English teacher Laura Bradley knew the prospect of having all 91 of her eighth-grade students write a novel in one month was a daunting assignment.
But perhaps more daunting was the prospect of telling the students what she had in mind.
"For them, if I say, &‘write two pages,' they just groan and fall out of their chair," she said.
But when Bradley, a 20-year veteran who has taught at Petaluma's Kenilworth Junior High for 11 years, told the students the idea was to give them complete freedom to tell a story — writing the full class period without restriction — she saw young minds start to turn.
"I didn't really believe her at first," said Jason Van Tighem, who authored "Shapeless." "Then I thought it was kind of cool because it was pretty much, you did it all by yourself, and you didn't have to listen to a bunch of stuff."
Bradley agreed. It was the freedom that got them going.
"They got to be in control," she said. "I have been teaching 20 years, and I have never seen them write like that."
Van Tighem crafted a story of a shape-shifting boy who can change into different creatures to battle mutants. And as his dad notes, the main character's mom and dad don't fare too well.
"He basically killed off his parents on the first page," Brad Van Tighem said. "We thought it was kind of funny."
Jason was one of three Kenilworth students who gave public readings of their novels at Copperfield's Books last week.
Pedro Lopez read aloud from his tale of a shipwreck that included a dream sequence, a wild bear and orphaned siblings, and said the assignment grabbed him from the moment Bradley announced it.
"I was excited because I really wanted to write it," he said. "It was kind of different, because we had to do so much writing. We did writing every single day."
Bradley followed the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, which calculates participants word count and progress toward their personal goal while also offering prompts to overcome writer's block, such as introducing a flashback or a stampede of elephants.
"I think the one thing that holds a lot of kids back from being into creative writing is having restrictions," said Chris Angotti, director of the Berkeley-based NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. "I think our organization believes that imagination is not only incredibly important to kids and their self-esteem and self-confidence but to society in general. Creativity is important to innovation.
"When our country and our economy are looking for these new ideas and new innovations, how great is it for kids to be told that their creativity and ideas are important?" he said.
But it doesn't always come easily. Just ask Kenilworth Principal Emily Dunnagan, who took part in the month-long challenge and struggled right alongside the eighth-graders.
"Fifty thousand words scared the bejeebers out of me," she said of her personal goal. "The kids could keep track of how many words I had, so they could give me a hard time: 'Hey, Ms. Dunnagan, you only typed 200 words last night!'
"I think it was good for them to see that I was having the same struggles," she said.
Bradley also gave it a go, writing about a young girl whose father has left and whose mother is on the verge of remarrying.