Flipping The Script: Coders as Novelists

Last November, I had the distinct honor and privilege of being the title character in a New Yorker Magazine- Talk of the Town piece called “Can An English Teacher Learn to Code?” It was a privilege to get to speak up and out for young coders, for the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE) and indirectly for the CS For All initiative that was just beginning to take off here in NYC and later President Obama would push at the nationwide level.  AFSE has been at the forefront of work-- work that Computer Science teacher Sean Stern says has made CS part of the core at our school- just like Math, Science, Social Studies and English.  Our students understand that computer science is part of the four year sequence of learning and that there are opportunities to take full advantage of the experts, both inside and outside of school, that support the learning and development of all our students.

Fast forward one year.  I am teaching Seniors at AFSE for the first time since joining the school four years ago.  My section of 12th graders, many of which I taught last year in AP Language and Composition, are done with college applications, are now just waiting on replies and to get to things like Prom and Graduation in June.  Most of us remember Senioritis!  We remember how the year went, plodding on and taking what sometimes felt and interminable amount of time to get to that stage that we would walk across and finally move the tassel across the mortar board adorning our heads. I, along with John Bernor (the newest ELA teacher at AFSE- who happens to also be a classroom veteran), and I have been working to create a course that not only addressed the learning needs of a diverse population of students, but also challenged students to stretch and grow as writers and thinkers. As a result, Senior Writing Seminar was born.

The SWS is a year long course that meets five days a week.  Bernor and I met in August to outline a month of lessons and learning that would be engaging as well as challenging and ultimately better preparing our seniors for the college and careers of their choice. November is National Novel Writing Month (@nanowrimo @nycnowrimo) where writers from around the world attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  I knew it was not impossible and had attempted on two separate occasions to complete the task (failing-only reaching 15,000 words at most). I knew it was hard.  I also knew there was a student version- the Young Writers Project (#NaNoYWP) complete with lesson plans for before, during and after as well as an online platform for students (and their teacher!) to track their progress.

Image Via NaNoWriMo Young Writers Project
It was time to flip the script and for the coders to become the novelists.  My 24 seniors have written for hours and hours to work to reach their goal of each producing 30,000 words in the month.  For those of you doing the math, it's 1000 words a day: not an unreasonable task, especially for students who will be in college soon.  Over the course of November it was exciting to see the kids develop their stories, their ideas and to watch them struggle in the same way the thousands of writers around the world do to write at length. They were given the choice of topics, fiction or non fiction.  The literary world was their oyster and boy did they write. It has perhaps been one of the most incredible classroom experiences I have witnessed since stepping into my first classroom in the fall of 2008.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I asked the class to sit in a circle and craft a one minute book pitch.  How would they sell their books?  Their ideas were exciting and provocative.  It was fascinating to hear about how they perceived their books and what their peers wanted to know more about. I was proud.  I was excited. It was a perfect example of how mutual trust, high expectations, and intellectual freedom and creativity can lead to an incredibly rich learning experience for both students and teachers. 

I did feel a sense of disappointment, not in my students, but in myself.  I had set out with them at the beginning of the month with every intension of writing along with them.  Of completing my 1000 words a day.  My life, not to make excuses, got the best of me. (Three preps/full time job, grad school, internship, and some family time thrown in for good measure.) I made it to 10,000 words this time.  New writing that I had not done before.  New stories and memories taking shape.  I had been transparent, putting my writing up on the SMART board and writing along with them.  I wanted my kids to see that I was willing to do the writing with them.  That work bought me buy-in and energy.  It created momentum.  Walking the walk- at least for the first 10 days set the tone in the room and for the work.   

Yesterday, Lindsey Christ, Education Reporter from NY 1, our local cable news channel,  came to do a piece on students participating in NaNoWriMo this year.  She spent an hour with my class.  Jose happened to hit his 30,000 word goal while she was there.  It was incredible to hear the kids talk about their work, their accomplishment, and working to complete what at times felt like an insurmountable task.  You can read the final piece here: Greenwich Village Students Participate in the National Novel Writing Month (If you are local, you may be able to see it on air.)

Tomorrow we celebrate.  December 1st, 2016.  Coders have become novelists, mirroring my journey a year ago, working to to learn SCRATCH and some basic coding. 

Today, at the end of class after Jabari had reached his 30,000 words he asked, "Ms. Towne, can I keep writing? Even though I hit my 30,000 words." 



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