Using Memoirs to Open Doors to Research

Interesting memoirs can be a springboard into some very enjoyable research assignments.

By Alicia Johnson


Computer Lab

I begin each year with a media unit to introduce students to the power of words. They love looking at ads, analyzing them, and creating one of their own. Following our media unit, we do a autobiography/biography unit. My eighth graders take their writing SOL (Standards of Learning) test in March, so they need to begin writing right away. The best way to encourage my students to begin writing is to have them write about themselves!

We begin by reading the autobiographical writings of others. This is enjoyable for my students because they love to read true stories. In the course of studying autobiographies, we discuss memoir writing. One of my favorite memoirs is "My Dog Skip" by Willie Morris. It includes many elements that my eight grade students enjoy. It takes place during the World War II era. Willie is a young boy who is struggling with shyness, popularity issues, bullies and young love. He receives an adorable puppy one year for his birthday. He names the little terrier "Skip" and they develop a bond that many people only dream about.

We begin studying the memoir by reading excerpts that highlight Morris' descriptive language. We talk a lot about memories and whether or not they can be trusted. We look at Willie's experiences and begin class discussions about similar experiences we have had. We can all relate to Willie's shyness and his first crush. I let students watch the rest of the memoir in movie form and they LOVE it.  After more discussion about the memoir, we head to the computer lab.

In the lab, students are told they are going to work on a research project to present to the class. Students are given the opportunity to choose from the following topics that directly relate to the topics that were discussed in "My Dog Skip":

1. An aspect of WWII, such as the weapons used or a famous battle.

2. The music of the WWII era.

3. War pups - how dogs are used in the military or in other types of professions.

4. The sickness known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and its effects on soldiers.

5. Popular American athletes during the WWII era.

6.  Letters from a soldier - report to the class about the life of a soldier in WWII in the form of letters home.

The students get to pick their subject matter based on their preferences. They must use three references and at least one needs to be in book form. They must present their report to the class. We spend several days in the lab, but I have never heard complaints. Students are usually excited and have the chance to see some wonderful presentations. 

I have discovered that students love choice, and I can accomplish my teaching goals better with students who love what they are researching. I have included some links below to lessons that focus on the topic of memoirs. I hope you will be able to use them and your teaching skills to enlighten your students and encourage them to become excited learners.

Memoir Lessons:

Living Memoirs  

In this lesson students engage in a literary study of the genre of memoirs. They take ownership of their own learning by working with a small group of their peers in reading and discussing a memoir. They also work to craft their own memoir.


This lesson introduces students to the genre of memoir through close readings of two popular narratives. Students engage in a series of reading and writing activities which familiarize them with narrative structure, character development, and the similarities and differences between memoir and fiction.

Truth Be Told

In this lesson, students write a short memoir about a recent, significant shared event that affected their school or community. They then compare their recollections and present evidence that supports their version of the events.


English Guide

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Alicia Johnson