NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.

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Photo: Pexels

I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.

All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.

No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.

From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.

In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.

I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.

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Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!

However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:

  1. It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
  2. Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.

Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.

It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.

What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.

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At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart.  On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.

We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.

Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge? Leave a comment to share and stay tuned for next week’s post.

Headline poetry is so much fun!

It’s already my favorite back-to-school activity

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A few lines from a headline poem created by one of my seventh-grade students.

For the first week of school, my seventh- and eighth-graders created poetry made up of words and phrases found in newspapers and magazines. I found the idea on NCTE’s website, which offers lesson plan ideas. I also accessed this site where I found this beautiful quote that captures, for me anyway, the nature of headline poetry.

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This is a picture of the words I used to make my own headline poem, which I used to show my students what a headline poem looked like. Showing kids an example of what they are making is important. I guess you could call this a “mentor headline poem.” 

Finding words and then limiting yourself to using those words in your poetry creates spontaneous word choices, unexpected metaphors, and other surprising experimentation with language. My students fully enjoyed this project. I actually had a few students rushing into class, wanting to dive right back into the project, picking up where they left off the previous day.

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Students need to use a variety of publications in which to find words. My school’s librarian gave me several copies of Motor Trend, Field & Stream, Dirt Bike magazine, Boys’ Life, and Sports Illustrated to add to the collection of women’s magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.) that I brought from home.  Variety is key.

One thing I especially liked about the project is that it capitalizes on the first few days of school. Kids naturally want to talk and visit with each other after summer break. During the first two class periods of the project, they were allowed to do just that as they searched for and cut out 75-100 words and phrases.

Then, after most of them had their words cut out, it was time to settle down a bit and start to concentrate on their poems, arranging and rearranging the pieces of paper on their desks or tables. It was truly “playtime with words,” which is a nice way to ease back into the school routine. I am definitely going to do this activity again next year.

Here’s the basic plan I used from a handout I made for students:

The Process
A headline poem uses words or phrases from newspaper and magazine headlines to craft a poem. There are several steps:

  • Make an envelope with construction paper and tape. Put your name on it. Keep your clippings in it.
  • Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. Avoid small print words because they’re too hard to keep track of and glue down later. Collect between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  • Don’t forget to cut out basic words such as the, a, an, and, and prepositions such as into, over, beyond, and through.
  • Use a variety of publication subject matter; don’t just use fashion magazines. For example, use fashion magazines, hunting magazines, the local paper, and a recipe magazine.
  • Scatter the words and phrases on a desk, table or the floor, and look for themes, synonyms and rhyming words. Play with the words and how they sound.
  • After you have your 75 words, avoid the temptation to go back to the magazines to search for specific words; use your clippings. Let the “found” words direct your poem; the spontaneity of headline poetry is what we’re after.
  • Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  • You may see a theme or a topic emerge as you play with words. Go with it!
  • When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of 11″ x 17″ construction paper with a glue stick.
  • Work neatly and slow down when you’re gluing. Don’t let the project “fall apart” because you rushed.
  • Don’t forget a title. Your first line may work well as the title.
  • When you are totally finished with your poem, write your name on the back and turn it in. When we display these in the hall, I will give you a nameplate to fill out that will be placed on the front.
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Fun project!

Some of the poems are incredible with interesting word combinations and definitely higher order thinking.

When students were limited to using the words and phrases they “found,” it required that they take risks with their word choice. It required that they experiment with words.

For example, in the example at the top of this article… who would have ever described a sunset as pure iced tea?

That’s the excitement and fun of headline poetry. I definitely recommend it. Try it sometime!


Follow my blog to get an email when I post pictures of my students’ headline poems displayed in the hallway. You’ll see the variety of how kids adapted to this project. Obviously, some were comfortable experimenting with words and some weren’t. In any case, I think most, if not all, enjoyed the hands-on nature of the project. Thanks for reading!