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Nanowrimo - Process

Written by Tommy Buteau
August 29, 2014

The amount of learning that came about through giving the students control completely surprised me. I expected the engagement to be fairly high, but the format of the project truly allowed students at all levels to perform, to develop their voice, and to exceed my expectations. The project was student driven, and many of the techniques we used were uncovered just through collaboration, discussion, experimentation, and play in the classroom. The use of social media for peer reviews, a real world competition for motivation, and Google Drive for collaboration all helped to allow students to bring forth their own unique ways of seeing the world in an artistic and creative way.

Granted, I was lucky to have a truly diverse group of students, a few of which were very high performing and motivated, but the process allowed them to extend their connection to the project through mentoring and peer editing with students who provided a variety of voices. I have never had students take a project so far before, and I believe the process detailed here allowed for far reaching self-organization with learning as the emergent phenomenon.

I did this with two different classes. The class that worked out the best was bigger. It had about 25 participating students. My smaller class only had about fifteen participating students, and that was too few to achieve the flow and continuity necessary to create a coherent story in a short amount of time. You need enough strong writers to create the foundation of the story and to be the voices of the main characters. If you only have a few really strong writers, there is not enough for the other students to grab onto and create interesting stories around. The smaller class foundered because the main characters and story were not well enough developed to inspire interesting side stories. For this review, I will discuss only the larger class.  


Remember, November is a short month because you will have Thanksgiving break at the end. So with the planning at the beginning and a block schedule, I only really had about five classes for the students to compose and do revisions in.

I started the planning phase with the class in October. Written into the rules of Nanowrimo are guidelines; you can plan and outline anything you want before the month begins, but you may only write on the 50,000 words once November begins.

So, a couple of weeks into October, I gave the students some information on Nanowrimo. I introduced the idea that Nanowrimo is not a school project. It is an outside project that anyone can enter, and we would be trying to attain it as a community of writers. I encouraged my students to enter on their own in addition to what we were doing in class.  I worked out the math with them, and let them know how many words they would have to write–about 3,000 per student. I also let them know that I didn’t know if it was technically or morally right for us to enter as a class. I always like to include a little bit of risk when possible as this increases the engagement for the students. 

I let them know about my idea for doing something similar to what David Levithan had done in his book The Realm of Possibility, which we had been reading aloud in class. Each student could write separate yet related stories, and then we could combine them to submit for Nanowrimo. I also offered the idea that the story would have to somehow relate to many different characters and be in a location that was familiar to all of the authors in the room, for how can you create a story without a sense of place? 

The class voted to enter Nanowrimo, so I proposed that each student come to the next class with an idea about a central event that all the stories could be related to, a location that is familiar to all participants, and an ideas for a name for our group to use when I enter us on the Nanowrimo site.

The next class, we shared our ideas, and voted for the one to work on. This was a fascinating event, for the students really got into some of the ideas and discussed all sorts of eventualities trying to narrow down our concept. There was a wide range of ideas and genres. Everything from romances to alien invasions were discussed, and the final vote was for a realistic school shooting story.

At this point, I had to have a discussion about the reality that we were writing in a school and it is not easy to have a whole class focused on a violent story about a shooting. We agreed that nothing explicitly violent, sexual, nor vulgar would be permitted. Yet, I also told them that I wanted them, as seniors, to be able to write about ideas that they were interested in and that were relevant for their lives. They appreciated this and promised to refrain from writing anything that would get me fired.

The most engaging discussion may have been on the name for our group. We settled on “Third Hour Shooter” since it went along with the story, but “Illuminaughty” gave it a good run. 

We also spoke at this point about the need for different roles to be fulfilled if this was going to end up as a cohesive story. The roles of editors, illustrators for the cover artwork, and organizers to read and order the finished stories were accepted by various members of the class. 

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