This is Why I Teach: NaNoWriMo

16 Dec

Forty-six days ago, I took on a challenge that I did not believe that I could accomplish and that I did not even intend to fight to achieve. That challenge was writing my first novel alongside sixteen of my fourth and fifth grade students as part of National Novel Writing Month. When I first looked into the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, I saw it as a unique opportunity to encourage my students to write while participating in a global endeavor. Having a clear beginning and end point, along with the knowledge that other kids were simultaneously writing all over the world was very motivating for my students. That, plus the idea that they would receive a real printed copy of their novel launching them to “real author” status, set the group of us into motion.

When the students sign up for the Young Writers Program, they are given the option to choose a word count goal to work toward. NaNoWriMoYWP recommends various word count goals for each grade level, allowing teachers and students to take on the challenge at a level appropriate for their individual ability, time, and motivation. I shared these recommendations with my students, along with an all day write-a-thon opportunity that we would have at the beginning of the month. Though a couple of students did ask what the minimum they could choose was, most shot for goals beyond recommendations, even when I tried to talk them out of it… even when their parents tried to talk them out of it. And so, they prepared to begin with goals starting at 2,000 words and quickly rising to several at and above 9,000.

What I did not realize when I signed up for the program was that, even though my students were able to set their own word count goals, the automatic word count goal for an adult is 50,000 words. To be honest, I do love to write, but it’s what I love to write that is important at this point. I was a philosophy major. I typically write theory, non-fiction.

50,000 words sounded impossible.

To me.

Yet to my students, 50,000 words seemed like just the right kind of challenge that their teacher should take on if they were going to be writing between 2,000 and18,000 words themselves. Whether or not I thought I could do it, these sixteen students believed I could do it. So, I signed up and signed a contract with all of them committing to the goal.

As November started, we wrote. Before school, during school, after school, even meeting at a local restaurant on a Saturday to work on our stories. The kids were excited. Even a handful of students who traditionally dread writing tasks in class excelled in this project, surpassing their goal by hundreds or thousands of words.

In eight years of teaching, there is no project in which I have participated that compared to the way this one promoted:

Goal setting,

Task commitment and anti-procrastination measures,

Encouragement between peers,

Self-motivation outside of class, and

Two-way inspiration and shared energy between teacher and students.

Five days before the challenge was to end, I will admit that I had only written 23,000 words, not even 50% of where I needed to be. To be honest, I was ready to quit. Not quit writing, but quit trying to reach the goal. Sure, I would write more, but looking at the unbelievable workload still ahead of me, it was seemingly impossible to reach the 50,000 word goal.

But then something happened. As I was working on my computer, I checked the NaNoWriMo website. Throughout the month, the students and I had been posting updated word counts. Even though it was the last Saturday of Thanksgiving break, their numbers were going up. Going way up. Some were even starting to surpass their goals. Seeing this growth in my students, seeing them posting updated word counts even during Thanksgiving break, and seeing them rise to this incredible challenge changed me.

I was inspired. I was not just inspired to write; I was inspired to finish by November 30th. Over the next four days, I wrote day and night, even with a full teaching schedule… and completed 27,000 words. At 7:46pm on November 30th, I wrote my fifty thousandth word.

I never could have written this novel without watching them write theirs. Never would have finished this challenge if I hadn’t watched them fight for each and every word. They were a true inspiration.

So, on the second to last day, when I walked into the lunchroom and my fifth graders were asking for my “number”… and I shared 40,000, not nearly where I should have been at this point in the month, I was rather surprised when one of the students who had already completed nearly all of her 9,000 word goal looked up at me with the biggest smile on her face, saying “You are so inspiring!” Me? The one who had nearly given up with less than half of my novel done just four days before the deadline?

Yet, they continued to surprise me. Later that afternoon, a student who had finished a week early came by my classroom “just to check on me.” And on December 1st, when I showed up with donuts and supplies to show them that I was proud of them, it was those same students who came running into my classroom to tell me that they were proud of me.

My students are now more empathetic, more genuinely interested in each other. They are significantly better writers and significantly more confident in their abilities than any score on a standardized test could have possibly achieved. And where a five paragraph essay had once seemed daunting work, now sitting and writing a thousand words sounds like child’s play to these incredible students.

And the added bonus? Watching this group of kids write novels was infectious. What started out as a class project spread to two other whole classes… and, on the second to last day, to four other 4th graders who committed to reaching a 400 word goal in just one day. The school librarian is even thinking about ways to promote reading the works of these motivated students once we have copies in the library. Copies in the library? Wow.

So, NaNoWriMo, you have changed our lives for the better and taught us that we are capable of achieving much more that we could have possibly imagined. And you turned us into a family in the process. Thank you.

To find out more about the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program, visit ywp.nanowrimo.org.

 

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8 Responses to “This is Why I Teach: NaNoWriMo”

  1. Cylithria Dubois (They call me CD) December 16, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Hello, Hello my fellow YWP NaNoWriMo Authors! My name is Cylithria Dubois (They call me CD,) and I am the YWP Forums Moderator at The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program!

    I am sitting here right now with very big, happy, proud tears rolling down my cheeks because I just watched your Video! OH WOW….. You are all so cool!!! So Cool! That is the best video and you all rocked, completely rocked your Word-Count Goals.

    Did you know that at YWP this year, 32% of our Young Writers won NaNoWriMo. 32%! That is beyond record breaking, and you know what, it is a higher winner percentage then the Adult site!!

    YOU, each of you Authors, are that 32%….. WOW.

    I know you can’t see my big, happy, amazed smile, and you can’t hear me as I tell everyone about you all, but I want you to know, I am so thrilled for each and every one of you.

    Epic Author Rockstars!!! You are amazing, brilliant and you did it! You *can* do anything you set your mind to Authors! Anything!

    Thank You so much for being a fellow YWP NaNoWriMo participant with me. I am truly honored.

    ~Epic w00t,
    CD
    Cylithria Dubois – YWP Forums Moderator for
    National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writers Program and
    The Office of Letters and Night

    • Nancye Blair December 19, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      Thank you for your encouraging words. I can’t wait for the students to read them!!

  2. Kaitlin Branch December 16, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    …*sniffsniff* This is amazing. I’ve always wanted to find a classroom where I could teach the YWP but dangit, I’m usually too wrapped up in rigid ESL teaching 🙁

    But oh! Your story is so happy and inspiring! Congratulations on finishing – it’s such a grueling journey but when you look back you’re all like “Wow. I did that?” and it’s all worth it! Rock on!

    • Nancye Blair December 19, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      Thank you!

  3. Trix Milhench December 17, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Wow, what an inspiration those fourth and fifth graders are. I, too undertook the NaNoWriMo challenge for the first time and I, like these wonderful children, am an author. Bringing my 50k words in on day 24.

    Absolutely fantastic, so proud of them all. See you all next year.

    • Nancye Blair December 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

      A hearty congratulations to you as well! So glad to be part of the NaNoWriMo worldwide community. 🙂

      • Kim Sutherland February 2, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

        I can relate to your experience, Nancye. I also gave NaNo a whirl in November and the results were similar. My 4th & 5th gr. students (self-contained special needs with social/emotional disabilities) kept tabs on my progress (I finished a few hours after you did! eek!) and they supported each other like I had never seen before. I think NaNoWriMo makes winners out of everyone, and not just based on word count! Well done!!

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