Students inspired by novel writing

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In Jesse Rivera's fact-based novel, three friends, all girls, have to confront real-life issues when one of them develops cancer.

In Tim Learned's fantasy novel, two friends eat strawberries they buy from an old man and develop super powers.

Rivera and Learned are eighth graders in Laura Bradley's writing class at Kenilworth Junior High School. They and their classmates have spent the entire month of November each writing his or her own novel.

To say the students love the class would be an understatement.

"It's very fun," says budding novelist Justin Chapman, who is writing an adventure story about a kid who has been picked on since the third grade and gets his revenge. "It is challenging. You can create your own world. You are in charge. You write it down and it happens."

Bradley writes in her blog, "In 20 years of teaching, I have never seen students this eager to write."

And write is what they do. November is National Novel Writing Month, and 91 students in three Bradley classes spend the entire month writing their novels — no other assignments, no other homework. The students prep for their assignment by discussing the format and structure of novels and will follow in December with the tough part, revising and editing for those troublesome details like grammar and punctuation.

To facilitate and encourage the process, the students use a website called NaMoWriMo that helps with the process in a number of ways. The web site offers each author a page to upload their profile and a profile picture, write a summary and an excerpt from their novel and even upload a picture they would like to use on the cover of their book.

Each student has a predetermined word count for his or her novel and the program keeps track of the student's progress, blasting out congratulations when the word count is achieved.

Bradley says her daughter went through the NaNoWritMo program and, although she acknowledges she was apprehensive about how it would be received by junior high school students, it did offer another avenue to sparking their interest in writing.

"I'm always looking for writing assignments that will engage them," she said. "I look for ways that will captivate them."

One of her other popular programs is a magazine her classes produce each spring.

The entire novel project would not be possible without computers and Bradley's class shares 16 laptops purchased by a $15,000 grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation.

"We couldn't do it without the computers," Bradley said. "Without that piece, I am certain the project would fail."

"That's what's so fabulous," said Janet Ramatici, president of the PEF. "The class really emphasizes the changes that are being made in the way teachers teach and students learn through technology.

"Through the use of laptops, students can access a national campaign to enhance and motivate themselves in the traditional task of learning to communicate," said Ramatici.

"It all comes down to a teacher like Laura understanding the power of technology," she adds.

The classroom's 16 computers are shared each class period, with half the class using the computers, while the other half writes the old-fashioned way with pen and paper or, on some days, goes to the school library's computer lab with an aide to work quietly on their novels.

Another key factor in making the program work is the encouragement Bradley has received from the school administration. "Our principal (Emily Dunnagan) has been very supportive," Bradley says. "She is writing her own novel and sometimes comes in and writes with the kids."

Bradley is also working on a novel and, in between answering questions, sometimes finds time to work on her own project.

Once the novels are completed, each student will receive five books, complete with their own cover designs and author's biography.

While the students are excited about their novels and intent on bringing their stories to a conclusion, the attitudes about the potential of writing as a career are mixed.

"I might like to be a writer some day," says Alexis Webster. "This class has kind of inspired me to do it." Her novel is about two sisters who get revenge on their dad "for ruining their lives."

Nicole Hearfield says she might try writing as a side job to her chosen profession of being a beautician. She has finished her novel about "a really popular girl who hates everybody." She explains that she was able to finish before the end of the month "because I can type really fast."

(Contact John Jackson at

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