Tag Archives: brainstorming

Increasing Writing Volume with NaNoWriMo by Sarah Krajewski

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to help my high schoolers increase the volume of reading they do. I book talk popular titles. I give them time to read a book of choice in class. I’ve incorporated student-led book clubs. All of this gives my students what they need to increase their reading volume, but what about their writing volume? Over the summer, I spent some time thinking about ways to increase their amount of writing.

I already incorporate quick writes each day. Students receive independent work time so they can make some progress on a writing piece, but I usually have my own requirements for that piece. Currently my seniors are finishing up college application essays, and my freshmen are adding a second scene to their single-scene narratives. I’m telling them what genre to write in. Though they can choose the topic, I am assigning a task and giving them a rubric. My students need a challenge. They need to push themselves to writing independently outside of class just like I encourage them to do with their reading. Enter National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, for short).

What is NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month began back in 1999, and its goal was to encourage participants to write 50,000 words throughout the month of November. I’ll admit that I did not know about NaNoWriMo until a few years ago when I read Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg’s The Author’s Apprentice. Her 8th graders participated in it, and she was so impressed with the results that it became a staple in her classroom each year. If her 8th graders could do it, couldn’t my 12th graders? I decided that this year would be the year to try it.


The Author’s Apprentice: My seniors will finish up their college application essays this week, and then we will begin preparation for NaNoWriMo. In order to prepare myself, I am rereading The Author’s Apprentice. Meigs-Kahlenberg has her students prepare by starting with weekly writing challenges. These challenges push students to read like writers and eventually imitate what writers do to improve their own writing. This way, if students get writer’s block during the process, or are just stuck for an idea of where to go next, they know they can visit the worlds of the authors they love for ideas.

Brave the Page: I also just finished up NaNoWriMo’s book, Brave the Page, which is written more for student writers, but I got some great ideas from it. The introduction is written by none other than Jason Reynolds, one of my students’ favorite authors every year. He gives a great pep talk to young writers. The section that follows reminds students that all of them are already writers. The inspirational quotes and tips will motivate all readers, no matter the age. Be sure to check out the audio version too! Authors like Jennifer Niven, Marissa Meyer, and Daniel José Older give their own pep talks as well. I plan to use them throughout the month when I see students needing more than just my encouragement.

NaNoWriMo Website: NaNoWriMo has a Young Writer’s Program for educators that we will be using. Teachers can create groups, which I did for each class. Students can chat with one another, and provide inspiration that sometimes a teacher cannot. As their teacher, I can make challenges to push them along. If desired, there is a whole high school curriculum that educators can use. With all of their resources, educators’ minds will be eased.

Some of my “favorite first lines.”

Mental Prep: As teachers of writing, we often know that simply getting started is the hardest part for many students. Next week, my seniors and I will begin preparing by starting to bring our notebooks with us everywhere. (I say “we,” for I will be writing along with them.) When an idea comes to us, we will write it down. We will use our quickwrite time to create lists about past events in our lives, things that made us laugh, things that made us upset, etc. We will collect “favorite first lines” from the books we love. We will talk about giving ourselves goals, and planning out when our “writing time” will be outside of class. We will talk about those all-important deadlines, but also remind ourselves that we are not failures if we don’t meet them. We already have writing routines, but we will create new ones to prepare for the amount of writing that is coming our way. In other words, we will mentally prepare for 30 days of consistent dedication to writing.

Time to Get Started!

So, I think we are ready! Well, we are as ready as we’re going to be. I know I cannot plan for every single issue that could arise, but I’m thankful that my students have a trusted writing community that will encourage and assist them every step of the way. When November 1st hits, my students will begin writing more than they ever have, and I can’t wait to see the results! My hope is that this experience will inspire many of my students to create independent writing routines, even after November ends.

NOTE: I look forward to sharing how NaNoWriMo is going for us next month.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.


