A novel idea: Helping kids learn the love of words

April 2012

On a cold, diamond-clear Saturday afternoon, 33-year-old Kristen House scribbles a number on a dry erase board: 280,000. “That’s how many new titles are published in the U.S. every year,” she tells a rapt audience of six teenagers. “That’s 2 percent of what’s submitted. Do you see the giant pool of fish you’re swimming in?”

It’s hard out here for a novelist, House is saying, in her upbeat-but-forthright way. Like all good teachers, she respects her students enough to avoid glossing over tough realities, but she loves her craft enough to invite them to wholeheartedly press ahead, despite the odds.

House’s message is this: Getting published is secondary. Writing’s the thing. To her mind, these students have already done the hardest part: Each has already finished a draft of a 50,000-plus-word novel.

Last summer, House launched an experiment with A Novel Idea. She wanted to see if kids in junior high and high school could crank out a novel-length piece of writing. Sixty kids signed up for her four-week class. “I couldn’t believe how thirsty they were for a big challenge,” she says.

Two days each week, she taught them the meat of storytelling: How to create a protagonist, how to craft a great climax. The rest was up to them. Go home and get 1,500 words on the page every day. Write freely and fearlessly, without trying to please anybody but yourself. And they did it. House says 90 percent of her students finished a novel draft by month’s end.

Blake Bouza, a 17-year-old home-schooler, is working on a sequel to the novel he wrote last summer in House’s class. He never imagined that he could manage such a huge undertaking. “After I finished the first one, I realized that I could,” he says. “It wasn’t hard. I had fun doing it.”

For more than a decade, House struggled to get that message across to American college students. After a teaching stint in Ireland, she returned to the States to find that while her students’ SAT scores kept rising, their writing skills declined. “They got bubble-test smarter, but worse and worse at meeting deadlines,” she laughs, recalling how kids would invariably panic, procrastinate, and beg for extensions.

“We have this profound national anxiety about writing,” says House. She has a hunch about where it’s coming from: the culture of the red pen. School, by nature, judges and compares students. The “best” students learn to jump through a series of ever-rising hoops, while the rest learn merely to fear the red pen, often viewing themselves as failures. 

Disillusioned with college instruction, House started test-ballooning her novel-writing workshop with educators. “Teachers told me it was a dumb idea,” she says. “They said, ‘The kids can’t do it … They can’t get work turned in on time.’        

“I don’t want them to turn in work!” House gesticulates enthusiastically. “I don’t want them to be judged! I want them to feel a sense of non-comparative achievement.”

House urges her students to seek a different kind of success that doesn’t hinge on grades or awards. “I want them to know that they can set about a task that they know nothing about,” she says, “and that they have the intellectual capacity to learn how to do that thing and then do it.”

House tells a story about her eighth-grade self: a teacher recognized her boredom and assigned her to write a book by semester’s end. She was terrified. And then, she did it. “After that, I never got freaked out about college entrance essays or SATs,” she says. “Because I did something that adults do, and that gave me true, intrinsic pride in myself.” From that experience, House learned that the best teachers demand the impossible. 

Hillwood freshman Olivia Laskowski already has one impossible task under her belt. She took House’s class three times and drafted a 70,000-word novel, which gave her the confidence to tackle more big projects. And she’s looking forward to the lifelong journey of self-discovery that is a writer’s life.

“A lot of people, they wear, like, a face when they’re out in public,” she says. “But the real you is writing the book, because you’re tapping into your deepest emotions, your real pain, and your real happiness.”

Laskowski also likes the way that writing helps you become your own teacher. “You hold the red pen, and that’s kind of powerful,” she says. “And then you put the red pen down, pick up the quill, and keep going.”

“That’s what being a writer is all about,” House smiles. “You scribble all day long. You think about stuff, you write it down.”

By that measure, House’s students are writers already, inspired by her hopes for them. “She really wants us to succeed,” says Laskowski. “I love her so much.”


Photographed by: Eric England


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