Making a Memoir Lesson Memorable

Memoir lessons can give students a format for writing about their experiences, and a way to tap into their inner author.

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While it’s easy to talk about yourself, and your plans, it’s not always so easy to write your thoughts and experiences down on paper. You have to think of something you’d like to write about, and then map out how you’d like to tell this story. With this in mind, it might be a good idea to use memoir lessons that give your students some creative ways to write about their own experiences.

If what you want is an account of important events in their lives, then you could have students make a list of possibilities. Have they been on an African safari, taken a boat trip to a secluded island, or gotten a special award? If they don’t have anything incredible to write about, that’s okay. They can write about something that was important to them. It doesn’t matter what it was.  Maybe it was the first time they went to the beach, or on a trip to their grandma’s house in Virginia.

Next, you need to decide how this idea can translate into a memoir. If all you want is a short entry, then one experience will be enough. If not, you need to give students examples of some memoirs, and how they were organized.  President Barack Obama wrote a great memoir about his childhood called “Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”.  Famous explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, wrote about their experiences, and could be used as examples of the technique. A first person article in a newspaper or magazine about a particular event or experience could also serve as a good example. The lessons below are examples of some of the best lessons I found.

Elementary:

When I Was Young in Brooklyn: This lesson introduces students to two different authors of memoirs, Patricia Polacco, and Cynthia Rylant. Students are asked to compare the two authors and model their works on these examples. I thought this lesson was great because it gave students original examples to examine, and emulate. I’m sure students will come up with creative results.

Trip Travel Log: This lesson has students write a travel log about a family trip. Instead of having the students focus on daily activities, the lesson asks students to behave like explorers. They include geographical information, such as a description of rivers, and mountain ranges. I particularly liked the fact that students were encouraged to bring back samples, such as a rock from a beach, or pressed flowers from a hillside.

Elementary/Secondary:
The Exploration of the Writer, His Louisiana History and the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines: This lesson gives students an example of a memoir about the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Even though it’s fictional, it is a retelling of true events. I liked this lesson because it gives students an introduction to learning about slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.

Secondary:
I Had a Hero: This lesson has students read memoirs written by a Peace Corp worker living in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 1980’s.  The memoir is written about a friendship with a village chief.  This is a great reason to learn about Africa, and the culture of the people. It comes with excellent resources, such as maps, and historical information.

A Picture Says a Thousand Words: This lesson introduces students to the idea of a narrative essay. It asks students to use a photograph to jump start their essay writing. I liked the fact that it came with worksheets for brainstorming ideas, fleshing out their story, and peer evaluation.