Building a Community of Writers Through Novel Writing

Spring 2018

By Lisa Stringfellow

The study of rich, compelling literature is at the heart of the middle school English classroom. Reading is a communal experience, and teachers lead by example. Through read-alouds, think-alouds, book talks, and discussion, we model strategies that support reading through best practices.

Modeling writing is equally important, but it doesn’t often happen in the same active or continuous way that reading does. “It helps motivate me to write well,” says one student when asked about the value of teachers writing with students. As teachers, many of us provide models for writing assignment that students may reference when beginning a paper, or we draft topic sentences or other parts of an essay with students to support writing skills. That is a strong start, but it is not quite the same immersive modeling that is often part of reading instruction. In whole novel classrooms, we read the novels we teach with our classes, but how often do we write the same assignments we ask of our students?
 
Time is a factor, as is the ever-present paper load, but compelling reasons exist for teachers to model writing with their students. In his journal article, “Teachers as Writers and Students as Writers,” Joseph Eng argues that if teachers of writing “seek opportunities for writing with their students, they will, logically, develop better insights into the ‘processes’—including challenges and values—their student-writers find within the context of a particular writing assignment.”1
 
One answer to the immersive modeling I wanted came when I participated in the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program with my fifth-grade students.
 

A Month of Writing . . . A Year of Engagement

NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, is an innovative writing event that challenges participants to write a novel in just 30 days. The goal for adults participating in NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words during the month of November, but K-12 students participating through the Young Writers Program may set their own reasonable, yet challenging, individual word-count goals. Over 100,000 young writers and 4,000 classrooms have participated in NaNoWriMo since its inception.2 Students’ novels can be about anything they want, and this is what generates the most excitement. I’ve seen books about football, time travel, alternate worlds, and secret identities. At the end of November, educators and participants report substantial improvement in self-confidence, creative thinking, writing skills, and time management. An important key to creating a learner-centered classroom is motivating students by allowing them some control of their own learning and encouraging collaboration, an important 21st century skill. NaNoWriMo allows for both goals.
 
I introduce NaNoWriMo to my students in the last weeks of October, so we can begin discussing the elements of a good novel and plan our stories. NaNoWriMo provides a curriculum and a student workbook that may be used to help prepare students to write and also has lessons and activities to be used when the month is over.
 
The YWP (Young Writers Program) website was revamped recently, and it now features tools for students and teachers. During November, students log in regularly to record their word count, and a dashboard shows them their progress and anticipated finish date. The teacher dashboard tracks the entire class’s progress toward its total word-count goal, and message boards allow teachers to post resources for students to use while drafting work.
 
During the month, I commit to writing time each class period. Students are eager to write and to see me pulling up my work as well. NaNoWriMo champions the idea of turning off the “inner editor,” and we focus on habits that will help us move forward in drafting and not get stuck. We put stickers on a progress chart as we reach completion milestones, and students see mine go up as well. For a fun bit of focused writing, we often do writing sprints. I set up a 5- or 10-minute timer, and everyone writes silently until time is up and then lists their word count on the whiteboard. I am not always the winner, but winning doesn’t matter. All of this builds a strong sense of community in the classroom. We support and encourage each other, and students know that I am taking part in the same adventure they are.
 
When NaNoWriMo is over, I insist on putting the stories away for some time. After spending a month focused on one story, we need fresh eyes before revision. After time has passed, we start a revision process modeled on advice from professional writers. I talk about the difference between “big-picture” revision and “line-editing.” Then, we read our stories aloud; note questions, confusion, and other issues; and write a revision letter about our plan for improving the stories.
 
Next, I introduce students to the idea of critique groups—small groups of three or four students who will read and give feedback on each other’s opening pages. This is somewhat different from peer editing. We talk about being in a critique group as similar to having a conversation about the story and asking questions. Again, I model for students by giving them two pages of my own writing. We talk about how to give constructive feedback, and I share specific issues about my writing that I’d like to receive feedback on. After letting them read my work quietly, I open the discussion and take notes on the comments, just as I want them to do. I end the discussion and then show them excerpts of the feedback my personal critique group has given me on the same pages. The students are excited when they see where their comments align with those of the more experienced writers.
 
After students have revised and shared excerpts of their novels with me, we wrap up our noveling with what would be the next step for professional writers—querying. I explain to students the publishing process that a traditionally published book goes through. Using online resources, we look at the wish lists of various literary agents who represent middle grade literature. We use the information to write a query letter to an imaginary agent. Last year, we posted our queries on Kidblog, a site that enables K-12 teachers to publish student writing (https://kidblog.org). We used Twitter to invite our favorite authors and other writers to comment on our work. Students were excited about getting feedback from writers and receiving replies on Twitter from several authors. One student who compared her book to Ruby Reinvented by Ronni Arno was thrilled when she received an autographed book from the author.

Community of Writers

When I first introduce NaNoWriMo to my students, there is always a mixture of excitement and worry. Questions like “I can write about anything I want?” are followed by laments, such as “I’ll never be able to finish a novel!” I encourage them to do their best. Most will succeed, some will struggle, but all will learn a tremendous amount about goal-setting, perseverance, and creativity. What calms them most and adds to their motivation is my simple response: “I’m going to do it with you.” Suddenly, the assignment shifts from something hard I’m asking them to do as an outsider to a challenge they can approach with me as a peer.
 
