Notice & Note and Memoir: When Reading Workshop Meets Writing Workshop

We were in the midst of a lively mentor text analysis of James Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay” for our just-launched memoir unit.  I was thrilled to see my sixth graders making note of the way in which Howe had woven in various characteristics of memoir (the mini-lesson of the day!), but less than thrilled to see that one of them was twirling around his bookmark and gazing at it in what appeared to be a distracted sort of way.  Just as I was about to say something, Colin looked up at me  thoughtfully, waved his bookmark, and said: “That was an ‘Ah-ha Moment’, right? At the end there, when Howe said, ‘I will decide for myself?’”

The bookmark in question was this one:

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which I had created to anchor our Notice & Note (Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Heinemann) thinking during our class read aloud of Priscilla Cumming’s Red Kayak.  The room grew quiet as Colin explained his thinking.  And then pandemonium broke broke out.  It was as though the proverbial lightbulb had been suddenly switched on, and suddenly there was light…and clarity about what exactly constituted memoir and differentiated it as a genre from personal narrative.

Among their excited chatter, I could hear many of the now- familiar- to- us signposts.  So, we opened up a Google doc and charted this thinking in order to see if some of what we had learned in Reading Workshop  could now be put to use in Writing Workshop. This is what we noted:

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Then we compared “Everything Will Be Okay” with our first mentor text, Mario Cuomo’s “The Blue Spruce” , to see if our theory about Notice & Note signposts (i.e. that some of the signposts were, actually, characteristic of memoir) held true. We decided that:

  • Memory Moments give you a bit of the writer’s history so that you “get” the problems and conflicts he/she faced.
  • Contrasts & Contradictions showed up when the narrator was beginning to realize something important, this is where the “turn” in the memoir takes place
  • Again & Again words or phrases definitely point to the “big idea” or the lesson learned.  In the Cuomo memoir, it was the word “dream”, and in Howe’s it was the phrase “everything will be okay”.
  • Ah-ha Moments tend to show up at the end of the memoir, sometimes right after the Contrasts & Contradictions Moment.  This is the reflective part – the writer has figured out something.

My students had theories about how other signposts could show up, too:

  • The writer may need a Words of the Wiser to help him/her come to a realization or have insight about something.
  • Or, the character might gain insight through Tough Questions that he poses to himself.  For example, James Howe could have asked himself “Is this the kind of man I want to be?” and through the process of coming to terms with this question he may have arrived at his realization: “I will decide for myself what kind of boy I am, what kind of man I will become”.

This was exciting work for us.  There are, of course, so many connections between the work we do as readers and the work that writing demands.  Still, it is rather wonderful to come to the realization that we have added  the Notice &  Note signposts to our writing toolkit.  I imagine that we will be reaching in for these as we begin our flash drafts next week and continue on to revising and publishing our memoirs.

When reading workshop meets writing workshop, it is a very good thing!

Have you used the Notice &  Note signposts in your memoir units? If so, please share what you have learned with us!