#Celebratelu: Celebrating sixth graders and memoir

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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I have a confession to make, ever since I first read Katherine Bomer’s brilliant how-to-teach-memoir book Writing a Life , I’ve borrowed her line about why to teach memoir when I introduce the genre to my sixth graders: “…people also write so that they can know what they think and feel about their lives, and that is what I want to teach you how to do in these next few weeks.”  Because, my kids are at that stage when they are beginning to think and feel deeply, they want insight into their world and into themselves, and they absolutely sit up a little straighter at the thought of being able to write about these ideas in a way that honors their memories and the people they see themselves becoming.

We came to the end of our unit on writing memoir on Friday with a writing celebration – four weeks of discovering what memoir sounds like and feels like, and what sifting through memories to find ways to make them sing through our writing can gift us: lovely memoir gems.

My kids wrote about friends lost and found, about their grandparents and what they learned in small moments found in their company on ordinary days, and lessons learned at practice, on the playground, and in the school cafeteria.

I love this unit. I love hearing my students practice the habit and language of reflection, I love the realizations they make along the way about who they are and where they are from and who they want to be.  Reaching for Katherine Bomer’s inimitable words again:

The reasons to read and write memoir are as enormous as the world, as ancient as history, as crucial as human life. And they are also as seemingly small as to give one person, reading one story, the hope to keep living.

I think about this experience as I remember our Friday celebration.  Over the last four weeks, we learned to read and write memoir and I celebrate that.

#Celebratelu: Celebrating the work of launching memoir

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

I saw this Tweet this morning, which made me sit up and take notice, because it came from my wise friend Katie Muhtaris and it mentioned the also wise Colleen Cruz:

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Teaching eleven and twelve year olds who often come to me feeling that they are writing about nothing, I have sat through more writing conferences than I can remember helping my kids find their something.  So, yes, our kids need us to believe that they have something to say, and we need to believe (i.e. deep down in our hearts, not just pretending to pay lip service to the very idea) that they have it in them to say it.

Believing, of course, is only one part of all that goes into teaching children how to reach into their hearts and souls to find that something.  Katie’s Tweet made me think about all the groundwork my kids and I laid for writing memoir this past week.  Before I describe any of that work, however, I want to be absolutely up front that everything below has been cobbled together from wise books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended over the past twenty years (Katherine Bomer! Ralph Fletcher! Nancie Atwell! Linda Reif!) and collected in my writing workshop handbook.  I owe everything about the work I do in my classroom to folks much smarter than me…and to my students from whom I learn every day how to transform theory into practice.

First, we talked about how personal narrative differs from memoir:


We spent a long time talking about the difficulties some have had writing memoir in elementary school, and acknowledged how hard it sometimes is to look at the small moments in their lives for whatever it is that their teachers have deemed “memoir worthy”.  Most of my kiddos felt that “memoir worthy” moments to write about were just something dreamed up by teachers with which to torment them (which brought to mind Billy Collins’ lines about what is done to poetry – “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”).

Next, we moved onto a minilesson about the source of memoir ideas for writers:


And then we examined a list of possible places to venture for memoir “seeds”:

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Every day, after our mini lessons and mentor text studies, we reached into this idea bank to story tell and then quick write.  Some of these forays just might become the writing pieces that my kiddos will choose to stretch out and develop next week, but the purpose of this was simply to think about small moments through the lens of the above “big ideas” and try one’s hand at writing in a “memoirish” (their word!) way.

That led us to the real heart of our memoir study – reading powerful examples of memoir writing and deconstructing each piece for those elements most common to memoir: how the author uses language to convey meaning/how we learn about the memoirist and those important to her or him in this moment/the role of setting/the use of time to lend power and meaning/the “so what?” – the author’s purpose for remembering and writing this experience.  I have always opened with James Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay”  because it is, quite frankly, the most compelling text with which to begin – it’s a story that somehow always leads my students to an “ah ha moment” of their very own, one that never fails to answer their nagging questions about “what the heck is the difference between personal narrative and memoir anyway???”. With “Everything Will Be Okay” there is immediate clarity.

We read and take it apart collectively, with prompting and noticing by me all along the way.  This messy, in the moment work with my morning and afternoon writing workshops:


coalesce into neater, more easily readable (and therefore more referred to) charts like these (our  other text for this type of work is  “All Ball” by Mary Pope Osborne):



Then we turned to Ralph Fletcher’s “The Last Kiss” (from his Marshfield Field Dreams ), and my kiddos did all this so-smart deconstructing by themselves:

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Every day, we reached into our “memoir idea bank” for storytelling and quick writing after we’d worked with these mentor texts; reading them, talking about them, and taking them apart to analyze the craft with which they were put together helped understand memoir better and helped our quick writing become a bit more focused…a bit more “memoirish”.

By Friday, our working bulletin board was ready for next week, when my kiddos will begin drafting their memoirs and deciding what they want to say.

And that is cause for this sixth grade teacher to celebrate!


Celebrate This Week: Memoirs!

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Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because, we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get!

We celebrated our memoirs in the days before Winter Break with treats, smiles, laughter, and words of sympathy. As always, I was moved by my students’ willingness to be open and honest with themselves, their lives, and with their classmates.

Everything I know about teaching memoir I learned from Katherine Bomer’s book, Writing A Life.  Year after year, I return to Katherine’s wisdom, and feel reinvigorated and inspired to teach a genre that causes my kids to groan when I first launch our unit: Again?! We spent SO long on this last year!  Why?!  But, thanks in large part to what I learned through reading and re-reading Writing A Life, my students’ reluctance soon gives way to something else – a willingness to give the genre another shot…their best shot.

I think we as teachers often create ‘lesson boxes’ for our students by confining the purpose of memoir to “write about a time you learned about lesson”.  Memoir is so much more!  Here’s  Katherine Bomer’s vision, instead:

Memoir provides a means to define the “I” the way I want to…For young people, the process of memoir writing can be a way not only to discover who they are but also to learn how to reflect – to learn that one can place an image, a remembered conversation, or an event under a microscope, study it, and have things to say about it.  In the act of scrutinizing, they might also discover that memory is a reconstruction of an event…Children may also come to feel that they could write a hundred memoirs and each time remember or reconstruct a new and different self, each time with a different turning point in their life or different revelations about the same turning point.  This fluid nature of memory may frustrate the beginning memoirist, but what freedom we have not to be trapped inside one way of being!

We went in quest of revelations and reconstructions in our memoir unit, and put aside the issue of “lesson learned”.  Once again, my kids came through, even though it was not easy.  Every conference seemed to center around how to shift the lens, how to reflect in a new way.  Bit by bit, we got there, from our first drafts:

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to our revisions:

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which were also guided by Katherine Bomer’s liberating advice:

When you revise memoir, you  become the author of your life.  How dare you change the sequence, the names, the dialogue, the true facts of your life? Well, you do dare because you are revising to make your life mean what you want it to mean.

Finally, we celebrated and complimented each other on our efforts:


So, a week late, I celebrate memoir and what my kids were able to rediscover about themselves in writing theirs…once again.