Even though it was just last month, I find myself feeling a little nostalgic for November. December features a much-needed vacation and one of my favorite holidays, but the students and I had an unexpected experience in November that taught me something important: Sometimes the best instruction is no instruction.
A few years ago I stumbled across NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, a contest which challenges participants to crank out a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Whenever that month approaches, I think about making an attempt myself but can never bring myself to commit. This year, looking at the site, I noticed that there was a branch of the contest for students. Although the goal for adults is 50,000 words, the goals for kids are more flexible. Specifically, kids were expected to write approximately a thousand words per grade, making my sixth graders’ goal 6,000 words. I ordered the free materials on the spot.
But then I began growing skeptical that my students would want to get involved. Getting my kids to write anything is usually a challenge. Sometimes I joked to my colleagues that “dentist” was a more accurate title for what I do, because getting the kids to write more than a couple paragraphs is often like pulling teeth.
So I wasn’t expecting much enthusiasm. If my own sixth-grade English teacher had said, “Guess what? I want you to write a 6,000-word novel! And I want you to do it in a month!” I would have thought that she was out of her mind, even though I’ve always liked writing. Despite my misgivings, and the fact that I didn’t really have time to lay the proper groundwork, I decided that that I’d tell my students about NaNoWriMo, accepting up front that it would probably flop. Then I’d have a year to think about why it flopped and how I could better implement it the next time around. (I am not usually this pessimistic, but if the idea of me writing a novel makes me dizzy, imagine how an 11-year-old would feel.)
Happily, and surprisingly, I was wrong. I was wrong about the reception I got from the kids, wrong about the level of commitment I got from most of them, and, regrettably, very wrong about my own ability to meet the adult goal of 50,000 words. After all the years I’d passed it up, I decided to finally participate myself, to set an example for the kids. When I told the students that I, too, would be writing, one of the students burst out, “You can’t write 50,000 words! You have a kid!” He turned out to be right, but I did manage to write about 2,000 words. I sort of hope that they gloated about the fact that they were able to write more than their teacher, and I’m glad that my lack of success didn’t derail anyone.
Even though I’d intended to do the accompanying novel-writing lessons, I found that the kids were completely squirmy and uninterested in anything I had to say. They just wanted to write, and write they did, in the marble composition notebooks I gave them. Initially I’d planned on reserving laptops for them, but the logistics of that, coupled with the fact that this was not the time to also begin formal typing instruction, was a bit overwhelming, in part because I still had the regular curriculum to follow along with a few kids who didn’t want to participate.
So now it’s over, several weeks over, and instead of trying to work out why it flopped, I’m still trying to figure out why it didn’t and what that means for my teaching, how I can channel all that interest and enthusiasm. I learned that when left alone, kids will write. They will write a lot. They will ignore the pleas of their teachers to pay attention to the lesson and scribble furtively on notebooks half concealed under their desks. They will wait patiently in line at the front of the room to record their current word count so I can update the class chart.
Nearly all of the students met the 6,000-word goal. One student met the goal in about 10 days and continued to write until the end of the month. Another student started about 10 days in, met the goal, and started his second novel in December. I loved that none of them stopped when they reached the word count goal; they stopped when they were finished telling their stories, which ranged from fairy tales to action stories with a few crazy capers thrown in.
Knowing what I know about these kids as individuals pointed to a range of motivations and helped me learn a little more about them as people and as writers. Some kids wrote because they’re creative and they like it. Some kids wrote because it gave them a temporary escape from personal challenges. Some kids wrote to tell their true stories in safer, fictional contexts. And some kids wrote to be social. Several kids wanted to write but didn’t want to work alone, so they formed partnerships and worked together towards a 12,000-word goal.
It was a great experience for my students, and for me. Ideally, I wish they could have continued to work on their novels, but time waits for no one, and more important, testing waits for no one.