Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Week One

This half term we are focusing on teaching memoir. Memoir differs from what is commonly referred to as recount in a number of profound ways. Recount’s major role is often to ensure that chronological events are described within a conventional time order. However, memoir is very much in the business of storytelling.  A good memoir will have a topic which has meaning not only for you as the writer but also for your reader. This means children finding a subject which rouses emotions in them and which reaches out to their readers, creating the possibility of reflection and empathy. Memoir also affords young writers the opportunity to explore the literary qualities of stories they read through their writing about a personal experience. Memoir is a hugely rewarding genre to teach. It provides the best platform for children to feel they are experts in their topic before they begin writing, and gives them enough scope as a genre to be playful and try out many of the things they like writing best.

We had two objectives for our first week: for children to understand what the genre memoir is and what is required to create a great one, and to give children the resources and opportunity to generate their own memoir idea.  

Day 1

The children, in pairs read and discussed the first page of our Genre-Booklet memoir. I then shared with the class my own attempt at producing a memoir. We gathered in a circle, reading quietly together in pairs. Different children then read a paragraph each aloud,and I did a final reading myself.

No One’s Day But Ours.

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We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,  I thought.

Looking out the window and watching the bright sunshine reflect off my dad’s car and into my eyes, I felt a warm glow. Waving goodbye, I knew today was going to be just perfect. It was no coincidence perhaps that I could see the Chattri from that very same window. The promised land almost teasing me.  

I grabbed my backpack and met my friends by the post-box, just as we had planned. “Have you got the goodies?” I asked Joe excitedly. He assured me he had and from the rustle I could hear as we walked, I believed him with all my heart. Joe always had a way of making you feel reassured. Perhaps it was his height and frame. Joe was taller than the rest of us. He had sharp, almost white messy hair, which made him endearing and trustworthy to parents.

Looking back now, our impatience to get to the Chattri caused our ‘short-cut’ not to be so short at all. Negotiating all the fences and the barbed wire which came with them was trying. The barbed wire seemed, at times, to be like fighting against the ocean’s tide. “Maybe we should have just used the paths?” Dan suggested, sarcastically. Dan was the shortest in the group and at our age that meant something. He was also incredibly skinny and had comically thin, hairless legs. Legs that seemed to protrude from out of his shorts like twigs.

“Where would the adventure be in that?” I said in such a way that I didn’t even believe myself. We still had a way to go and it was cold and lonely in the shade of the valley. The warmth and the light shone on the Chattri – right at the top of the hill – but not on us.

When we finally got there, Joe opened his rucksack to reveal what we had all been waiting for. It was a feast to the eyes for any 11 year old boy. It was all the treasures a boy of that age could dream of: chewy strawberries and snakes by the bundle, the largest cola bottles you could get – and full sugar too! Not to mention what felt like endless packets of Haribos. We held them in our hands and raised them up to the clear blue skies – like savages – like a sacrifice – like a victory cry.

This was it. This was freedom. We were free, free to do what we wanted to do, and what we wanted was to be together and be alone. Alone to scream and shout, to holler and play highjinks and silly-fools. We played together that day like the clock had stopped. Today was our day.

My lasting impression will always be standing at the top of that hill, ripping at a chewy-snake, stretching it away from my back teeth, eyes shut, head back, hearing my friends rolling down the hill into the thick and welcoming grass and feeling king. King of my world, with my comrades there to support me. Soaking up the day, we didn’t need or want for anyone or anything – least of all our parents.

“We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,” I whispered into the silk of that afternoon breeze. I wonder where that afternoon breeze is now?

By LiteracyForPleasure


What followed was quite a lengthy and full discussion which included talking about the opening, the quality of the description, linking the characters of Joe and Dan to their physical descriptions (Joe’s hair almost a metaphor or a metonym). Children agreed that it was not a remarkable topic in itself that I had chosen, but that I had made it special and significant through description and feeling, and through making it like a story.
We have emphasised this point every day, and referred to how Michael Rosen does it in his prose poems which we regularly enjoy.

Children found instances of time references, simile and metaphor, repetition, poetic language, exaggeration. We reminded them constantly that they could use all these devices (‘tricks’) in their writing. We also emphasised the need to have one pebble to focus on. The concept of having one pebble is that children will often choose general topics when generating writing ideas, such as When I went to the football, When I went to Spain on holiday, or Our school trip to PGL. What we have had to teach children is that these topics contain almost a beach full of pebbles which they could write about. Each pebble is an idea for a piece of writing. They need to find one pebble – or one idea – from their topic ‘beach’. This has not always been easy but by the end of the week it was a hugely rewarding pursuit.

