The Things That Matter: Writing Memoir

The Things That Matter: Writing Memoir

A few Saturdays ago,we were lucky enough to attend the Oxford Writing Spree, a day conference organised by teacher Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) in his own primary school, Larkrise, on the outskirts of the town. We were in the company of some excellent speakers and a large group of teachers, all interested in thinking and talking about children writing at home and in school.

We were there to run a workshop in which we would ask teachers to write a short memoir of an experience from their own lives. We had found in our Year 5 class that personal memoir was a much enjoyed and successful writing project, and we had decided to give participants the same kind of teaching and resources we had used with our pupils. We described techniques for the generation of an idea and how to find the ‘pebble moment’ (the one metaphorical pebble on the whole beach which would be the specific intense focus for the piece), talked about planning and drafting, and offered support in the form of conferencing as the teachers wrote. At the outset we expressed the hope that everyone would gain a little, both personally and professionally, from the writing experience. It has to be said that there was a little noticeable consternation at the prospect of putting something on the blank page, but most of the writers were happy to work in pairs talking over possible ideas and obviously gained confidence this way. During conferencing, one pair said rather plaintively that they both led very boring lives and so could think of no subject for writing. A little later, however, one of them had settled on a memory which she described as ‘banal’ – but had realised, as she said, that ‘banal is fine!’ In fact, her memoir of a first sleepover at a friend’s was one that reflected on the feelings of a child encountering for the first time an unfamiliar domestic routine, and learning that people do things differently –  an important life-lesson.

One teacher, Gemma (@MissBPrimary), wrote alone and intently for thirty minutes. She was persuaded at the end of the session to share her writing, and with her permission we include her piece here:

Four words.
Who knew that four words could prompt an existential crisis in a 7-year old? Who knew that a 7-year old could even have an existential crisis?
I do.
I did.
“You’re a gypsy Gemma”
Reflecting now, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels with a similar set of 4 words which have changed the lives and journeys of countless children around the world.
“You’re a wizard Harry.”
Just as those words prompted a journey into the magical unknown for Harry himself, and for the endless army of children whose lives have been transformed by the words of J.K.Rowling; mine was transformed, reshaped and turned upside down by those very similar set of words, spoken by my dad.
If he had been able to read, one could be forgiven for believing that he had been inspired by Rowling’s words too, but in this instance, it appears only to be a happy accident.
From the moment I walked into a classroom for the first time, I knew that things in my life were about to change. Brought up outside with no walls to confine me, this room, full of garlands and banners and words and numbers and people and furniture was far from what I was used to and the apple tree painted clumsily on the wall looked very different from the ones in the orchard where I had spent my summer. Those trees had been covered in hundreds of leaves, each one a slightly different shade of green and all of them hiding what seemed like hundreds of apples that would thud down onto the rooves of the caravans below if only you shook the branches hard enough. This tree was too straight, the apples too round and the leaves one big cloud-like mass of a single tone of green. But that is not to say that I did not like that classroom. I did.
In fact, I loved it: the things to discover, the stories to hear and the children to play with, children who spoke a language which sounded strange to me – somehow familiar yet somehow so different to the words I heard at home. I could not wait to enter that room each morning and keep on discovering this strange, new world of walls and windows and words and colours.
Friends. I had friends. Friends from outside of the orchard walls and from beyond the country lane on which we were staying. As time wore on, their cadence felt less strange and their language less foreign. I began to share their ideas, understand their questions and use their words.
“Rain” was my favourite word. I would mumble it under my breath over and over again as I watched water droplets race down the caravan windows. I loved the way it sounded in my mouth, its shortness and the way it ended with an ‘n’ sound, not an ‘ee’ sound like the word I had always used to describe the water which fell from the sky – ‘parni.’
“Ark at that parni, God’s a drumming,” my grandmother would remark as she stoked the fire, whilst in my head, I was repeating the new ditty I had learnt at school. ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…’ silent to the world outside and almost feeling mischievous for using a word that was not our own. But ‘rain’ sounded more definite, more final, like the water itself as it dropped from the bottom of the window and was swallowed by the earth below.
I loved their words; strange and dissonant sounding and much less lilting than the cadence I was used to.
It wasn’t long before I learnt another one.
“Gypsy.”
I didn’t quite know what it meant but it knew it was a bad thing to be. If someone took your crayon you called them a gypsy. If they pushed in front in the line. If they were mean or if you really wanted them to know you did not like them, then this was the word to use. I certainly did not want to be one. It meant you were horrible, dirty and mean; someone to keep away from. I never really had any enemies in class but I stored up the word in my arsenal just in case I ever did.
“Defend yourself if you need t’,” my Dad had always said, “don’t let no one mess ya round.”
So, when my older brother, only a few weeks later, gave me much more than a light nudge that ended with me face down in the mud, my dungarees torn and my knee cut open by a stone, I had the perfect insult up my, now ringing wet, sleeve.
“You stupid gypsy,” I sneered, “what’cha do that for?”
At that very second, my dad, who had been bent over the open bonnet of his latest project, stood up straight and looked me straight in the eye, with a strange look I had never seen from him before; somewhere between shock, confusion and disgust. It was during the following conversation, with him lent on the bonnet of the car and me sat on the steps to our caravan, in which he uttered those four words which would change my life and make me question everything. Maybe I was not like the other children in my class after all. Maybe I would never be like them. I was the thing they were so afraid of, so hateful towards, so cruel about and I never even knew. Did they know? What if they found out?
I was a gypsy.
But I still had no clue what that really meant.
It does seems important to note here, that whilst working that out would completely change my life and the way I view the world, it never did lead me to Hogwarts…

