Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Getting Kids to Write the NaNoWriMo Way

Happy New Year!

Can you believe it's 2014? I had just started writing 2013 without thinking about it.

Have you set any resolutions for the new year? Maybe to read or write more?

As parents and teachers, we might even resolve to find new ways to encourage our children and students to read more. One way to get kids excited about reading is to utilize its flip side – writing.
Today, we’re fortunate to have Dan Lollis with us. He’s a middle grades teacher who uses NaNoWriMo with his students. Take a look—he’s got a lot of good info to share!

1. Hi, Dan! Tell us a little about your teaching experience and your current school.
I teach 4th through 8th grade language arts at an online school (grades 4-12) in a large, suburban district near Atlanta, Georgia. And no, I’m not wearing pajamas.  While I am able to work from home at times, my school has a physical building, and I see most of my students at least once a week for “live” learning sessions. Before working at an online school, I spent nine years in traditional brick and mortar middle schools teaching a variety of students a variety of subjects.
(I vote for Pajama Fridays instead of Causal Fridays.)

2. What book or books are on your nightstand?
I’m afraid to keep books on my nightstand, because my nightstand is actually a very old and very unsteady cabinet topped with a massive slab of heavy granite just waiting to collapse and crush my toes one morning. I usually enter and exit my bed from my wife’s side, so my books are the floor. You will find a little fantasy (Patrick Rothfuss), a little contemporary fiction (Junot Diaz), a little young adult (David Levithan), and way too much science fiction.
(Hey, that looks just like you, Dan!)

3. What was your favorite book as a kid?
In my pre-8th grade life, my absolute favorite book was The Day the Sea Rolled Back by Mickey Spillane the pulp author, comic book writer, actor, and creator of Mike Hammer. It had everything a young boy could want: gold treasure, shipwrecks, a knife fight with a shark. I have a copy of it on my desk...partially to remind me of what it means to Read (with a capital R) and partially so I can stare at the mind-blowing, retro cover art. During the 8th grade, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and I fell in love with the characters, the setting, and the story. It’s still my favorite book.
(I read somewhere that when Lee was asked why she hadn't written another book, she answered, "It's just as hard to write a bad book as a good book.")

4. What made you decide to involve your students in the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program?
A friend and former co-teaching colleague turned me on to the  NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program in 2011. I loved the philosophy of NaNoWriMo: quantity over quality. That strategy is perfect for young writers. It frees them from worrying about the little things that bog them down and lets them focus on fluency, confidence, creativity, and time management...important and essential writing skills that we don’t teach enough in school.
The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program also provides an excellent workbook and other resources for educators. This year I was able to incorporate NaNoWriMo lessons into classes and lessons in September and October to help students prepare for NaNoWrimo. They were learning the curriculum (characterization, plot, conflict, setting, tone, voice, dialogue) and preparing for NaNoWriMo at the same time.

5. How does the kid version (Young Writers program) differ from the adult version?
In the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, students are able to set and edit their word count goal. If you’re a 6th grade student new to middle school and have never written more than 300 words in your life, then 3000 to 5000 words is probably a challenging but realistic goal. If you’re an 8th grade student writing an epic fantasy with talking stones, flaming swords, and flying sharkoala bears, then you may choose to set a 10,000 to 15,000 word goal. Except for the flexible word count goal, the rules, pep talks, badges, and winning offers are the same. (Sharkoala bears?)

6. What do your students tell you about the experience?
Most students love the experience. Like the adult version of NaNoWriMo, it is completely voluntary. Nothing kills student creativity and excitement faster than the words, “this is for a grade.” Most of the students that participate in NaNoWriMo love it, but many do not meet their goal. The most common complaints I hear are, “this is hard” and “I don’t have enough time.” Sound familiar? The ones that finish are excited to tell me about their story or their characters. They are proud of their work, and most of the students (the ones that met their goal and the ones that didn’t) ask if they can continue writing their story even though NaNoWriMo is over. That makes me smile. (Me too!)

