this project, students’ stories are sitting published in our school library, waiting to be shared with other readers for years to come. Take a chance on NaNoWriMo this November and give your young authors the opportunity to share their stories with the world!
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,