 

This memoir hardly needs any comment. It speaks for itself as a very accomplished piece of writing in which the feelings still seem raw. The audience was silent after the reading, then there was spontaneous applause. Gemma said she didn’t write regularly, but that she would like to and probably would from now on. She wrote to us a few weeks later to say that she had posted her piece on Twitter and had a great response. She also mentioned that her class had started to write memoir and told us about one boy in particular:

‘He came to me at the start of last academic year (start of Y3) as aY1 emerging reader and working towards Early Learning goals in writing. Now he is a fluent reader and writer, secure Y4. He just flew – not even sure what made the change so dramatic.  He chose to write about the time he felt the happiest, which was when he stood in front of the class last Nov.and read ‘In Flanders Fields’ perfectly. None of his friends knew he could now read as we had been working together before school every day and he was too nervous to read aloud. It was the most amazing piece of writing! One of the others has written about a particularly great meal at Wetherspoons, which I also love! The things that matter!’

 

And that’s the point. It’s the things that matter, whatever they may be, that fuel the writing and not just for memoir either but for all kinds of texts…  

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Children Writing Memoir : A Great Literacy Topic.

As you may have read here, this half term we focused on the teaching of memoir.

In our first week we discussed the genre using our genre-booklets and this created a buzz for the rest of the project. Focusing on the genre and why people write memoir allowed the generating of ideas to happen fairly quickly.

We used around three techniques for generating memoir ideas. These included:

  1. Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
  2. Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
  3. Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.This includes: What makes me happy, angry, scared or upsetlists.

The children are well aware of these techniques which published authors often use to generate original writing ideas.

Here are some of the topics the children chose to write about:

  • Meeting a new pet for the first time,
  • Moments from holidays,
  • The birth of siblings,
  • Learning to do something new for the first time,
  • The death of a loved one – including pets,
  • Family separations,
  • Meeting distant relatives for the first time,
  • Special times spent with family,
  • Meeting a hero,
  • Taking part in sporting competitions,
  • Injuries!

Because we asked children to focus on just a small moment in time – what we call a ‘pebble moment’ (taken from Nancie Atwell’s book In The Middle) the drafting of these pieces came very quickly for the children. We suspect that this was also due to the fact that the children were writing on a topic in which they felt an expert. 

Our writing-study lessons were a real success. We focused on how the children can use narrative devices to improve their memoirs. During the revision stage, we again used the genre-booklets and the children looked for opportunities to explore in more detail the following:

  • Strong openings,
  • Setting description,
  • Character development,
  • Poetic and figurative language to describe,
  • Interesting endings which carry a message for the reader.

