There are a million reasons why a sixth-grader can’t write a novel: video games, piano lessons, simply being in sixth grade. Clayton Middle School teacher Leigh Sanders assured her students they could.
In November, Sanders’ class of 21 students took part in National Novel Writing Month. The goal was 500 words a day, adding up to 15,000 by month’s end. The students planned out the action of their stories, invented characters, suffered through writer’s block, introduced conflict, plumbed the depths of their pre-teen hearts, and all ended up on the other side. When Sanders first announced the assignment, she said, some parents of students thought she was crazy. Now those students are novelists.
“Parents really only reacted one of two ways,” Sanders said. “One asked if something was wrong with me. Others told their kids, you’re going to do the work and you’re going to be a better person because of it.”
Lots of novels are kicking around in lots of desk drawers, and many more still waiting to fill in a blank page. Sanders said it was important for her class not to think about the finished product, the novel with the dust jacket photo, but on writing each day and moving the story along. On Nov. 30, the class threw a party.
“It was daunting at times, and sometimes they felt very defeated,” Sanders said. “I think we have a fear of writing because it makes us vulnerable. When we write, we expose ourselves. I think by doing this exercise, and that’s what it is, a brain exercise, you can feel more confident in the world because you accomplished something so huge. I feel like after this they won’t be as fearful when I tell them to put their pencil to paper. I don’t think it’s going to scare them as much.”
In the stories, Sanders said she found beauty and innocence in the way her students saw the world, believing in the best of people almost to the detriment of their plots. She mentioned one student struggling with a character possibly saying a curse word, asking if he could use h-e-l-l in the story. Sanders said he could if the character would say that. The student thought it over for a couple days and decided his character would never use such language.
“They have such compassion for others, and they see the world as a just and magical place,” Sanders said. “It was almost difficult for them to find the bad. They are so still open to the world and so full of light and see the world as a hopeful place. Every time I read their story, it was hard to find the conflict in that.”
Alexander Eaves and Erika Hernandez were the first two in the class to reach 15,000 words, finishing the project about a week before the deadline. The pair wrote very different stories, with Eaves focusing on a middle-schooler with Down syndrome and Hernandez writing a mystery with murder and intrigue. They each said writing had been a lingering interest for them and the assignment gave them a chance to give it a shot.
“It was really difficult at first; at times when starting off, you didn’t know what to do, and we were kind of in shock when Ms. Sanders told us we had to do this,” Eaves said.
“After a while, once you got into the middle of the book, it got easier because it started to flow,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez’s story bears the spooky title “Among the Hidden Shadows” and deals with three kidnapped girls who try to figure out a way to escape.
“I based one of the characters off of myself because I really like mysteries,” Hernandez said.
Eaves named his book “Jason” after the main character and said he drew on his own experiences being in classes with exceptional children.
“Jason has Down syndrome and he’s in the seventh grade; his best friend moved away, and he’s facing the battles of life without him, like bullies and stuff,” Eaves said. “Since elementary school, I’ve always had someone sitting next to me who had Down syndrome or autism, because I guess they thought I was a good choice. I’ve learned a lot about it, how to treat them, what exactly you need to do with them, what they like.”
Hernandez and Eaves said they intend to keep adding to their stories, with Hernandez expecting to reach 30,000 words and Eaves considering finding an editor and self-publishing his book on Amazon.
Sanders said she had taken on the month of writing before on her own, but that this was the first time she brought it to the classroom. She said she was proud of the students for taking the leap of faith with her.
“They area a really great group,” she said.