Learning through writing: National Novel Writing Month in the classroom

More NaNoWriMo

Follow up with all the Journal-World’s coverage of National Novel Writing Month here.

Students in Krista Barbour's class at Bishop Seabury Academy spend about 35 minutes per day working on their novels for National Novel Writing Month. From left, Ian Hannah, Logan Mathis, Ben Miller, Mike Maude with his grandson, Malcolm Maude, Emily Heinz and Siena Casagrande.

Every day in Lawrence, 12 novelists gather together. On this day, they’re working hard. The sound of scribbling pens, the shuffle of lined notebook paper and the clickity-clack of keyboards float about the quiet room. Some stare intently while others gaze into the distance, mulling over the next word choice, the next scene, the next conflict in the novel.

One catch: These novelists are 11 years old.

This is the second year Krista Barbour, a sixth-grade English teacher at Bishop Seabury Academy, is using National Novel Writing Month to teach her students about reading and writing.

Barbour first heard about National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo, a nationwide challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days) when she was teaching in Oregon. A colleague decided to participate and invited the students to join her.

“I thought it was the coolest thing to write a novel, period. And then to invite the kids to do it with you?” Barbour said.

After arriving at Bishop Seabury last year, Barbour folded the project into her curriculum.

The classroom rules are a little different: Students choose their own word count goal. Some go for 8,000 words. One student is aiming for the full 50,000, while another is shooting for 45,000.

Some people think it’s a crazy idea, Barbour said, but she has the support of faculty, the parents and, most importantly, the students.

Learning your A, B, Cs

Pick up any daily task, and chances are you’ll learn something.

“Nobody calls themselves a skater if they don’t skate,” said Kij Johnson, assistant professor of fiction writing at Kansas University and associate director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The same goes for writers.

Writing every day primes the pump, Johnson said, because writing is hard, especially if you don’t do it all the time. NaNoWriMo establishes a daily practice for brand-new writers (and sometimes, seasoned professionals such as herself). What non-writers may not know is that not everybody likes the writing process.

“Wanting to have written is not the same as wanting to write,” she said. It’s like working out: It’s hard, it’s time consuming, and some really like it when they’re done. Others love the work and could care less about the outcome.

Whatever the writing path, NaNoWriMo “puts people into a different relationship with a story,” Johnson said. If you’ve never told a story, you can’t quite imagine the work it takes to write one.

Barbour sees that shift in her students: They tell her, “At first I hated writing, but this has changed the way I see writing and reading,” she said. They find themselves asking questions like, “Why is this passage funny? Why do I hate this character? Why is my heart beating so fast?”

“I want kids to leave my English class reading like a writer,” Barbour said.

Krista Barbour teaches her sixth grade class at Bishop Seabury Academy about the rules of dialogue.

Barbour also sneaks grammar lessons into the NaNoWriMo project. This week, the students studied the rules of dialogue and discussed examples from their own novels. These real-life applications are lightbulb moments for the students, she said. The grammar makes sense.

“It’s almost magical what happens,” Barbour said. “It’s really scary in the beginning, but by Nov. 3, it’s awesome. It’s really awesome.”

The X, Y, Zs

Despite all you can learn, writing just isn’t everyone’s thing, and that’s OK.

Johnson, who also teaches intensive writing workshops, said the reasons why people write are just as varied as the reasons why people don’t write.

“There’s absolutely no shame to deciding you don’t like writing because it is hard,” she said. “You can always walk away.”

While it’s mandatory for the students, Barbour finds that those who resist at first eventually find a groove.

“Now I have a class full of kids who are dedicated to writing,” she said. “Even the ones who exclaimed their hatred for writing have a story idea and they’re focused.”