Again, we believe the children were able to take on this kind of linguistic burden due to the fact they were writing about a topic they were sure of. They could see where, when and how to use these devices in their pieces to good effect.

Our functional-grammar study was based on the use of time-openers and paragraphing as a means to move time forward and expanded-noun phrases to provide additional details for the reader.

Below, we are pleased to share a variety of different memoirs from across the year group. These were produce by children in year 5 (9-10 years old).

If you have liked what you have read here and would like to read more about our approach to writing which we call ‘Real-Word Literacy’, you can follow the link here. If you’d like to view our Genre-Booklets, you can follow this link.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.

The Sea Of Writing Ideas

Writing ideas.

When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page. To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain. Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves. Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter. 

Once you gain control of the sea – the droplets make out your idea.

– Year 5 Child.

Research clearly shows that if children get to choose their topics, this strongly influences their enjoyment of writing and therefore the progress they make. Children may need initially to generate a whole raft of topics and ideas that they feel they could write about.

So, as part of our writing pedagogy Real-World Literacy, at the beginning of the year, we have children filling in an ‘Ideas Heart’. It is also advantageous for a teacher to write down what topics children consider themselves to be an expert in. Get children to collect on paper the people, places, games, hobbies and interests they know well as well as the things they love and care about in their lives.

We believe in this concept because when children write about what they already know, they already have the information at their fingertips. This allows them to think about how to write it instead of having to concentrate on what it is they are being asked to write.

It is often the case that a teacher will use a book studied by the whole class as a stimulus for writing. We believe that such an approach can be restricting, especially if children are not motivated by the content of the book. In our view, surely, it is more logical that children be allowed to draw on their own reading of: picture books, novels and poetry from the class/school library or from home. Always bear in mind that:

what children write reflects the nature and quality of their reading,’ (CLPE, 2012) p.35.

You as teacher-writer should share your own Ideas Heart with the class. How you approach idea-generation should also be discussed during Writing Study sessions. This is discussed in a lot more detail in our Real-World Literacy document. To view this document, please go here.

If you’ve been providing your children with writing stimuli each day, then they are likely to have difficult with choice at first. This is because choosing topics is a writing skills (and all the more reason to teach it). In other words, the more you do it, the better at it the children will become. Throughout the year, we have provided Writing-Study lessons that give students new strategies for finding topics. Does that mean that the children never feel stymied when it comes to finding an idea? No. Writers do experience writers block and often this just simply requires some thinking time. Thinking and time. That’s something that we have difficultly allowing for in classrooms. However, generating an idea is still faster than having to ‘teach’ the content of a stimulus you want the children to regurgitate (Jacobson, 2010, p.32).

We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of:

  1. Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.
  2. Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
    • Roald Dahl famously came up with the idea for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by simply writing this what if… question ‘What if a crazy man ran a chocolate factory?
  3. Generating ‘When I was little…’ or Imagine a day when…’ statements
  4. What makes me happy, angry, scared or upsetlists
  5. Donald Murray said ‘problems make good subjects.’ What itch needs scratching list – a list of issues that need solving, correcting, explaining or exploring. Topics that make you curious, furious or confused.
  6. Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
  7. Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
  8. Create a ‘Where Poetry Hides’ list. This is where children run around their house looking for objects they could write about. (see our Poetry genre-booklet).
  9. Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read. To aid them we teach them to note the theme, setting and characters from two different books they have enjoyed, and look to create something new from that.
    • Writing fan fiction using something from the book they are reading/have read.
    • Writing inspired by poems – taking a poem they like from the class-book-stock and using it to write their own poem.
  10. Deciding for themselves to use the topics from our foundation subjects in any way they wish including creating genre-hybrids.

We would also add that you can read aloud books and poems about everyday and universal experiences and that this will often spark in children their own idea for writing. We call this ‘universal theme to specific topic’.

Use of these strategies facilitates children’s choice of writing topic. No longer do you have to fear that some children will have nothing to write about.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

If you like the sound of this type of teaching, you can read our document Real-World Literacy by click here. 

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

For research conducted on the theme of ‘topic choice’, please see the references below:

    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
    • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School London: Routledge
    • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19.
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
    • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
    • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
    • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
    • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]

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.

chattri3

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.

**

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.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**