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?”