I asked a teacher if she had any preferences for an upcoming unit in 4th grade. She suggested memoir.


What I know about memoir is that it’s mentioned a lot for ‘bestseller’ books, book club books, and suggested adult reading lists. But the books always sound sad and dull to me.  I haven’t been a very adventurous reader lately.

I had to go and do some research to figure out what memoir was before I could even think about teaching it to fourth graders. And now that we’re done the unit, I cannot WAIT to teach it again next year with some refinements. The students and I had such a good time exploring the genre.

Like any good librarian who doesn’t know what to teach, I conducted a Google search. I found several great ideas for teaching memoir and pulled lessons from several different sources into my mini unit of 3 weeks.

Week 1: What is Memoir?
Inspiration: Memoirs about Photgraphs at Writing Fix
Resources: List of books by Nancy Keane

I collected as many memoir picture books as I could identify to pass on a set to classroom teachers and leave enough in the library for a display.

With students, I made sure they knew the simple definition of memoir: narrative nonfiction. We talked about how these two terms are almost at odds with each other. Narrative is a story with fiction characteristics. Nonfiction is true information. We compared memoir to biography and talked about how a memoir is one thread pulled from that biography and woven into it’s own story to stand on its own.

I read aloud Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression by Kate Lied. It’s very short and a great example of a memory from the family turned into a story to share.

We watched the video of Jamey Johnson performing In Color.

After watching the video I displayed the lyrics for students to read. I used them to further cement the definition of memoir. I made connections between the song and Potato because of the Great Depression theme. The song does have the word “hell” in it and I got a few hands at mouths and looks of “the teacher just said a curse word!” It is a very appropriate use in this song.

Finally I book-talked a few books from my pile that I thought students might want to check out.

Week 2: Shortcut by Donald Crews
Inspiration: Memoir Reading/Writing Workshop by Dr. Beth Frye
Other Resources:
Grade 3 Genre Study of Memoir by St. Paul’s Public Schools
Memoir: The Stuff of our Lives by Barbara Peardon

This is the part of the lesson I would adapt. I loved using Shortcut in an analysis lesson, but I think I might choose a different workpage next time. I used the framework from page three of the Memoir Reading/Writing Workshop. Of course, maybe I just didn’t lead the lesson to my satisfaction. As I found more resources after teaching the unit, I think I like page 15 of the Grade 3 Genre Study from St. Paul’s just as well. If you teach several groups of students the same lesson, you might make it more interesting for you by changing up the workpage the students use in their response.

I wanted to focus on the emotional aspects of memoir and how it is different than just a recitation of facts. Shortcut is one that is short enough to use in a 20-30 minute lesson and enables the students to dig deeply to find the emotions in the story.

Week 3: When I’m Old I Will Remember
Inspiration: Childhood Artifacts Inspire a Memoir at Writing Fix

The inspiration for this one is a big jump. I wanted to have students think about their own memories, but in our fixed schedule I knew we didn’t have time to write stories. I decided to go the art-smart route instead.

I pre-cut paper to give the students a smaller canvas. And I cut ‘frames’ an inch larger. I challenged the class first to think of themselves as very old, cranky and wrinkly. Then I had them throw their older self back in time. What memories will really stick as they get older? It might be something that happens all the time and is routine or maybe the first time something happens like swimming in the ocean or riding a bike. Students used crayon and color pencil to draw their picture and then chose a frame.

I also asked students to make a chart of sensory words related to their memory: smells, textures, sights, etc. 

I was really surprised by the quality of the drawings that students were able to create in a short amount of time!

That’s Memoir in a 3-week nutshell. I think I was as excited about the content as I was about the teaching strategies. It was nice to be able to tackle a topic from three different angles rather than as three steps in the same process.

April 20, 2012
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