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8th Graders Writing a Novel?

Two videos explore what happens when a middle school teacher challenges her students to write a novel in just one month.

Laura Bradley, a middle school English teacher with three decades of experience, challenges her eighth-grade students to write a complete novel during National Novel Writing Month. Her inspiration for taking up this tough exercise came from her own education in literacy: lots of spelling and grammar, and “not a lot of writing that I felt ownership over.” NaNoWriMo, as a project-based learning unit, allows Bradley to teach the fundamentals of plot, character, and setting, for example, by having the young writers plan out and develop their own story elements—instead of merely identifying them in existing literary works. Bradley didn’t conceive of the project in a vacuum: She relies heavily on the Young Writer’s Program of NaNoWriMo for tips and resources to support students and teachers. The site covers topics such as perseverance, writing advice, and the ways in which the project meets Common Core standards. Bradley has written about NaNoWriMo for Edutopia in the past, and you can learn more about her at her blog and Twitter feed.

Laura Bradley’s eighth-grade students at Kenilworth Junior High in Petaluma, California, tackle the challenge of National Novel Writing Month: an effort to write, in the course of the 30 days of November, a substantive, complete novel. The students’ initial reaction? One young writer explains that she thought tasks this serious “were only for adults,” and another confesses that his teacher was asking for “a pretty fat book—and writing that much seems pretty impossible.” The scope of the resulting plots is impressive, ranging from an escape from an island to “a corrupt government that went too far,” and the kids seem almost surprised by their success. You can read more about NaNoWriMo in Edutopia posts written by Bradley here and here.

View a transcript of this video

Laura: Good morning!

Every year when I present this challenge, I wonder, will this be the year that students will say, "No, I can't do this"? Yet, every year, I see those kids have a story to tell.

So, planners out and notebooks and pen or pencil.

When I look back on my own learning about reading and writing, there was not a lot of writing that I felt ownership over. I've always been most comfortable with writing expository nonfiction, and when I heard about NaNoWriMo, I thought, 8th-graders writing a novel? That's impossible! And I couldn't even imagine writing a novel.

You guys are ready for the 30-day challenge?

As far as projects go, this one is big. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it's a challenge for young writers to write a novel in the 30 days of November.

You'll start brainstorming what settings are going to be part of your story.

A lot of them say, "I can't do this. I'm afraid. I don't want to do it." The counselors say that kids will show up at their office saying, "Please move me out of Mrs. Bradley's class. Does she know I'm only 13?" So, one of the first challenges was my own fear that they would not have stories to tell.

Student: Okay, what's your setting?

Laura: When I had them brainstorm their stories and then we all sat in a circle and I had them share out, one after another, I was blown away at the creativity and the passion, the voices that they had that they needed to share.

Student: The opening scene of my novel will be a flashback to my main character's grandfather in the prisoner-of-war camp.

Student: He's eating take-out Chinese with his mom, who just got out of open-heart surgery.

Student: "And from up above, Leo looked down at young Leo. He looked down and smiled. He smiled for Leo for moving on, for saving the universe. Well, the two of them."

Laura: That's amazing.

These students speak with such authority. They know what the characters are going to do. They know where the plot is going. They know the conflicts that have to be worked through, and they know how it all will end.

I'm peeking over your shoulders, and it's just amazing. I'm so impressed.

I remember as a student being pretty excited to take my writing and staple it into a pretty construction-paper cover. And that was publishing. But my students now are able to send the Amazon link to their relatives and share their novel with the world. I hope that they recognize that what used to seem impossible really is possible for them and that they leave my class going on to high school identifying as a writer, that when a teacher asks them to write something, they in their mind will say, "I can do this, because I've written a novel."

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EngageReaders's picture
EngageReaders
5th & 6th grade English teacher

I love this video and plan to show it to my students today. I have done the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program with my classes for the past four years and it is now the most exciting writing experience of the year. Students really do have such few authentic writing experiences, that when they are told that they can write a novel and it can be about anything they want, many don't know where to start. They quickly regroup and the ideas pour out. I have the good fortune to teach some of my former students again in sixth grade, and when I survey them about the best writing experience they have ever had, almost all mention NaNoWriMo being that for them. My goal this year is to allow them to share some of their work with other classrooms and favorite authors online.

Thanks for sharing your classroom's story!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I see the same excitement with my WriMos! It's just so great to see kids enthusiastic about writing and finding their voice through a big project like this.

Russel Aubrey's picture

It is a wonderful idea, but I can't help but think that these must be short stories and not novels. Is length not a factor?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Russel! Yes, most students write a really, really, really long story... Not the 50,000-word novel that is the aim of adult NaNoWriMo participants. With the student version of NaNoWriMo, teachers help students choose an appropriate word goal for their age and ability, which means not all students write the same length story. I've had students write stories from 8,000 words to 40,000 words, so some of them do get close to a novel length (50,000 words is about the length of The Great Gatsby). Because students spend so much time working on one significant piece of writing, I see their skills and their engagement in the writing process grow tremendously, as opposed to their less than enthusiastic response to writing many shorter pieces.

Russel Aubrey's picture

Thank you for the informative answer, Ms. Bradley. I happen to be a published, young adult novelist. The story caught my eye. I'm happy for these students. Nothing touches one's own soul like writing. I applaud you and them.

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EngageReaders's picture
EngageReaders
5th & 6th grade English teacher

As a wrap-up project and real-world writing experience, I taught my students about query letters and they researched what agents look for from aspiring novelists. They just posted their queries and novel excerpts online and we have received some neat comments on Twitter from favorite authors. It definitely has been a great way to keep NaNo going after November. https://kidblog.org/class/winsor-english-i-nanowrimo-novels-2017/posts

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Thanks, Russel! It is a very exciting project -- my students really identify as WRITERS as a result. So powerful!

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