Student novels

Jessie was an angry 8th grader, a fiery girl who had far better things to do than listen to a teacher and do homework. And when I told her class that they would spend the first semester writing their own novels, Jessie rolled her eyes and whispered, “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

But by the time we got to winter break, Jessie was an enthusiastic writer who had dug deep into her own life for inspiration, discovered her voice, and completed her first novel. On her end-of-semester reflection, Jessie wrote:

“I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that? I think it is honestly amazing. I loved the writing time and I wish it wasn’t over!”    -Jessie, 13

When I first discovered NaNoWriMo (a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month), I wasn’t sure that it was something I could do with my students (O.K., to be honest, I was terrified). I had never written a novel, so how could I possibly ask my students to tackle such an audacious challenge? Never fear! Even I, a novel-writing novice, can support students through brainstorming, planning, outlining, writing, and even publishing their own novels with free curriculum from the Young Writers Program (YWP) of NaNoWriMo. (Yes, FREE! There are workbooks available for purchase for high school, middle school, and both upper and lower elementary school, but teachers may also download the workbooks for free.)

Thanks to the tremendous online support from the YWP and the faith of a principal who trusted me to make decisions about my curriculum, my students and I dove into novel-writing with enthusiasm and just a bit of trepidation.

Writing a novel seems pretty old-school for an innovative, tech-infused community like CUE. But it turns out there is so much more to NaNoWriMo than writing a novel, and technology is central to its power and success.

Here are some reasons my students and I love the NaNoWriMo challenge:

  • Individualized/student-centered: students are given total control of their novels. They choose the genre, create the characters, craft the conflicts, develop the plot, and figure out how to wrap it all up and conclude their stories. With guidance from their teachers and the YWP site, they even determine how long their story will be, and calculate how much they’ll need to write each day in order to meet their goals by the end of November.
  • Writing community: although writing is typically a solitary activity, being part of a community of writers is a valuable part of the process. With NaNoWriMo, my students are able to join a community of writers on the YWP site, where they can share ideas, seek support, and participate in forums (like “Plot Hospital” and “Character Cafe”) with other young writers. Within our classroom, we build our writing community by sharing our Google docs with trusted classmates (and some outside of our class) to get feedback without disrupting the quiet writing time. Of course we also share our writing aloud and give/seek feedback face to face, but an online community allows us to continue these conversations far beyond the classroom. There is an active community of WriMos on YouTube, where we often turn for writing advice and inspiration, and suddenly our students are part of a world-wide writing community! Now that’s powerful.
  • Digital citizenship: since our novel-writing is supported by an interactive website, our students learn how to work, participate, and contribute to an online community. The YWP site is similar to a social media site, where students create accounts, connect with writing buddies, post in classroom feeds, and engage in conversations. It provides the perfect opportunity for teachers to guide students as they navigate and contribute to online communities in appropriate, positive ways as part of an academic endeavor.
  • The sweet spot of a kind-of-scary challenge that is accessible with support: I have been trying to inspire middle schoolers to write for a very long time (think: typewriters), and I know how difficult it can be. Writing is hard, and when we assign writing, we are asking students to create something new out of nothing. So we assign shorter pieces of writing so students won’t be intimidated by the task. But here’s what I have discovered: when my students tackle a big, hairy challenge like writing a novel, they begin to think like writers. They know that every day in class they will be working on that story, so they think about it when they are not in class, like while biking to and from school, eating dinner, and falling asleep at night. And their writing skills grow in leaps and bounds because they spend so much time writing!

My students have written novels with NaNoWriMo for six years now, and their enthusiastic responses continue to inspire me. Some even publish and sell their novels on Amazon! They not only develop as writers, but they see their reading and technology skills, not to mention their academic confidence, skyrocket.

If you are interested in bringing NaNoWriMo to your students, I’ve created this site to help teachers with the project, and I love to connect with other teachers on Twitter @LAMBradley.

Ed. Note- NaNoWriMo isn’t officially until November, but I know teachers and having this in your pocket this early will make things that much easier once we get to November. (Between you and me, it doesn’t have to be November. The NaNoWriMo police aren’t watching.)


Laura Bradley has been teaching middle school English in Sonoma County, California since 1988. She also teaches a digital design class and a broadcast media class, where her students produce the school’s daily news show. Laura holds an M.A. in Educational Technology, and is a Google Certified Innovator / Educator, PBS Digital Innovator, National Board Certified Teacher, Bay Area Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and first place winner of the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award.

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