NaNoWriMo Challenge Helps Students Write and Publish in the Digital Age

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“No offense, Mrs. Bradley, but when I knew my writing was going to be posted on a blog where all my friends would see, I worked a lot harder on it than when only you were going to read it!”

This student’s reflection on how blogging impacted her writing was the impetus that brought about the most significant changes in my middle school English curriculum. I had already discovered that when students learn to write in digital spaces like Google Docs, they also learn to read and respond appropriately to one another’s writing (via comments), work productively in shared digital spaces, and revise their writing during the process in response to teacher comments. Moving their writing to blogs added that critical component of a meaningful audience, and my students’ responses to it was significant.

But digital spaces like Docs and blogs offer little improvement to the writing experience if students aren’t fully engaged in the writing itself. Do they have some say in what they write? Do they feel connected to the topic? Do they discover that sweet spot of challenging work that with support is also accessible?

Then I discovered NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) - “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing” that specifically calls upon those willing to accept the challenge, my 8th graders for example, to write a novel in the month of November.

Although the novel that students write during NaNoWriMo is a very rough draft, some students continue the process until they have a final draft worthy of publication.


And thanks to CreateSpace, an online self-publishing site owned by Amazon, some of my students are now even selling their novels online.

[/media-credit] Novels my students have written and self-published

Now that’s about as real-world as the writing classroom can get, right?

To help teachers who have never written a novel guide their students through the brainstorming, outlining, plotting, and writing of their first novel, the NaNoWriMo website from the Young Writers Program offers teachers a wealth of resources, including free common-core aligned curriculum and student workbooks.

The NaNoWriMo website also offers students a kind of social media site, which means that students learn a variety of 21st century digital skills when they join this writing community. Starting with the basics and moving into some critical online skills, NaNoWriMo helps students practice:

  • Choosing appropriate usernames
  • Creating safe passwords
  • Posting in shared digital spaces
  • Participating in online forums
  • Sharing work online
  • Collaborating with other writers online
  • Responding to feedback online
  • Supporting other writers online

What if everyone who participates in some kind of online conversation (think of all those comment threads...) had first learned how to do so with a teacher’s guidance through engaging school work? What a civil, collaborative, respectful world we could be!

All in all, NaNoWriMo is a powerful project-based learning opportunity that engages students in a meaningful challenge that incorporates a whole host of writing and digital literacy skills. But I must admit that my first response to NaNoWriMo was, “Are 8th graders really capable of writing novels?”

My students’ responses over the past six years have shown me that not only are they up for the challenge, they are far more confident and competent novelists than I am.

NaNoWriMo offers students the perfect combination of student voice and choice, compelling challenge, digital writing, publication, and so much more.

“Writing a novel has greatly boosted my confidence about future essays and writing projects, mostly because now I know that if I can write fifteen thousand words, it should be way easier to write shorter assignments.” ~Jaxon

"[NaNoWriMo] has helped my confidence when writing. I am no longer so shy about letting people read what I have written, I now appreciate their feedback more, because it will help me become a better author.” ~Kathleen

“Another thing I have noticed is that my mind is really cool. I will be writing one part of my story, and then suddenly I have an idea that will come back later and completely knock my character off her feet.” ~Bailey

“Writing through this whole month has helped me be more confident as a writer, and finishing my novel has solidified that confidence. When I went through the climax of my story, I was getting close to the end of November and I didn't know if I was going to finish. But perseverance and self-belief helped me reach my goal.” ~Will

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When I first started NaNoWrimo I thought it was going to be boring because writing is not my favorite thing to do. My opinion has now changed. NaNoWriMo has shown me that writing doesn't always have to be boring. Writing can be fun.” ~Jaime

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“Since writing my novel I feel more comfortable with my creative abilities. I never thought that I could create a whole new world the way that I did.” ~Ariana

“In these writing periods, I figured out how to calm myself down and actually just write, without letting distractions get the best of me.” ~Nolan

“As I wrote my novel, I got to know my characters more and more. I developed real feelings for the people I made up, and I wanted the best for them. When writing something longer than an essay or a very short story, I found it easier to connect with the characters as if they were real people.” ~Megan

Traditionally writing has been a solitary activity, but NaNoWriMo has turned it into a world-wide challenge within an enthusiastic community of WriMos who discover the power of online writing, forums, feedback, and publication. What better way to teach our students a myriad of digital literacy skills than through such an engaging, rewarding writing project?

If you would like to learn more about bringing the NaNoWriMo challenge to your students, check out my NaNoTeacher website here, follow my blog here, and contact me on Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.