Developing Writing Confidence Through NaNoWriMo

July 24, 2014
By Educator Innovator

Each November, over 2,000 K-12 educators bring literary fun and adventure into their classrooms through National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). One educator, Seve Isaacs, shares his story below, as well as the results he sees in students long after the month is over.

A group of high school biology students were told to write a five-page paper on a science topic of their choice, due in a week. The students let out a collective groan that would have made the most patient teacher roll their eyes. Two students did not participate in the groaning of their classmates. They sat in their seats smiling smugly at one another, nodding confidently. “Five pages?” they said, “That’s cake. Bring. It. On.”

Those two were my students. Not my biology students, of course, but my Creative Writing I students, and the reason they weren’t weeping and wailing with the rest of their peers was National Novel Writing Month.

After finishing a Bachelor’s program in Theatre and Speech Education, I got my first teaching job. I was excited (and really stinking nervous) to meet my students and to teach them about the wonderful world of theatre. When they handed me my schedule for the coming year, everything appeared to be in order, except for one little class period: Creative Writing I.

I was not an English teacher. In fact, I had made very specific choices in college to not minor in English or take more English classes than I had to. Yet here it was, my first teaching job, and I was being asked to be an English teacher. Needless to say, I felt a little out of my element.

Luckily I married a fantastic woman with a passion for, and experience in, writing creatively. She was a long time NaNoWriMo participant, and during the first November of our marriage I watched her lose herself in literary abandon. I had never heard of NaNoWriMo before and I was fascinated watching her process. Semester plans in hand, I hit the ground running for Creative Writing I, but it wasn’t long before I stumbled. The plans weren’t awful, but I was really struggling with my lack of experience with the subject matter. One day in class I was telling my students a story about my wife and the word “NaNoWriMo” slipped out of my mouth. They all perked up. “What’s that?” they asked, unaware of the Pandora’s Box they were about to open. I pulled the website up on my projector and I told them everything I knew about the program. Toward the end of the class period I asked them if they wanted to participate, and they all eagerly said yes!

I found the Young Writers Program to tailor the month for my students. While the official NaNoWriMo in November sets everyone’s goals to 50,000 words, the YWP lets us set our goals to whatever we think is reasonable. There’s also a really great high school workbook and lesson plans. I arranged my students into a Virtual Classroom with me as their teacher. This allowed us to all keep track of one another’s progress and send each other messages of encouragement. There was a calendar where I posted the list of our after-school events at the local library and a coffee shop near the school.

Neither I nor my students had any idea what it would be like to write 50,000 words. We all agreed, though, that 50,000 should be our goal. That’s right, our goal. I participated with them. I added it to my already ludicrously busy schedule as a new theatre teacher (we had a play and district drama competition that November). It was insane.

When November hit, we hit back. Hard. We were woefully unprepared, but that didn’t keep any of us from writing stories. By the time November ended, we were badly beaten. But we survived. Most of my students were crestfallen because not one of us had reached our word-count goal. I had one student who came close because her typing teacher allowed her to write in his class because hey, it was typing, wasn’t it? She wrote 48,000 words.

I had prepared a discussion with them about goals and time management and how we should have worked harder so we could have made it. I opened the period by allowing students to share their thoughts on the whole process, and as I listened to them talk about their struggles of maintaining their plots, developing their characters and their story arcs, something occurred to me. These students had never done anything like this before. Even for the students who had barely broken 10,000 words (roughly 20 pages in a Word document), this was a monumental achievement! The goal had seemed impossible, the time allotted impossible, the work load impossible, and yet we’d done it. We’d written more in 30 days than we’d ever written in our lives. This was amazing! We had the discussion about goals, time management, and working harder, but instead of guilt, the theme was of celebration and awe for what we had accomplished.

I just wrapped up my fourth time teaching NaNoWriMo. It has become the centerpiece of my Creative Writing I class. Some students meet or exceed the 50,000 word goal. Some don’t. I haven’t yet. But we’ve learned some fantastic things from NaNoWriMo, among them the confidence to make writing three-, five-, and even 10-page papers for other classes a breeze.

Once you’ve scaled NaNoWriMo mountain, a mere five-page biology paper looks like a golf course.

By Seve Isaacs