Teaching memoir: Views from sixth and seventh grade

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Moving from personal narrative to memoir presents challenges and rewards for sixth and seventh graders – they are working with a very familiar genre (they’ve been writing personal narratives since kindergarten, after all), and yet memoir requires digging deep and working hard to create something entirely different.  The rewards are quite wonderful, however, for in those moments that our kids have been keeping lists of, heart mapping, and writing notebook entries about, lie moments of self discovery, moments to write about and treasure forever.  In sixth grade, my teaching focus is to establish the difference between personal narrative and memoir, and then to plan, plan, plan. Here’s  what that looks like:

1. I find that my kids need to spend a lot of time sorting through their writing ideas, and really considering what makes a memoir worthy moment.  Often, my kids reach for the same ideas once too often, and I have to really push them to dig deeper.  Rich mentor text work helps to clarify their thinking and move them to consider new ideas. But, even this  task requires extra work.   So, for each addition to their writing list  I ask my students to consider the following questions (thank you Ralph Fletcher!) in order to identify the truly memoir worthy moments:

  • what are the standout memories I want to hold on to forever?

  • is there a time in my life when I figured out something I didn’t know before? or when a truth was revealed?

  • is there  time in my life when I thought a certain way and then something/someone changed my way of thinking?

2. Once the groundwork had been laid, and my students are ready to  draft, I find that they need to anchor their writing once again to make sure that the “memoir worthiness” is at the heart of their writing – that they know the  idea that their  memoir writing is built around.  So I ask them to write a purpose statement for each of the three memoir moments they will write flash drafts for.  Each purpose statement looks like this:

I am writing about _________________. I want my reader to know ___________________.

And, I ask them to create “reflections” for each of these ideas as well:

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Not all of the above can be filled out in the planning stages of writing, but I find that my students will come back and add to this chart as they write – as though the act of writing makes them reflect deeper.

3.  And then we move on to create a timeline, that looks like this.

After all of this thinking, planning and strategizing…we are ready to write.  My hope is that this work has helped my sixth graders truly move into memoir territory, where they begin to see the value in this type of writing…and that they will carry what they’ve learned to writer’s workshop in 7th. grade and beyond.

My wonderful new colleague, Rosemarie Hebner, gives us the perspective from seventh grade:

In seventh grade, we look for the Memoir to evolve from fundamentally expressive, toward discerning and reflective. The primary emphasis remains a focus on a seed moment, or pebble, but additionally and ultimately, the 7th grade memoir must (1) answer the “so what, (2) show not tell through sensory & personal details and (3) expose the author’s thoughts & feelings.

I remind students throughout the memoir unit, through varied mentor text and student samples, to invite the reader inside their minds by slowing down the moment and s t r e t c h i n g it out. To do this, the memoirist must access and articulate as many of his/her thoughts and feelings from the memory as possible. Finding the memories can be a challenge for many students, and in the beginning of the unit, many students are apprehensive feeling they may not have enough to write about. Thus, exposing the 7th graders to an abundance of strong, effective, relatable mentor text is critical to helping the memoirist tap into his/her own memories. Additionally, I have found that sharing my own personal stories, both orally and in written memoir, is an extremely powerful (and fun) tool to help students unlock their own watermark moments. My stories trigger student stories and the process becomes shared and supportive, exactly what we strive to achieve in WW.

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The Heart Map is one of the very first pre-writing graphic organizers I introduce during week#1 of our Memoir Unit. A majority of the students have seen or created a Heart Map in the past, but I find that it lends itself developmentally to repetition. I have observed a tremendous shift in complexity from 6th to 7th.  We use the heart map territories throughout our memoir unit to flash draft for “Do Nows” and simply to become more comfortable writing both expressively and reflectively.

To achieve the ideal blend of expressive and reflective, the memoirist needs to be, or feel, equipped with an arsenal of language strategies. I encourage my writers, from the moment they flash draft, to employ not only powerful action words and a variety of adjectives, but also sensory & personal details to emphasize the importance of showing not telling. Again, we spend time daily analyzing mentor text to find evidence of how other memoirists use these strategies, as well as thoughts and feelings.

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While I find that 7th graders embrace using sensory details more so that personal details, and truly “get” how to write a strong lead that hooks the reader, they naturally struggle with reflective endings. They are largely able to infuse thoughts & feelings throughout their memoirs, but often hesitate to write an ending that connects to the lead or simple end the memoir in the moment neglecting to reflect the narrated experience. Again, mentor text is one of the most tangible ways to encourage the students to create reflective endings, but additionally, I find that giving them specific techniques to write endings that again “hook” the reader (just as we do with leads being either: action, internal thought, or dialogue)  Ending tips are as follows:

When writing a memoir, it is important to make the end as memorable as the beginning. The stories should not change, because they are from your real life, but there are many ways you can write the end of your memoir.

1. Give your reader a feeling that you grew or changed because of the memoir moment. Perhaps you are writing about your visit to a soup kitchen to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.  Show how the visit impacted you in some meaningful way.  REFLECT on the experience.

2. Write the end of a landmark or “watermark” moment by showing your reader how you emerged from the situation. If you write about a bike accident when you were not wearing your helmet, show the reader how you recovered and what you learned.

3. Begin and end the memoir with a theme that runs throughout the entire story. If your story begins with the theme of getting ice cream, and has the theme of ice cream throughout, then you should end your memoir with the same recurring theme.

Overall, the 7th grade memoirist is capable of being simultaneously expressive and reflective.  We need only to offer them an abundance of opportunities to practice being so.

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