 

Day 2

I read the long version of Roald Dahl’s memoir – The Great Mouse Plot. Children discussed the description of Mrs Pratchett, found the simile, and the ‘pebble’ in this description i.e. her fingernails. I reminded them that Roald Dahl probably wrote this 30 years after the event, so how did he remember what everyone said? We told children that they can make up speech when they write, and that they can depart from the exact truth of the events, that it can be quite enjoyable to use hyperbole(exaggeration) in your memories and that in fact we do this all the time!

We then moved on to Anne Frank’s diary entry. This was probably the least successful of the memoir examples. I felt it was necessary to talk about the context in order for children to fully appreciate the writing. We looked at how she conveys anxiety, and located the parts that made us feel sad. (It is written in quite, a literary way, which isn’t always the case with diaries. I’ve later discovered that she had revised much of it, with a view to publication.)

 

Day 3

As part of our Genre-Book we included a bad memoir example. Children immediately spotted the lack of description, character development, pebble, story, as well as unexplained references. This confirmed that they have really internalised the essential ingredients of a good memoir. It was an enjoyable lesson to hear them be so critically engaged on a text.  

Some children even began to revise it themselves, writing on the typed copy; all chose to add description. Maybe in the future we could find a way of letting them revise the whole thing, to include events in time order, elements of a story, and a pebble…

After this we checked in with some on their own memoir ideas, and we worried that several had not yet thought of anything, or were coming up with ideas which had no depth at all, or were too general. We decided to put them on the spot the next day, and have everyone share their ideas with the whole class.

 

Day 4

Right at the start of the lesson, children were asked to focus on something with a strong feeling e.g. the happiest or saddest moments of their lives. Hearing other people’s ideas acted as a spark for some. Some changed their topic for a stronger one. Sometimes the class voted if one child couldn’t decide between two ideas. We rejected some ideas. Children had to identify the pebble for their writing. Once I modelled how I went from a general idea to having a one pebble moment it all of a sudden clicked. I discussed how in my writing notebook I had written that I want to write about my childhood holiday with my grandad in Spain, and that the pebble moment I will ‘zoom in on’ will be my grandfather teaching me how to float in the pool on my back, us looking like a couple of otters floating in the pool. I then explained that instead of writing about the PGL trip I could write about how myself and Mr. Green had a secret midnight snack. We ended up feeling far more confident about their topic choice, and so did they. This discussion seemed to turn things around significantly. We asked children to straightaway jot down the revised idea and what the pebble was going to be. There was a real buzz in the classroom and many children wanted the opportunity to use their free-writing time to write about other memoir ideas they were having.

 

In Conclusion

At the end of a week children know that to write a quality memoir they need to:

choose a topic which may be ‘everyday’ or unremarkable in itself, but which can be made memorable both for themselves and the reader by a genuine emotional investment in it; focus on one pebble, and use description, poetic language, feelings, good openings and endings, devices like repetition and a little exaggeration. They are now using literary terminology naturally in their discussions, and are reading the memoir examples like writers.
The memoir examples have been successful. Our own memoir examples were the best, because we conveyed them with enthusiasm and enjoyment well, and because we were able to talk to the children about the topic, how we came to write it, and our writing process. Children were really engaged to know and learn from this. We have the idea of collecting the best memoirs written by the children in our class, and using them as examples next year.

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This is part of our Real-Word Literacy approach to writing. If you’d like to find out more about how this approach works, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in knowing more about our Genre-Booklets you can follow the link here.

Changing DEAR For The Better: Reflecting On This Term’s Reading.

This is a grass-roots account of how, in one term, two teachers have taken one class’s reading in school beyond the confines of DEAR and have transformed it into a central, natural and wholly pleasurable part of the life of a classroom.

Why We Felt The Need For Change?

As the new teachers of this class wanting to establish a ‘reading classroom’, we felt we needed to find more time in the school day for private reading than is allowed by the usual daily fifteen to twenty minutes for DEAR. Thus, when children in our class arrive in the morning, they are not now immediately faced with a ‘starter’ activity, but begin the day in a quiet, humane, stress-free way with fifteen minutes of personal reading of a book they are enjoying. They have a second, thirty-minute session of reading (including time for browsing) at the beginning of every afternoon. They know, too, that when they have finished their set tasks, they can either ‘free-write’ or continue reading. They do both, happily, in equal measure. This means each child is reading a minimum of 3 hours and 45 minutes a week. For children that do their 30 minutes of home reading, this equates to over 7 hours of reading a week! 

Dispensing With ‘Title – Page Number’ Replaced With ‘Book-Letters’.

