Writing a Class Novel with Students

This is the dream.

Preparing your students
Last week I suggested that this online Covid year will have a profound impact on my long-term planning. I replace the TV series that we typically watch & discuss in 3rd quarter with a group writing project that will result in a whole class novel that we will then read together in 4th quarter. How will I prepare my level 1 students? If the last newsletter escaped you, search your inbox for a message titled “Covid shreds my long-term planning”. In that newsletter I describe the fundamental process for the entire first semester of teaching.

Essential Guidelines
Last year’s writing group dedicated to writing a class novel learned quite a bit about making the process manageable for teacher and student. Here are ten guidelines for teachers who would like to write a novel with their students:

  1. Write ONE novel with all of your classes, not a separate novel with each section.
  2. Even when writing a novel, a teacher providing input is what students need to acquire language. Learners do not learn to write by writing; they learn to write through reading and listening. Don’t ask students to brainstorm individually, don’t put them into small groups to write and don’t assign writing outside of class. You will generate too many loose threads! Instead the teacher leads one group conversation through a series of questions.

This activity, like everything in the CI Master Class, is a pretext for class conversation in the target language.

  1. The teacher presents choices and sometimes situations that students and teacher discuss during a class period, but students do not create the plot of the novel. The teacher is the author who determines which choices to accept.
  2. We found that teachers who announced to the class that everyone would be writing a novel together faced insurmountable problems that led them to abandon the project. Instead, maintain ownership of your novel and entertain students’ ideas about your novel. For students, this process is more like painting a piece of pottery at a pottery studio than actually creating their own pottery.
  3. Some teachers may allow their students to decide the genre beforehand (i.e. romantic comedy, horror, action adventure, etc.), while other teachers simply start the process by announcing, “I am writing a horror novel for beginning students”. That is a great way to establish that it is your novel and the conversations in class are about your novel.
  4. The teacher’s role outside of class is significant. After accepting some general ideas of what the novel is about, take the time to write a plot outline. Speak about particular scenes with classes, but never the entire novel. The plot outline describes what needs to happen in each chapter; the discussion in classes shapes how that happens. One class may have a brilliant idea about how the protagonist gets from A to B, but another class tweaks that idea and a third class has a different idea that I decide to incorporate so that the final chapter is unrecognizable to any of the students.
  5. As ideas evolve you will be changing your plot outline by adding scenes to early chapters, building and eliminating characters, adapting ideas as a strong theme emerges and modifying plot so that the story flows well. This is done outside of class without students.
  6. Your students will be crucial as you orally tell parts of the story, taking note of how to simplify the language for your audience. You never have to explain the entire context of the scene; simply say, “I am writing this novel and there is a scene where a zombie finds the protagonist. So… (in target language), ‘there is a zombie. Where? Let’s use our imaginations…'”
  7. Work with one scene per day; let period 1 develop it, let period 2 hear their ideas and tear them apart, start fresh with period 3 and perhaps build on all of that with period 4. Create a Write & Discuss text after every period to record the ideas that you may or may not incorporate into your novel. By the end of the day you might have a single rough draft paragraph that you can place within your plot outline. As a product of Write & Discuss, that paragraph will be co-written between students and teacher so it will already be simplified.
  8. Expect to rewrite the first draft that you eventually build with your classes. It is just a first draft! You, the author, will need to rework it so that it flows well.

Students need many short, easy-to-read stories in order to make the transition from reading class-created texts (like Write & Discuss) to being able to read a full novel. Whether you are writing to fill holes in your current curriculum, to provide more windows & mirrors for your students to see themselves in your classroom library, or simply to add good stories to the language learner experience, creative writing with your students is a great second semester project!