Project-Based Learning: Writing a Class Novel

I recently had a request on #ntchat to share a project that I have done many times over in High School English.  Writing a class novel requires an investment of time and a great deal of organization, but overall is a tremendous experience for your students, and one that can fundamentally change the way that your students look at literature. Not only is it a great team-building activity, and one that forces students to work through differences in perspective, ability, authority and discipline, but it is also a TON of work that students are willing to do because of the desire to reach the final product.

The Project

I always start this project by letting students know that we are engaging in one of the hardest acts of writing known to man, and that they have the chance to achieve something that few people ever do, and even fewer classes take the time to experience.  Now that I am more familiar with the process, I actually let my students know at the beginning of the year about the project, and that we will be working harder to complete the rest of our work and build in time for this activity.  On the assignment sheet (posted below) you will see I have listed some outcomes, but ultimately the project reaches far more standards than I could assess and the students even realize, so I simply chose the ones that matched up with what the students needed to fulfill at that point in the course.

http://wp.me/a31Gro-62

In the assignment sheet, you will see that the project functions around three central parts: Brainstorming, Planning and Writing.  Students assume different roles through the process, and some of those roles do not run concurrently, so it is important for you to plan that some students will need to complete other tasks at various points in the process.  Personally, I like having the students do some research on novel writing, structure and process during the unit to round out their knowledge.

Brainstorming

In this portion, I have students come up with general ideas for the novel.  I have done this several ways.  I have chosen two students to facilitate class discussion, with the ability to veto and modify ideas, but create a list of possible choices.  Alternatively, I have had students come into class after a night of contemplation with an idea that they have vetted through several other students, so we come up with 4-5 solid ideas to discuss as a class.  Either way, I generally give a class or two for this initial choice of topic, as it is important that most students are interested, and that the idea is fleshed out enough to begin work.  I prompt the students with a plot diagram and have them think about some of the characters, the twists and turns of the plot, what makes the story original, and the importance of time and place.  As all of this information is handed over to the committees, it is important that it gives a good starting point, but is not too prescriptive to work with.

Committees

I generally set the committees based on the abilities and need of development in the classroom.  The committee work days are some of the busiest for me as a teacher, and some of the busiest for the runners as well.  I will let you read the various roles on the PDF above, but the runner is the most essential role to working with the committees, and they must be engaged students who want to see the project work.  This is not the place to put students you are not sure about.  They must be able to resolve conflicts between the ideas and changes necessary in the various sections, and they must be constantly listening to the groups and aware of what other groups will need to know.

Writing

The last few times I have done the writing process, we have been able to collaboratively work with a Google Document, which is a much simpler process than having separate files for each chapter group as I had done in the past.  The idea of the writing groups is that the plot is divided into logical chapters that groups are then assigned to write.  They use the information from the committees to ensure consistency in the novel.  For this reason, it is essential that character descriptions, setting layouts and plot descriptions are thorough.  If these sections are not completed well, students will have trouble maintaining consistency in the novel, and details become confused.  However, if done well, then students will be able to follow the story throughout, and the editors will have a much easier time in tying the novel together.

Another advantage of the Google Doc is the ability of students to review the sections before and after them to ensure that the novel blends well together.  This is by far the most difficult area of the novel to do convincingly, and the Editors do a great deal of work here as well.  However, having students in groups consistently check with and read over sections before and after their work will pay great dividends in the end.

Editing

While it may be tempting to have many editors, in my experience one or two exceptional students will do a far better job, as they read the whole novel to make sure it all works together.  Generally, if they wish I will print off a copy of the draft novel so they can write directly on the draft and do not have to read the whole thing on a screen.  I generally give them a weekend or longer time period to complete the edits, and then they can return the drafts to the chapter groups for final edits.

Publishing

I use Lulu.com to publish my books.  My district has a policy that does not allow for the sale of student books, so I simply produce the book as an independent run, and offer the students the ability to purchase the book at cost.  Depending on the rules your own district has, I have thought that offering the novel for sale might work as a fundraiser for your department or school might be a great real-world use for this project.

Results

I have had varied results with this project depending on the students in my class in any semester.  There are times when the project doesn’t get all the way complete, and publishing is not an option.  There are times when the ideas the class came up with hit stumbling blocks, and we’ve had to go back to planning half way through the unit, and there have been times when the whole project has run perfectly.  However, one consistent takeaway has always been present; student learn much more about the novel form and understand literature much more after doing this activity.  I have had students respond after this unit and tell me that they were never able to understand how a novel works until this project, and they were so happy to finally ‘get it.’  I do multiple novel studies in a semester, and the responses to literature present after this project are consistently more insightful and deeper than prior to.

Overall, this project has become one of my favourites. Though the time investment is high, many teachers tell me they could not fit in a month for writing a novel, I believe the learning more than offsets the cost.  My advice to teachers trying this approach is to be flexible and seek to inspire learning, not push for completion.  You can’t undo the learning that an inspired student engages in by not completing a project, but a student being pushed to completion will never reach it in the first place.

I have given presentations on this process as well, and this PDF gives an overview of that presentation, it may help clarify some of what I have discussed here, and offers the research behind the process:

https://mrkeenan.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/collaborative-novel-project.pdf

What do you think?  Would you like to try writing a novel as a class? What do you need to make it happen?

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3 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning: Writing a Class Novel

  1. I would like to try this with my class, but the PDF seems to be missing. Any additional information would be most helpful and appreciated. I have found the NaNoWriMo curriculum, and it is great, but I could use a little more guidance in specifically how you work this as a collaborative project. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Don’t be Afraid of Change | Mr Keenan.ca

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