April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Embracing National Novel Writing Month, Librarians Help Kids Turn Off their “Inner Editor”

With an anticipated 300,000 writers taking part this year, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has become a beloved institution since its founding over a decade ago. Participation in its Young Writers Program has more than quadrupled since 2008, with 90,000 students set to take the challenge of starting and completing a novel this November.

“I really wanted to make all of our curriculum and resources tailored to teachers, so one of the first things I did was to revamp the lesson plans and curriculum,” says Chris Angotti, director of the Young Writers Program. “I aligned them all to the Common Core, which really makes it easy for teachers to take stuff right out of the box and bring it into their classrooms.”

The Young Writers Program recommends a sliding scale for students’ word-count goals, ranging from 20 to 200 words for kindergartners, to 25,000 to 50,000 for12th graders. The lesson plans provide guidance from prewriting to publishing. Supplements include downloadable workbooks for students and classroom kits with goodies like stickers and buttons.

This is the fourth year that Jackie Keith, a librarian at Riverbend High School in Virginia, has organized an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year she offered September prep lessons, following the lesson plans to get kids on track—and stay there. “We want to increase the number of kids who actually reach that goal, which is why we implemented the lead-up classes,” she says, adding that the lessons also increased teachers’ enthusiasm for the program.

In past years, Keith had around 25 participants, between five and 10 of whom reached their goal (or “won,” in NaNoWriMo lingo). As of October 27, she already had 55 signed up.

Keith is somewhat of an evangelist for NaNoWriMo among librarians, touting the program’s flexibility for students and those leading them: “That’s part of the selling-point of this for me, that they can do this however it works for them—and for us.” But the program’s main appeal is the sense of accomplishment participants feel. Kids who go through it “definitely see themselves as authors,” says Keith.

In videos made to promote the program, one of Keith’s students’ says she’s participated all three years—and it’s made writing easier for her in general. Another enthusiastically encourages teachers elsewhere to start NaNoWriMo groups of their own.

Keith has tried to write her own novels along her students, but has yet to finish one. “I’m the eternal beginner,” she jokes. She gives high praise to Jacalyn Stanley, a multi-year NaNoWriMo “winner” and Riverbend volunteer who “talked to the kids, encouraged them, and gave them a taste of what the bigger NaNoWriMo community is like.” Keith recommends that librarians who haven’t completed the program seek an experienced community member to help out.

Emily Remer, a librarian at Michael E. Smith Middle School in Massachusetts, decided to bring NaNoWriMo to her school this year after participating herself. During October, her group practiced writing and discussed issues like character development and plot. They also registered on the Young Writers Program website “which they’re totally psyched about,” she says.

Fun is a major motivating factor: “Mostly I want the kids to have had a good time,” says Remer. “I’m hoping they’ll achieve their goals so it’ll be a boost for them. And give them enough enthusiasm that they want to do it again next year.”

Since librarians often lack regular scheduled time with students, it can be a struggle to provide kids with the support they need for the intense program. Supplementing students’ weekly after-school meetings, Remer has reserved a table in the library where students can work during lunch.

Librarian Kelly Benning is also implementing a NaNoWriMo program for the first time at Chaminade College Prep High School. “The main reason I’m doing NaNoWriMo is that it breaks my heart that students equate writing with pain,” says Benning. “As librarians, we say, ‘The right book for the right person at the right time.’…It’s the same with writing. You have to get the right ideas and the right environment and the right structure so that the student can find it enjoyable.”

Benning condensed key sections from the Young Writers Program materials into brief introductions for her weekly student meetings, honing in on this: “getting rid of your inner editor”–particularly important for students who are used to their writing being constantly graded and criticized.

Benning is also excited to offer “the NaNoWriMo Lounge,” a comfortable—and popular—seating area in her often-packed library. It’s reserved for novel writers, “so they’ll know they’ll always have a place to come and write.

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