Mini-Lesson Monday: Mining Memories to Begin a Writing Unit

Narrative is, to me, the most powerful genre of writing one can do.  Whether the narrative rests in a fictional or true story, or acts as an anecdote within an argumentative text, or helps to illustrate a concept in an informative one, story is central to great writing.  Students know and live this, and are natural storytellers once they get going…but sometimes knowing what story to tell is easier said than done.

I find that stories students have rehearsed well through talk or reflection are the best stories to get them to write.  As a result, we mine our memories to harness our most powerful topics for writing all narratives.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Identify memories that are rich with complexity to write from. Or, from the Common Core:  Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Lesson — My students in West Virginia are well familiar with the concept of a mine.  For them, a mine is “an abundant source of something,” while to mine means “delve into (an abundant source) to extract something of value, especially information or skill.”  Using this metaphor for brainstorming topics is comforting for them, since they know we’re digging for existing ideas and knowledge–not crafting something new.


My scars maps

One of my favorite activities for mining memories came from Tom Romano, which he simply calls “Scars.”

I begin by drawing a stick figure on the board and then turning to my students.  I point to my knee, then draw a small dot on my stick-figure knee.  “When I was about eight,” I begin, “I really thought I could jump down a whole flight of stairs and land on my feet.”  I get them laughing as I tell them the story of how I got that particular scar.  Then I draw a little dot on my left stick-figure eye, and tell them the story of how I got chicken pox so badly that it went into my eyeballs.  They cringe in horror, so then I draw a little dot on my left wrist and tell them about how my new kitten just really won’t stop using my arm as a scratching post.

We laugh together.

“All scars have a great story behind them.  Draw a stick figure in your notebook and label your own scars.”

They do this, unable to keep silent as they show their neighbor their stick figures and begin to tell their stories in brief.

After a few minutes, I draw their attention back to the board and draw a large heart.

“All scars have stories, but not all scars are visible.  Sometimes we carry scars on our hearts, where no others can see.”  The classroom always gets eerily quiet at this point.  I write the name “MeMe” in my heart on the board, and tell about my awesome Tennesseean grandmother and her fabulous Southern drawl and feisty persona, and how she passed away on my very first day of teaching.

“It was basically impossible to get through my very first day of this career that I so love,” I share.

Then, I write the word “miscarriage” in my heart, and tell about that worldview-shifting event in my life.

“Go ahead and draw your own hearts and label your own heart scars.  We all have them.  Don’t be scared.  This is just for your notebook, for now.  It will stay private.”


My scars story

The classroom falls silent and I open my notebook under the document camera while they scrawl, not telling any stories to neighbors this time.

“Beneath your stick figure and your heart, let’s take eight minutes to write about any one of these scars.  Tell the story of how it came to be.  It could be a funny story, or a sad one, or a scary one.  But tell the truth and tell it well.”

We write together, revisiting a routine that has become commonplace in our classroom–I model not just the act of writing, but the act of vulnerability, and my students dive headfirst into the tough stuff as a result.  This is just one practice that builds a strong community of readers and writers.

Follow-Up — After we write, we revise briefly, then elect whether or not to share at our tables only.

The next class, we mine another set of memories by creating a map of our childhood homes, then telling the story of one of the places on the map–a Penny Kittle gem.

Another day, we go through our playlists, choose a song that is the soundtrack of our life, then tell the story that made it so.

We continue with five seed prompts in a row, five class periods in a row.  Then we select one of those stories to refine and workshop into a narrative.  I teach a mini-lesson each day about a narrative skill, so that by the time we’ve really committed to a topic, students are well-versed in pacing, dialogue, descriptive detail, and the like.  We confer and workshop and revise.

I’ll employ this routine when we return from break, focusing on reflection and rejuvenation and resolutions in the new year, working to craft multimodal “This I Believe” essays as we read Siddhartha together.

How do you get your students to come up with meaningful topics for writing?

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