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Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

October is here and my students have settled into the routines of our class. Our reading and writing community grows each day, as we talk, read, and write together. While reflecting on what we have accomplished so far this year, we also plan for the months ahead. Today, our whiteboard sports a countdown which reads, "14 days until NaNoWriMo", as we gear up for the annual National Novel Writing Month contest. During November, my students and I will dive into the fray, attempt to write novels and experience the hectic life of writers on a deadline.

This is my third year to host a NaNoWriMo Virtual Classroom and I cannot believe what a positive, energizing experience it has been for my students and me. Kids who love to write enjoy the challenge of it, while kids who are reluctant to write discover that they can write more than they ever thought possible. At the end of every year, my students list NaNoWriMo as one of the best things we do in class and many of them go on to revise, edit, and share completed manuscripts.

As young adult author Sara Zarr says, "Actually writing stuff makes you feel like a writer"-- my students and I grow as writers during NaNoWriMo because we commit to writing every day. NaNoWriMo gives us the space and the support and the opportunity to dream big. I have asked Chris Angotti, director of NaNoWriMo's Young Writers' Program to share the history of the program and the benefits this event provide young writers and their teachers. I hope you will join us in this crazy, exhilarating month of writing frenzy!

When I was in the classroom, I tried to embed creative writing in every unit I designed. I had required texts, and big topics to cover, but I knew my students always showed their best stuff on assignments where their imaginations had free rein. Sometimes, I could fit in just a small degree of creative work--an activity mining a novel's subtext to write an implied conversation between characters, for instance. Even these led to spirited lessons: we loved hearing the screwball ideas that others had devised.

I taught in New York City, and often rode the subway home late, my paper-laden tote weighing heavy. (Every teacher knows this exhaustion.) When I had creative assignments in my bag, I actually looked forward to settling in on the couch, reading one after another, and being moved by the students I hadn't realized were quite so amazing.

If only I knew about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) back then. Since it was founded in 1999, the event has encouraged countless authors to complete the first draft of a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Here's how it works: On November 1 (often at midnight, occasionally without an outline), writers around the world hear the proverbial starter pistol and begin feverishly drafting. All month, they are spurred on by well-known authors, who contribute pep talks, and a strong community of others attempting the same feat. By the last day, many folks have brand-new manuscripts to call their own. Post-revision, some of these novels even become big books--like the bestselling Water for Elephants and The Night Circus.

What does this have to do with my creative former students? I wish I'd been able to introduce them to NaNoWriMo's Young Writers Program, which supports the noveling endeavors of kids and teens. I know they would have loved to be immersed in their own imaginations for a whole month--not just the length of an assignment--and I would have loved to read the results.

Luckily, as Young Writers Program Director, I get to live vicariously through our many educators. More than 2,000 will introduce NaNoWriMo to their students this year. Our participants range from kindergarten through twelfth grade, with each able to choose a challenging yet reachable word-count goal based on age and experience. They are fortified by our absolutely free resources: Common Core-aligned lesson plans; engaging workbooks full of planning activities; a classroom kit to mark and incentivize progress; and the online Virtual Classroom, a web interface to communicate with your students and other educators around the world. And that's not to even mention the vibrant online forums, or the set of exclusive pep talks written by favorite YA authors.

All together, we expect over 100,000 kids and teens--both in classrooms and on their own--to take part in 2011's NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. It's going to be a lot of fun for them, first and foremost, but it will also have some real, long-lasting effects. We hear year after year that NaNoWriMo improves students' overall writing fluency and close reading skills: getting down so many words daily leads to a comfort that is hard to achieve otherwise, and they more easily apply concepts from their own work (e.g., plot structure and characterization) to later texts. Further, educators tell us that they notice growth in self-esteem, time-management techniques, and the willingness to attempt new and difficult tasks. We like to say that completing a novel in one month will have your kids and teens asking, "What's next?"

The coolest thing about all this is that it can work with any population. Many teachers of reluctant writers (including ESL educators) love NaNoWriMo because their students find creative writing less intimidating. At the same time, advanced students get to challenge themselves in an exciting way. It's a program that can be differentiated in all directions. Looking over a list of our participating classrooms, I'm proud to see everything from schools for the deaf, to alternative high schools, to Boys & Girls Clubs. As I saw in my own teaching, creativity is catchy.

At the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, we believe that every student--and person for that matter--has a novel inside him or her. We're so thankful to our educators who help bring those books to life. I hope you'll consider being one of them this November.

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