When I first decided to do NaNoWriMo with students four years ago, I used a stealth approach. "We're going to write novels," I whispered, hoping the kids wouldn't notice and freak out.
Now, as we approach our fifth year, it's a regular topic of discussion in the hallways between 7th and 8th graders. "What are you going to write about?" students ask each other. "Miss Kelley, are you going to write a novel?" they ask me as we stand in line for lunch.
In 8th grade we started prepping our novels last Friday. We've been using some of the lessons and ideas found on the YWP website, and I've printed out some of the planning materials. (They did the entire workbook last year.) We've been meeting on our imaginary rug to discuss characters, conflicts, and plot, and then breaking into groups to plan imaginary group novels and to work on individual planning.
That was the plan for yesterday. I wanted to replace some middle school level handouts with high school materials, and then send them off to work on plot. Instead, a student asked about my novel, and I shared my idea, and we spent the remainder of the period sharing our ideas for NaNoWriMo. And it was terrific.
I knew when I decided to answer the question that it would totally throw off our timing. We were already running late because new books arrived during lunch, and nothing was more important than distributing Allegiant immediately. But that twenty minutes of sitting in a circle, sharing ideas, was just as valuable as twenty minutes working independently (or, more likely, trying to read Allegiant without getting caught).
I began by sharing my novel idea, and even told students that I'm going to rewrite from scratch my novel from two years ago. I told them that I got so far behind that year that I wrote over 35,000 words between the end of NCTE Chicago and the end of Thanksgiving break (basically, four days). I asked students what they were going to write, and they shared their plans. There were suggestions for similar books and ideas, questions that helped with plots holes, and plenty of laughs.
In my experience, NaNoWriMo does as much for my students' reading as it does for their writing. When they try to DO as writers something they've done so many times as readers, they really start to understand how story works.
It also leads to conversations like this one:
Female student: "My novel has three main characters, and it's from all their points of view, and they're all antagonists to each other. Does that work?"
Me: "Yeah, sure. I mean Voldemorte is the protagonist of his own story, right.? He doesn't wake up each day and say I'm the antagonist."
Various replies, including a boy who I know wants to argue that Voldemorte does wake up and want to be the antagonist.
Me: "And sometimes, the antagonist and the protagonist can switch places. Like in Stars Wars, Darth Vader is the antagonist in the original trilogy but the protagonist in the prequels. Spoiler alert."
Male student: "Oh, man, I haven't read them yet."
Another male student: "They're movies."
Me: "That came out in the 1970's."
Male student: "Oh. I just figure everything comes from a book."
You can't plan for conversations like that.