When I taught first grade, I would tell my students at the beginning of the year, "This year you're going to do something that most adults will never do in their whole lives." They'd look at me wide-eyed. "We're going to write novels!" I'd exclaim. Their excitement was inspiring even before the writing began: I'd overhear them saying to random adults, "Have you written a novel before? Well I'm going to!"
My first graders participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to write an entire novel in the month of November. When I first started thinking about having first graders write novels, I didn't know if they could do it. But I found that conquering a huge writing project helped my students to become excited about writing and to see themselves as writers, two effects that paid off all year long.
For adults, the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel (which breaks down to about 1667 words per day, a number I have etched in my brain from the two times I completed NaNoWriMo). For kids, the word count goal is flexible. With my first graders, we decided on a collaborative goal of 5000 words. This meant that all the writing students did individually counted towards one class word count goal.
Here are some other ways to help your students find success:
Get Ready for Writing: Though some students got fixated on the idea of writing 5000 words, I tried not to stress the word count. Instead we just worked on writing, writing, writing. As we approached November, we talked about what makes a novel a novel (chapters, fiction, characters, etc.) and analyzed the novels we had read as a class. In order to prepare students for the frenzy of writing that would take place in November, we spent the last few days of October making plans for our novels. I had students draw several possible ideas for their stories, sketch out characters, and give each other feedback.
Embrace Fiction: When it came time for November, my students were ready to write. Though some students struggled more than others, I found that allowing students the freedom to write fiction was motivating for struggling writers. When teaching writing workshops, I had always focused on personal narratives, informational writing, persuasive writing, and poetry. With the exception of poetry, my students rarely got a chance to write fiction. Through NaNoWriMo, students thrived when they used their imaginations to produce amazingly creative writing.
Make a Fuss: Throughout the month, I stressed novel writing as a really big deal. I would call my students "novelists" as they came in the classroom and allow my students the chance to share a little bit of their writing every day. For older students, NaNoWriMo's Young Writers' Program sends out regular pep talks to keep the momentum going. A big motivator was the opportunity for my students to read their novels at a local bookstore once the month was over. It was adorable and inspiring to see my students, many of who had just started learning how to read, read excerpts of their novels in front of a crowd.
Though most of my first graders had a hard time mastering concepts of plot and chapters, they were still able to produce interesting novels. I loved how each student made their novels their own. Malia, who was obsessed with cats, wrote a novel called Kitten and Baby Tiger’s Adventures. The opening lines were priceless: “Wish, baby tiger. Wish upon it, my child. Wish.” David, who loved playing wild games with Legos, wrote a novel called The New Weirdos. I loved how he included the wacky sounds he made while playing in his writing: "Aah! Waaaah! Uh, oh, Darth Cranky. Puh puh puh puh. The ship blew up!" Even though they were only six-years-old, my students were developing their own author voices.
After having my students participate in NaNoWriMo for several years, I helped to create NaNoWriMo curriculum for use in K-2. Those lesson plans, along with curriculum for grades K-12, are available at http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/lesson-plans.
This year, I'm excited that two of the teachers I'm coaching will be launching National Novel Writing Month with their 1st and 6th graders. I can't wait to see how students respond to the challenge and how they develop as writers. But, most of all, I can't wait to read their novels!