Sci-fi NaNoWriMo

Erin Lark

Before you use Google Translate the title, let me share some definitions.

Sci-fi is shorthand for science fiction, a genre of media primarily concerning or organized by the effect of existing or imagined science on society, individuals, and/or the environment.  This genre often involves topics such as space, time travel, dystopic societies, alternative worlds, and technology.   

NaNoWriMo is shorthand for the National Novel Writing Month, an event that takes place each November.  For the event, aspiring or current authors are challenged to write a 50,000-word novel in just a month.  What started in 1999 with 21 participants evolved into an event with over 200,000 participants, local meet-ups, digital badges, and swag from supporting organizations.

To have a bee in one’s bonnet is an idiom representing one having something constantly on your mind and obsessing over it.  For our purpose here, it reflects my unending desire for my students to read and write more, despite societal interpretations of what a science class should look like.

Put those words together and you have my next month and a half.

"My name is Beatrice Martinez i am 16 years old. i am in highschool and i am a freshman.  What most people don’t know is i have a lung disease and i need to got to the hospital daily. I haven't told anyone about my disease because the doctors are still trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. You see, I’m a bit different from everyone else.  My aveoli multiply like no one else's they've ever seen."

This science sidecar project started several years ago as I lamented the lack of sci-fi novels in students’ backpacks while also contemplating my new and looming role in teaching the Common Core State Standards.  At the time, there was a dearth of leveled, nonfiction texts with which to work and I needed a way to get students excited to read about science.  I wanted to create a project that would support my curriculum, lend itself to December energy, be accessible to a range of learner interests, and meet a wide range of learner needs ...and don’t forget about that proverbial bee.  It was a tall order.

"I can’t just bring someone back to life... Or maybe I can..."

Integrating a science fiction novel unit became my tried and tested product of that instructional inquiry process.  In a three-part process, I honed a mini unit that served my purposes.  

-First, I partner with the librarian to both teach students about the genre and to offer a class period for browsing book options before individual selection.

-Second, for the month of December, reading their sci-fi book is students’ entry task for the first 10 minutes of class.  I suggest (to students and families) that an additional 20 minutes happens five nights each week at home, with a decent success rate, and students track it all on a reading log.  

-Third, I select a showcase opportunity for right before Winter Break for students to share their novels.  Over the years this has taken the shape of zines, rap songs, and a truly unique, live-acted scene in which one student played the part of three different characters.

"Today was November 9, 2131 and it was the 5th day we have been in this room. Ryan supplied us with almost any food and drinks we requested from a machine on the wall that delivered dehydrated pouches of food that they've deemed nutritionally solid.  He'll give us a new notebook whenever we had ask, so I've made maps of everywhere I can remember in case we get out of here. On our calendar I crossed off the date.  How much longer could they sustain us in this cell?  Where were the others?"

While I must disclose that not every student puts “I ♡ Isaac Asimov” stickers on their backpacks, there are many new sci-fi fans by the end of the unit.  More importantly, throughout their reading I’m asking students to collect examples of when science, existing or imagined, is part of the text.  Students are then asked to evaluate the science used regarding accuracy, field, and/or likelihood, using additional nonfiction texts in this evaluation.  During their showcase, part of a student’s product includes a reflection of the use of science in their novel, highlighting the general application.  In this way, students are analyzing purpose and structure, distinguishing among facts, judgement, and speculation, all while citing specific fiction and nonfiction textual evidence in their responses.

"She stood up and walked into the hallway carrying Amber in her arms. The peaceful serenity of the quiet was interrupted as a scraggly voice spoke on the intercom. “All recruits please report to the commons for your assigned sectors”. There awaited her fate."

Remember the bee?  Six years after my project’s inception, as I’m emailing my librarian to set up a check-out date, I find myself asking “why can’t the students write their own science fiction?”

As I toyed with this inquiry, I returned to my original purpose: paving the way for students to do more reading and writing in science.  While we write often in class, claims, evidence and justifying our way through units, I wanted our writing purpose to gain the same spark the sci-fi unit brings to reading.  I wanted to give students a “why” for descriptive science text that wasn’t tied solely to our content work.  

I first stumbled upon NaNoWriMo when I moved to Portland in 2006 and was looking for community involvement.  A local writer’s group was hosting support events and while I had no idea how I would come up with 50,000 words in a month while in graduate school, I was game to try.  This lead to many years of late November evenings, a handful of almost-novels, and some great friends.

Return to last month, and you’ll follow my train of thought.  I realized the full-scale project was not the best fit for my classroom, but a modified version had merit.  Looking at the calendar, I assigned students a baseline of 100 words for each school day during the month with the option to go beyond that goal.  I set, and we discussed frequently prior to Halloween, three rules: science fiction, school appropriate, and author-driven.  Students need to use science as a compelling thread, keep things in the bounds of professional students, and know this is a story for their imagination.  

We are only about half way through, and the results are nothing short of awesome.

"I turned back to the road and saw nothing. It was empty. Just miles and miles of yellow grass, almost as though someone had programmed the backdrop to appear calming. “So mom what's going on?” I questioned. She moved her hand from the steering wheel to the radio. I listened as a strict voice started listed off names. I flung around to Will. He was staring forward, listening intently. “These are all the people that died from the illness, or are suspected to have infected others.  Until they can isolate the bacteria, we don't know what in their DNA is the problem,” My mom replied as they radio announcer continued to outline precautions and evacuation routes. I turned back to the road and stared out onto the emptiness. The so-called zombie apocalypse really is starting."

The majority of students are taking the 10 minutes of writing time and blowing past the daily 100 word expectation, and are now halfway through a fantastic, and often phantasmagorical storyline.  I have students asking me when and how they’ll get to edit and publish their work.  Get to.  

One might wonder if the sci-fi reading mini unit should precede the sci-fi writing.  I chose somewhat based on the calendar, but I might also argue that I wouldn’t have wanted predetermined notions to get in the way of these incredible imaginations.  In fact, this year I predict a positive effect on not only the number of sci-fi books checked out, but in the variety as a response to their writing.  Additionally, I am thinking of follow-up activities in which students take their newfound skills and apply them to our problem-based units in which they must evaluate evidence and craft compelling arguments for specific audiences.  When they have a relationship with the power of scientific texts, they are better equipped to create that same picture for other readers.  Some students are so inspired, they plan to sign up for the full NaNoWriMo in 2018.  

"She turned to face him. “Do we though? Has anyone ever tried to stay behind? What if they’re just myths, stories passed down by The Owner to scare us into behaving like good little girls and boys. What if they’re not true?  What if a whole other world is behind that wall, or underground.  Tink of what we could discover, what we could do with our lives!"

Consider joining us.

All italicized quotes are borrowed (with permission) excerpts from this year's students' work.  If we are lucky, these young authors will publish their work so we can all read what happens next.

  • Common Core State Standards
  • Literacy
  • Reading
  • STEM
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.