In his article “On the Importance of Writing With Students,” teacher Greg Shafer describes accepting a student request that he write a spooky story with the class:
I began to see the significance of my role as fellow writer. It began when three of my students visited me after school to read my rough draft and get feedback on their work. For many, this encounter may seem trivial, but for me it was a compelling example of how my role in the classroom had changed and expanded. Rather than being approached as the omniscient judge of successful literature, I was seen as a fellow writer who was struggling to refine my ideas and enhance my prose.3
I first did this project in 2012 with my classes, and I have done it every year since. I’ve personally “won” NaNoWriMo twice, making it to 50,000 words in the month, and I’ve failed three times—right in front of my students. Writing along with them has built a community of mutual support and encouragement as we all help each other harness our creativity and write.
 
Two emails I received in recent years illustrate what students have taken away from this experience. The first was sent to me by a student one evening over Thanksgiving break, days before NaNoWriMo was to end:
I only have 800 words left. I am 86.68% done. I hope that I will finish. You were right I am on target. I wanted to tell you in particular because I thought that I couldn’t do it, but you told me that I can, so you were my motivation, thanks for making me on target and pushing me to get my goal. I believe that I can do it now. I also believe that you can do it as well so I am cheering for you and I can’t wait until I get my goal.
Here is what a parent wrote me about the impact of NaNoWriMo on her child.
I continue to find her in her office at home writing—now she is onto her sequel to a story she wrote and it is simply wonderful. She woke up one morning and wrote a poem about dreams. This is such a gift to her. She is now reading all about how Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton and why he made many of the choices he made. 
Those are the types of letters every teacher hopes to get, but what is most special is what the students recognized in themselves. When we give students choice and ownership, push them to challenge themselves, and work alongside them, they are capable of so much more than they ever thought they could be.

Next Steps

If you do not yet consider yourself a “teacher-writer,” a first step might be to join other teachers already on the journey. A great community on Twitter is #TeachWrite, moderated by TeachWrite LLC (https://www.teachwrite.org), an educational consulting firm. #TeachWrite hosts a chat the first Monday of each month on topics relating to the writing lives of teachers.
 
The National Writing Project (NWP) offers resources and professional development for teachers on developing a practice of writing for themselves. Under the tag “Being a Writer,” teachers can find articles, lists of teacher communities, and links to publications to submit their work.4 A new book recommended by the NWP is Coaching Teacher-Writers: Practical Steps to Nurture Professional Writing. The book guides teachers from idea to draft to finished work, touches on considerations of writers’ craft and habit, and suggests publishing various venues.5
 
Children’s author and former sixth-grade English teacher Kate Messner has also written several professional books about writing. Her most recent book, 59 Reasons to Write, provides mini-lessons, writing prompts, and plenty of motivation and encouragement for teachers and librarians who want to become the writers they wish to create in their students.6 The book was inspired by Messner’s popular Teachers Write program, a free online summer writing camp for teachers.7
 
Do you do the work you ask your students to do? The answer might not always be a yes, but it’s important that our students see us work through the writing process, share the messy first drafts and polished pieces, and make time for writing with them.
 
As one student said, “It really makes me believe and work harder. If your teacher can do it, so can you.”

 
For Further Reading
 
Rebecca Alber, “Do You Write with Your Students?” Edutopia. February 6, 2012; online at https://www.edutopia.org/blog/writing-students-literacy-rebecca-alber.
 
Charles Whitaker, “Best Practices in Teaching Writing,” Annenberg Foundation, 2004; online at https://www.learner.org/workshops/middlewriting/images/pdf/HomeBestPrac.pdf.
 
 
1. Joseph Eng, “Teachers as Writers and Students as Writers: Writing, Publishing, and Monday-Morning Agendas,” The Writing Instructor 2.5 (2002); online at http://parlormultimedia.com/twitest/eng-2002-08.
2. “About NaNoWriMo,” NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program; online at https://ywp.nanowrimo.org/pages/our-program.
3. Greg Shafer, “On the Importance of Writing With Students,” Language Arts Journal of Michigan 12, no. 2 (1996); online at https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1481&context=lajm.
4. Tim Gillespie, “Becoming Your Own Expert—Teachers as Writers,” National Writing Project, November 1985.
5. Troy Hicks, Anne Elrod Whitney, James E. Fredricksen, and Leah Zuidema, Coaching Teacher-Writers: Practical Steps to Nurture Professional Writing (New York: Teachers College Press, 2016).
6. Kate Messner, 59 Reasons to Write: Mini-lessons, Prompts, and Inspiration for Teachers (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2015).
7. Kate Messner, “Teachers Write 2018!”; www.katemessner.com/teachers-write/.
Lisa Stringfellow

Lisa Stringfellow (lstringfellow@winsor.edu) is a middle school English teacher and Educational Technology Facilitator at The Winsor School in Boston, Massachusetts.