I’m teaching memoir right now. It falls into our schedule early this year… and I love it!
On Friday I had four conferences, two of which my students didn’t follow through with, which really disappointed me. They both forgot to take their notebooks home over the weekend and therefore didn’t write. However, I now know I cannot take this personally (I used to), so I moved on yesterday morning and conferred with other students as planned.
One of my students was trying to dive deep about his sister who is five years younger than him. When I found him, he was essentially rewriting the personal essay he wrote about her in November, telling why she’s bratty and annoying. I nudged him to look at a mentor text, one that’s written by one of my former students, to see the way in which she took a different path. Rather than talking about why she was angry at her dad for leaving the family, in her memoir, she explained why she, years later, appreciated having him leave and how much it has helped her.
Though I stated it differently, my conference teaching point with this boy was essentially, “Writers create memoirs that are hybrid texts: carefully balancing narrative and exposition.” I encouraged him to reread the mentor text by saying something like this:
This text is organized around a central theme. Clearly, this topic held a lot of meaning and value to the writer. The hybrid structure of her memoir is effective since her transitions clearly show how the ideas connect from one to the other. Further, this piece is provocative since she draws her reader in and moves you along throughout her writing, slowing down and speeding up when necessary.
Well, he did it. He came over and told me he did it in the middle of the workshop. I told him to sit back down and keep writing, which he did, and that I’d be over during the Share. When I came over to him and his writing partner I was floored. He read a 1.5 pg. entry to his writing partner and I. We were both amazed. I encouraged him to share it with the class, which he did. But shockingly, it brought tears and I had to finish reading it for him because he couldn’t continue reading aloud. Are you wondering why? Well, it’s because he uncovered the truth about his sister… by being a big brother he has learned responsibility and compassion. He wondered, in his writing, if she’d grow up to think of him as a role model (or not). Further, he realized his sister isn’t so bad since she took care of him when he was recently very ill. What a change from “my sister can be bratty,” right?
The class sat there stunned, listening to the words he wrote. They applauded him for having the courage to share such an emotional and truthful piece it caused him to cry. My message, at the end of sharing his work, was something like this: “Remember last week how you said that memoir was supposed to be emotional and truthful? Do you think K did that?” Lots of nods. “Well, that’s what you should and can do as a writer. If writing this memoir brings you tears, then that’s okay. That means you’re getting at the truth.”
Once the kids began transitioning for Read Aloud, I noticed a few kids stop by him and put a hand on his shoulder, asking if he was okay. He nodded. However, the compassion his peers showed him made me so proud of them. Some kids would mock a classmate for putting him/herself out there, in writing, and for becoming emotional. My kids didn’t do that yesterday. I couldn’t be prouder of all of them (even the ones who didn’t take home their notebooks over the weekend).
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).