Twenty-one years ago, a group of 21 San Francisco Bay Area writers pledged that each would attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript between Nov. 1 and 30. This year, nearly 1 million authors will observe National Novel Writing Month – aka NaNoWriMo – including all 30 students in Spokane Public Montessori teacher Thomas Coghlan’s class of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
From November through April, each student writes an original short story drawing inspiration from lessons over the course of the year. These stories are not expected to reach the official 50,000-word count, however. Instead, Coghlan gathers them into a NaNo anthology, edits and publishes the collection, gifting a copy to each student at the end of every school year.
Coghlan said the project ties together lessons from across the curriculum throughout the year. It’s fun but also practical.
“I can connect these stories to punctuation, spelling, word use, adjectives, nouns, capitalization, paragraphs, dialogue, pretty much any way that we write I’m able to connect to this project,” he said. “We hit 70,000 or 80,000 words each year.”
If students ever have writer’s block, Coghlan encourages them to draw inspiration from what they are learning in other subjects.
“We have a ‘day in history’ presentation each day; (Monday), we talked about Sputnik because Sputnik was launched on Sunday. Today, we’re talking about Mary Leakey,” he said. “So if they say, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, let’s think about a time in history – your favorite day in history. Was it the Greeks and the Persians?’ There’re a lot of different ways we can connect it all.”
The quality of the stories often surprises him, Cogland said, remembering an outstanding piece by a fourth-grader similar to Richard Adams’ “Watership Down.”
“It was just an amazing story,” he said. At 8,000 words of delightfully whimsical animal anthropomorphism, “It didn’t look like it was written by a fourth-grader at all.”
Not every student immediately takes to the project, but he can always count on it to succeed eventually.
“I had a student two years ago, the first year, I couldn’t get him to write anything,” Coghlan said. “But, by the time he was in sixth grade, he went from being completely shut down to writing this well-rounded 1,200-word story.
“It’s really interesting to see the progression from fourth grade to sixth grade.”
To first-time NaNoWriMo writers, Coghlan offers a few pieces of advice.
“Write, just do it,” he said. “What I’ve found is that if I just open a file (and) start writing, even if it’s just explaining what the story is, once the words are down, and they’re saved, then they become something real.
“When the stories are just in our head, it’s great in the moment, but things in our heads tend to disappear. When you put it on paper or in a file, it becomes real. So, I tell my students: Just write it. You can edit later. You might not use it, you can delete it later if you want. Just get it down.”
Of course, the project is fun and practical as far as learning goes, Coghlan said. But there is another, more personal reason that he continues to teach it year after year.
“I don’t know about you, but I have a couple of items from my childhood that always seem to follow me around,” he said. “So, one of the main reasons I publish this, why I buy this and give it to my students is that, hopefully, this book will sit in a box somewhere.
“Then one day when my students are 34 years old, they’ll be moving something around and suddenly come across this book. Like a time capsule, they’ll open it up and see the names of their friends, read a few sentences.”
“My hope is that this will act as a memory trigger,” he said. “That it will let them go back to when life was simpler, when they didn’t have all the responsibilities that adults have.
“It’s one of my favorite things to think about,” he said. “Whenever I pick up one of these books, or I think about my past students that have moved on, students that are in high school now, I think, one day, maybe they’ll read their story again.”
National Novel Writing Month
Although the NaNoWriMo challenge does not begin until Nov. 1, organizers encourage writers to begin planning weeks in advance. To help you get started, NaNoWriMo provides a veritable host of free writing resources for writers of all ages on its website. To sign up, visit nanowrimo.org.