We think it is important and totally justifiable to set aside this amount of time for reading in school because, in our experience, you cannot assume that all children are reading much at home, given the legitimate pressures of outside activities and the attractions of technology. We have, however, devised ways of monitoring  the extent of their home reading. We have dispensed with the daily ‘title and page number’ entry in their home-school reading record book, which was often a pointless exercise; usually filled in the same rushed handwriting and pen colour the morning it was due in! Now, over the weekend, children write a short ‘book-letter’ addressed to us in their reading record book, to which we write a brief reply.

Tracking Reading

To keep track of reading, we spend ten minutes a couple of times a week during DEAR time collecting this information from each child and putting it on a spread-sheet. We also ask each child to make a quick comment on how the reading is going and to rate any book they’ve read or abandoned out of 10. Children are also allowed to give a book a STAR rating. The spread-sheet  enables us to see at a glance how much reading is going on, and gives us valuable information about the range of books chosen by each child and how they are developing personal tastes and preferences. 

spread

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE SPREADSHEET

We enter the titles of books children have abandoned (the rule being that you must read at least twenty pages before giving it up), and this alerts us to the need to support some children with book choice. We also record our own reading of children’s books on the system. 

Bringing One Book To & From School Everyday

Very early on, we made a change to the status quo. It seemed that many children were reading one book at school and one at home, which  we felt could result in lack of continuity and loss of motivation.  We asked the children to read one book at a time, taking it home every night and bringing it to school the next day. Through encouragement and reminders, the children generally do this. If they do forget to bring their book in in the morning, they know that, rather than beginning a new chapter book, they will choose from non-fiction, poetry or picture books. Our tracking system ensures that we know who has what, and the children know that they must be responsible for not mislaying books at home. To date, no books have been lost!

Creating A Genuine Class Library – Children Recommending & Donating Books!

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There was a pressing need to provide a varied collection of good-quality fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What happens in many classes in many schools is that children draw largely on the central school library, and books don’t generally feature much in classrooms. Children visit the school library on an individual basis to change books when necessary. All books are colour-coded, and children are allocated a colour on the basis of a reading test. We felt we needed a different kind of organisation.

We now have our own class library, which is one of the focal points in the classroom. It is stocked with books from our our own personal collections, the school library, the local community library, books loaned or donated by the children themselves (this has taken off in a big way), and good-quality texts which we purchase from second-hand shops.

We both like children’s books,and try to keep ourselves informed for the purposes of stocking the class library through publishers’ catalogues, children’s recommendations, the internet, booklists compiled by, for example, CLPE. and The Federation of Children’s Bookgroups, review magazines such as Carousel, bookshops and reference books, as well as our own recollections of good reads from our childhoods.

The stock develops and changes; we ‘drip-feed’ new books at regular intervals to stimulate and maintain interest.The fiction collection is broadly organised into quick, longer and challenging reads, and children are free to sample any book without the restriction of colour-coding which seems unnecessary in a small, readily accessible library like this. Our children also learn the skills of discriminating and choosing wisely through having a free hand to browse, try out, keep, reject, try again.  

Class Librarians

We appoint two librarians every fortnight, who keep the stock tidy and make small regular book displays on any topic they like. The benefits of a class library are obvious. Books become a valued part of a small community. They are also always to hand during writing-time; to be sampled, handled, pored over, referred to and talked about.

Book Talks

Recommending, describing, discussing particular books, and talking about reading generally are becoming a natural part of our classroom. Enthusiasm is infectious. Some great conversations take place when two children are browsing together. We have regular ‘booktalk’ sessions which have quite quickly been taken over spontaneously and informally by the children, who often have the urge to tell everyone about this or that good read.

Class Reading Blog

There is also the class blog, which isn’t all about book reviews, but is often a series of peer-to-peer or teacher-peer conversations about anything of interest in the field of books and reading. Some children keep personal reading journal/notebooks, in which they might include ‘someday ‘ lists of books maybe to be read sometime in the future.  

What Next?

If there is an appetite from our readership, we will continue to let you know our progress. We would also like to hear of any recommendations from your classroom that we could incorporate into our reading pedagogy. Please let us know by commenting below.

By the way, you as the teacher don’t have to be an expert in the field, but your enthusiasm, interest and openness to learning from the children and from colleagues who may have some knowledge can be very important. We have found the following  reference books especially helpful, and a pleasure to read in themselves:

  • 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up : Julia Eccleshare(General Editor)
  • The Ultimate Book Guide (books for 8-12s): Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (Eds)
  • The Rough Guide to Children’s Books, 5-11: Nicholas Tucker
  • Tell Me: Children reading and talk: Aidan Chambers
  • Anything written by Michael Rosen on the subject of the reading classroom will be affirming.

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