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Classroom Activities for Novel Writing Month

Jordan Catapano

NaNoWriMo is a funny little term used to describe the special month of November, which is, coincidentally, National Novel Writing Month. That’s right—November is the month specifically designated for individuals to sit down and write an entire novel.

While most people would cringe and say, “An entire novel in ONE month?” there is an enthusiastic group of individuals around the world that gladly participates. After all, there are thousands of people who dream of “Writing a novel someday,” but they never seem to have the time to turn their aspirations into reality. Well, November is that time. Of course, no one said that the novel needs to be any good—it just needs to be finished. And according to the National Novel standards, “finished” means anything more than 50,000 words.

As a bit of history, NaNoWriMo began in July of 1999 with 21 participants. It was, more or less, a fun way to get together with friends and crank out the novels they were just casually writing at the time. Described as “Half literary marathon and half block party,” these writers set the stage for what would soon become an international event. As of 2013, NaNoWriMo welcomed nearly 400,000 adult and youth writers worldwide.

NaNoWriMo’s motto is “The world needs your novel,” and it has evolved into far more than a social trend—it’s a well-organized, non-profit organization that offers help to aspiring authors throughout the entire year. Its emphasis is on November—the month for writing—but to keep the momentum going, it offers a host of events, trainings, supports, and writing communities throughout the year.

NaNoWriMo as Part of Your Classroom Activities

There are a few different ways that your classroom activities can include NaNoWriMo. First, know that NaNoWriMo is for anyone—any age group is welcome to participate, and it can be an exciting opportunity for your own students to get involved in a big movement. Last year, for example, NaNoWriMo welcomed nearly 90,000 youth participants.

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As difficult as it may be, I encourage you to dedicate a portion of your class time toward allowing students to write their novels. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing and authentic exercise to see students come into the classroom ready to write. Asking kids to pen 50,000 words might certainly be an intimidating task—sometimes even requesting a 3-page essay can be—but you’d be happy to know that submissions can vary widely from 10,000 to 999,999 words.

In order to facilitate classroom implementation, NaNoWriMo has a series of tools specifically designed for us educators. You can take advantage of their classroom kits, pre-designed lesson plans, and Common Core-aligned standards and activities. Their website also offers access to online communities, rewards, organization tools, word-count assistance, and much more that you might find useful.

NaNoWriMo tools aside, you have the freedom to create any kind of writing environment for your students. I’ve seen elementary-level teachers dedicate about an hour each day to writing, whereas junior high or high school teachers devote their class period each day to novel writing.

Here are a few pro tips to help facilitate a fun, creative, productive novel-writing experience:

  • Bring in juice and treats.
  • Encourage students to share their works-in-progress aloud.
  • Work in a computer lab or bring laptops into your classroom if possible; if not, have a safe way for students to store their paper copies so nothing is lost.
  • Create your own system of rewards and milestones. My suggestion would be to go with badges—my students love them.
  • Work on a novel yourself—students love it when their teacher participates and it’s a great way to set an example for them.
  • Encourage students to “Make a mess” and “Just get their ideas out.” Give them the freedom to explore and be creative without the pressure to be perfect.
  • Invite other teachers and classrooms from around your school to do this with you.
  • Get connected to classrooms around the world that participates in NaNoWriMo and have students share their works together. You can begin a class blog, or even use NaNoWriMo.org’s web materials to establish a virtual classroom.
  • Link students to “Pep talks” and testimonials from other students. These are effective ways to inspire young minds or talk them out of their writer’s block.
  • Create “Teachable moments” and address issues related to writing that apply to your students. This might include talking about the writing process, genre, characterization, novel timelines, literary devices, typing skills, peer editing, and more.

Once students get into their novel writing process, they crave it. Create a class atmosphere that will encourage them to be productive and free-spirited. You all will be impressed with their results!

After NaNoWriMo

OK, so imagine that the month is over and students have their completed stories—now what? There are three critical steps to round out the NaNoWriMo experience: Celebrate, edit, and share.

First and foremost, celebrate. This is important—everyone worked so hard and his or her success is worthy of celebration. Allow your students to gloat over their word counts or proudly post their badges and rewards to your class blog. Even more, host a class party (think food, hats, confetti, and games) and invite the principal or fellow teachers to congratulate your students.

Once that all-important phase is out of their system, it’s back to business as usual. Whereas November was dedicated to writing, think of December as a month devoted to editing. As grueling and dreadful as editing may be, it’s a necessary process that enables students to pay attention to detail and carefully turn their initial submissions into perfected masterpieces.

Before winter break rolls around, guide your students through the nitty-gritty of revising their works. They can make sweeping adjustments to stories and characters, and plow through sentence-by-sentence editing and rewording. Don’t just let them fly solo here—this is prime opportunity for you to work with your students directly and help guide their process. Similarly, it’s a perfect chance for you to facilitate peer editing, which helps trains young minds to provide helpful, constructive feedback. It might be worthwhile to leverage your class blog or virtual classroom if you have one set up. Solicit feedback from other reliable sources to expand the range of thoughts on their students receive.

Once the editing winds down, it’s time for the most fun part—sharing. Sharing is a time when others can validate your students’ work—a crucial step after spending an entire month painstakingly combing over their writing.

If your class is uncomfortable sharing their works with the public at large, take a substantial amount of time for students to at least share their stories with one another. While you might not have time for every student to share every word, you can take a few different approaches to ensure everyone feels appreciated. For example, you can give each student a chance to read a chapter or “teaser portion” of his or her story aloud or publish excerpts to the classroom blog. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can create a giant volume with each novel enclosed. You can encourage your class to read each submission and share their constructive thoughts.

If your time and technology allow, create avenues for your students to share their stories with other classrooms, either at your school or across the world through blogs and chats. This helps your students see that their words can travel, and also exposes them to other students’ novels. The more they share and the more they read from others, the more fulfilling the experience.

The Learning Doesn’t Stop

Fortunately, NaNoWriMo occurs relatively early—the second half of the school year is open for you to continually inspire students and provide opportunities to build on what they accomplished in the winter months.

  • Here are a few options to keep the NaNoWriMo momentum going for the rest of the year:
  • Compare stories and novels within your regular curriculum to their own stories. Pinpoint similar techniques, elements, events, structure, themes, or characters.
  • Continue to share their works with audiences in the community and worldwide.
  • Prep for publication—you can groom some of your favorite stories and help interested students get their novel officially printed. They can also publish independently and sell their novels via websites like Amazon—how cool is that?
  • Get active in the community and promote NaNoWriMo to others. Visit NaNoWriMo.org to discover how exactly this could look and receive free resources.
  • Connect your class with adult authors in the community or via virtual chats. Talk about the writing process, and see what the novel looks like when a professional writer goes about the task.
  • Have students decide “What’s next” for themselves. Did they like writing a novel? Will they do it again on their own time? Guide each student through his or her introspections and future goals.

Any way you look at it, National Novel Writing Month is a time dedicated to students producing something truly great and original. Lots of time in class can be spent “talking” or “teaching,” but often the true learning comes from just sitting down and getting to work. In just one month’s time, your students can accomplish something that most adults may envy and certainly something they can cherish.

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com