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Teacher Scraps All Classwork, Homework and Tells Students: Just Write

About 100 students at Kenilworth Junior High are spending November writing their novels, which will then be published online and shared at a community reading

State and federal testing is the reality for American students, with school districts busy creating curriculum largely aimed at passing standardized tests. If schools don't meet standards, they can be penalized and even taken over by the state, which, according to many educators, has created a culture of "teaching to the test."

But one Petaluma teacher is trying a radically different approach to education, scrapping all quizzes, assignments and homework for an entire month in favor of having her students write a novel. The goal is to improve literacy and spark a life-long passion for the written word, while still meeting important education criteria.

“The power of writing as a way of building skill and fluency is often underestimated,” said Laura Bradley, an English teacher at who is embarking on the experiment with about 100 of her students. “You can’t teach English out of a textbook.”

For more than an hour every other day, students in Bradley’s class become novelists, crafting fictional scenes and dialogue and then sharing it with each other and Bradley via Google Documents. The project is part of the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, an online campaign started by a Berkeley writer meant to encourage current and would-be novelists.

Although NanoWriMo is a national campaign, Bradley is the only Petaluma teacher participating, a feat that would not be possible without a $15,000 grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation, which allowed Bradley to purchase laptops.

The project also got the green light from principal Emily Dunnagan.

“I went to our principal to talk to her about it and she didn’t even hesitate. In fact, she decided to join,” said Bradley, adding that Dunnagan sometimes comes to her class to work on her novel.

At the end of November, students will begin editing their manuscripts and those who reach their word count goal, will get their novels published by createspace.com, an online publisher. In the spring, Bradley also plans on holding a reading at where students will be able to share their work in a more “real world” setting.

Bradley says she was initially fearful about how her students would react to the project, but says they have embraced the concept, reaching into their own lives, movies and books for inspiration.

“I’ve been amazed at the engagement level,” said Bradley, who is a board certified instructor who has been teaching for 20 years. ”They just write nonstop.”

The exercise has also altered the way students think about literature.

“Now when we talk about writing, we do it from the perspective of the writer, really thinking ‘How does the writer do that?’” Bradley said.

Thirteen-year-old Jessie Rivera and an eighth grader at Kenilworth is reaching into her own life to pen her novel about three girlfriends, two of whom develop feelings for each other. She has already written 3,000 words and says the experience has been really fun.

“It’s better than taking quizzes and learning grammar,” she said. “Plus the whole idea is really cool. I mean, I’m 13 and I’m writing a novel. How many people can say that?”

Go Occupy! November 22, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Yes to what Ralph said. Taking it a step further, if there are any budding filmmakers at the school, this would be a great subject for a local series documentary capturing the what and how of what this as it happens. Then in 5 year increments, do a newer version to track their careers/progress.
Go Occupy! November 22, 2011 at 05:18 PM
Oops, what this IS as it happens. Jeez, and in front of teachers.
Joan Price November 22, 2011 at 06:52 PM
As a professional writer and a former high school English teacher, this article brought tears to my eyes.Laura Bradley and the NaNoWriMo project are changing 100 young people's lives. In this economy with its cuts and restrictions, teachers with vision and commitment have a difficult time. Let's support Laura Bradley in every way we can -- by attending the Copperfield's reading, by buying copies of her students' novels, by passing along news like this. Here's another radical idea -- those of you who think you're not writers: try writing for an hour every other day and prepare to be amazed at what happens! - Joan Price
Bookworm November 22, 2011 at 07:11 PM
I can't stop smiling. This is wonderful. It is such a treasure when someone like Laura Bradley thinks of something so positive and so creative and so inspiring, and so many people support her! Thank you all!
Jeff Arnold November 30, 2011 at 08:10 PM
What a great concept! For me it hearkens back to the hey-days of the Communication and Multimedia Academy at San Marin HS, when it was being run by misters Harris and Fowler. I am very glad to see others taking a creative approach to teaching, even in the age of standardized testing.

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