7. What are the best ways to engage kids in writing?
From a NaNoWriMo perspective, choice and challenge are the two key components. But those components can extend into the classroom. Students and adults like to write about topics we find interesting. But we also like to be challenged. If I asked my students to write two sentences about anything they wanted, I would probably get garbage. But if I asked them to write 200 words about their left hand, I might get some pretty interesting stuff. They still have a choice about what to write (physical description, story, dialogue between fingers), but the writing is a little bit challenging and requires some thought and creativity.
NaNoWriMo offers them great choice (of topic, characters, conflict...and they can change anything they want mid-story just because) with a challenge (and specific but attainable word goal). They can take those skills with them into all of their classrooms and any state or county mandated writing tests. If a student has written 8000 words about a teenager on the run from a robot ninja teacher, then you better believe she can pound out an interesting and creative essay on school uniforms.
(Cool--a teacher who's a robot ninja!)

8. What have you learned about your students’ writing?
Students need to hear that it’s okay not to be the bestest writer. (Ha, Mr. Lollis! I see what you did there.) Kids may be digital natives and they could probably trounce me on Xbox, but when it comes to writing, they still need a lot of practice. Many of them struggle with the craft. They need to be told that writing is hard. That writing is a lifelong learning experience. That writing takes guts and discipline and hard work. That writing takes practice. And that writing is fun, amazing, and life-changing. (Hear that, adult writers? Writing takes guts!)
They struggle with patience. They want to write well, right now! Many of them see the craft of writing as a learning your multiplication tables. You learn it, and you are done...for the rest of your life. They need to know that writing is more like playing a musical instrument or hitting a take constant practice and refinement to develop and improve.

9. Do you think there’s a connection between reading and writing?
Reading and writing are absolutely connected, but writing is a much more complex and difficult craft. Reading is receptive and passive. As readers, we receive information. Like a live symphony performance or a play, that information can entertain us and cause us to feel strong can help us learn to do something new or inform us. Writing, on the other hand, is expressive and active. As writers, we disperse information. Like a composer or playwright, we craft that information to entertain, evoke emotions, teach, inform, or explain.
This explains why so many of us, students included, can read, love, and enjoy the world’s greatest authors and books, but most of us struggle to craft a paragraph, or an essay, or a book that isn’t full of mistakes and problems.  

10. What books appeal the most to middle grade students?
I would argue that middle grade students, and adults for that matter, tend to be drawn to books with strong characters over a strong plot. That’s not to say that plot isn’t important, but just think about the Harry Potter books. I couldn’t tell you half of the events and plotting that took place in those books, but I can tell you that I absolutely love Harry, Ron, and Hermione. (Great point, Dan.)
Middle school students want to read about middle school students. They want to read about kids that don’t fit in, because most of them feel like they don’t fit in. They want to read about characters who are special and important in the world...maybe not the world’s greatest wizard...but someone with whom they can identify. They want to imagine themselves as the main character. And they want a victory for the main character because it's a victory for them.

11. Do you personally get excited about writing? Do you share any of these experiences with your students?
I have a healthy love/hate relationship with writing, and I let my students know that it’s okay to want to throw the computer out the window or smash their keyboard with a hammer. In class, my rule is to write when the students are writing. It’s important for them to see the physical process of writing: the thinking, the stops and starts, the sighs, the writing (or typing), the scratching through of words, the cracking of knuckles, the concentration, the defeats, and the victories. When we're finished, I usually share what I have written. I read what I've written aloud and show them my sloppy, illegible paper. They need to see that writing is messy.
Also, I get pretty excited about the state standardized testing. Shhhhh. Don’t tell. The topics are so dry they actually crumble in your mouth when you try to read them, so we often try to use massive amounts of hyperbole for our practice, formal essays. How could we eliminate graffiti at schools you ask? Armed robot sentries with “kill on sight” orders. How could we improve transportation to and from school you wonder? A massive system of underground pneumatic tubes. There is no reason some of the writing we do in school can’t be fun and exciting and worth all of that hard work.
Thanks, Dan!

My wish for you in 2014 is that you'll find all the courage needed to write, write, write!! 

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