Middle School Memoir Unit Part 1: Picking a Topic and Getting them Motivated

For the first time in quite some time, I decided to teach a unit on memoir writing.  Two years after interning at Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I was finally ready to use what I had learned.  I relied heavily on the information learned at CTL as well as Atwell’s book Lessons that Change Writers ,and I am very proud of how the unit turned out and the growth each student made as a writer in the process.  I am very excited to share my process and some of my students’ work with you.

I spent a lot of time working with my students on choosing a meaningful topic as I often find that this is one of the hardest things for a student to do.  Here are the pre-writing steps I took as well as some reflections.

  1. Brainstorming possible topics.  In Lessons that Change Writers, Atwell includes a great list of questions for memoirists to ask themselves when considering what to write about. “What are my earliest memories? What’s an incident that changed my life? What’s a time or a place I felt as if my heart were breaking?” are just a few. I chose to read each question orally and have my students bullet potential answers.  Periodically, we would stop to allow students to share responses to hopefully inspire others in the class.  As I read over questions, I added questions to my own personal list to support students who felt blocked. After reading over twenty questions, students had a giant list of potential topics to choose from and likely a lot more ideas than if I had them brainstorm from memory alone.
  2. Narrowing down topics.  After talking about Atwell’s “Rule of So What” with the students, I asked students to narrow down their list to two or three topics that they felt had a “So What” and they would also enjoy writing about.  Students then met in small groups and interviewed each other regarding their potential topics.  My students are well-practiced in working with each other in a “professional way,” and as a result, their discussions were very rich.  It’s always exciting to hear students question their peers regarding whether or not their work truly meets the guidelines of the genre.  This step did go fairly well, but in retrospect I should have spent more time really discussing the importance of having a “So What” in the student’s pieces.  Later on in the process as students began to write, it became clear that some students were finding this challenging. More time at the beginning would have likely helped students better see that the purpose of memoir writing is not just to record an event but to reflect and show the importance of it.
  3. Writing smaller. Even once the students had a topic, I noticed that many of the topics were broad, which would make it hard for them to write in a way that included thoughts and feelings.  I am a firm believe in modeling work for students for many different reasons but primarily because students often need to see how something works in action.   I think this is especially important when narrowing down a topic.  I knew that my model memoir was going to be about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but I didn’t know what part of the story I wanted to tell.  I worked with my students to discover how I could make this topic smaller.  We brainstormed all of the different elements of my grandmother’s battle (having to help her at her house, deciding to send her to the nursing home, when I first found out she had the disease, her first day in the nursing home, etc.).  We then discussed each idea in relation to my “So What” which was to show how my grandmother’s disease impacted but ultimately didn’t change our relationship.  I was able to uncover, with help from the students, that I thought the best way to do this was to talk about bringing her to the nursing home for the first time.  Students then went into their own work and, again with a partner, discussed how to narrow down their topics so that they focused on one main event that allowed them to explore their “So What?” in the best manner possible.
  4. 6-Word Memoirs: My favorite step in the pre-writing process was the most fun and one that I’ve been waiting for a long time to do.  I wanted my students to really think about why they were telling their stories and thought the 6-word memoir might be a good approach.  We examined and discussed some 6-word memoir videos on YouTube (there are many), and talked about the difference between creating a 6-word memoir vs. a 6-word motto. After I modeled some potential phrases and sentences for my own topic, I then asked my students to brainstorm some ideas that would summarize and show the importance of their memoir in just six words.  This was definitely hard for them at first, but I do think they ended up having fun with it and also believed it helped get them excited for the writing they were about to do.   Students used large post-it notes to brainstorm their ideas as seen below.

    After a good chunk of time, we placed their work all over the classroom for a gallery walk.  As the class (me included) silently examined each other’s work, they starred the phrases they loved, left comments, and asked questions. Following this peer revision technique, the writer then finalized their choice and illustrated their point using a poster, which I later videoed. 

    Although I don’t know how much this activity helped my students really understand why they were writing, I do think it helped them think about their stories in a different way. Some students eventually decided against their original topic later on, so their 6-word memoir didn’t end up matching up with their final project, but I firmly believe this activity helped get their creative juices flowing while also creating genuine enthusiasm for the unit.   Not to mention that it created a sense of community and made students a little less afraid to share something personal. I would do this again in heartbeat.

Would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on my work.  How do you start off your memoir unit?

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