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Storytime for seventh graders

Rosemount Middle School seventh grader Hayley Olson and her classmates work on developing an antagonist for their National Novel Writing Month stories. Students will work on the novels all month.

There are a lot of ideas floating around in Amy Pendino's classroom, and students are scribbling fast to get them all down onto paper.

One student is writing out the story of a Rosemount High School football player who wins a state title and goes on to play at the University of Minnesota, then has to deal with the death of his brother.

Another is writing the story of a girl and her horse.

The stories are mostly just bits and pieces right now. By the end of the month they'll be novels. At least, that's the plan.

If that seems like an ambitious project for one classroom, how do you think it sounds when it involves all 165 seventh graders at Rosemount Middle School?

The project is part of National Novel Writing Month, an international effort to encourage people to sit down and write. The youth portion of the program was added in 2004, and this is the first year RMS has participated.

Seventh grade English teacher Christin Carlson found the program and brought it up to Pendino.

"The more we saw, the better we liked the idea," said Pendino, the school's other seventh grade English teacher. "We have a good group this year of seventh graders. They're inquisitive. They're curious and they don't back down from a challenge.... Some of them are pretty crazy, and I think that helps."

The students have eased into the program so far this month. They've spent time talking about the elements of a good plot, about developing conflict and writing dialogue. They've worked on plot twists and creating good heroes and villains. They've taken stabs at starting their novels, but there have been a few false starts.

Mostly, though, they've written. Most of each English class this month is dedicated to writing quietly. On Wednesday this week students wrote in near total silence, hunched over notebooks, pens scratching across their notebook pages.

Hayley Olson was writing a story about a star dancer and the challenges she faces both at home and at the dance studio. Coming up with the details has been easy, she said, because she used to dance.

Brendon Thompson's story was about a boy who beats his father at sports for the first time and the consequences that follow. He said it's been tough coming up with interesting traits for his characters.

Carlson and Pendino are both working on novels along with their students.

Pendino said the project has been popular so far. At this age students don't have the fear some adults might have of writing out their ideas.

"They get excited about everything. They're so cute this year," Pendino said. "But it's really fun that their excitement is translating so well into this particular unit.... It's fun that they're allowing us to take them down this path."

Students each set their own goals for the month. Most have pledged to write between 7,000 and 15,000 words by the end of November. A couple are shooting for the adult goal of 50,000 words.

The students won't be graded on their entire story, but they'll be evaluated on whether they meet their goals and on one chapter they choose to edit and submit.

"Hopefully they'll have something fun to work with," Pendino said. "It's not going to be a published piece by any means."

It will be a lesson on the essential pieces of a good novel and on the skills involved in writing one. And it seems to be one the students enjoy. Pendino said the project has gone well enough this year that it's likely to be back next November.

"We will torture seventh graders with this for years to come," she said.