A Focus on Memoir: Observing Young Writers


I enjoy teaching ninth graders. They have a moldability many older students sometimes lack. Each year I have taught ninth or tenth graders, my appreciation grows when observing how they take up challenging tasks. While they may be resistant, they are still relatively open to taking up the work. I think this is in part due to their inexperience. They are not sure what is and what is not worth their time. This is not to say I do not get plenty of resistance. I do; I do. I, like all teachers, have reluctant learners; learners who refuse to conform to streamlined education for a plethora of reasons. These students are often my favorite and most frustrating. All this to say the first challenge I have given my ninth graders this year concentrates on writing memoir. What I  have been learning watching them take up the task, while anecdotal, has interesting implications to how I will teach writing moving forward.

Here are my observations:

  1. Most of them believe they have written memoir–but they really have not. Implications? They have written about themselves–a lot–however, these personal writings does not translate to memoir. They like to tell wide, sweeping stories that trace larger chunks of their life. They work to capture a macro view of their lives. Why? I could theorize, but I will only speculate that the macro view of life is a safe view of life. Writing with a large lens is not too revealing, and the writer controls how a reader sees their growth. I think we can all agree macro writing is rarely good writing. While safe, macro personal writing is simplistic, unimaginative, and typically lack impact. And impact is what I want my students to understand. See one of my previous posts to see what I mean–here.
  2. Their audience for their “memoir” writing has always been themselves and, I suppose, the teacher. Looking past their noses is difficult for each of them. Life is often lived day-to-day for all of us, but this might be especially honest of my students. Who is the daily audience for a teenager? Her or himself. Why should a teacher expect that to be any different in a personalistic writing piece? This ties back into impact. Can a student anticipate the impact their writing might have outside of him or herself and his or her teacher? If so, then there is a chance to make memoir an empowering writing experience, and one with perceived low stakes for a student to grow as a writer. This is metacognition at its finest, which takes time, patience, and plenty of weaving the skill set necessary. I would like to see my students to see they have a powerful story to tell, and they have an audience–they have to be willing to seek it.
  3. With a lack of lived experience, my students feel they have nothing to say. My last observation is one I think many English teachers have some familiarity, which is ironic considering the majority of teens I have worked with all have strong opinions and are internally screaming to be heard! However, when the spotlight turns and shines on an individual student, I often see those voices at their most silent. To help remedy this effect, I have my students circle up with their memoir in hand–whatever stage it may be in–and ask them to pick their favorite line in their writing. To some of my students this is torture. The spotlight turns and shines on them each, but the benefits can be great. For one, every student is in the same situation, but even mores so we start to build some metacognition as I pry into the reason ‘why’ it is their favorite line and what commonalities we see in those lines. I then ask them to choose their favorite piece of feedback they have gotten from me. Going through a very similar process, students now evaluate the feedback, revisit it, and have to think about the feedback’s implications to their own writing. See this unfold is typically powerful. I also think it builds the community aspect of my classroom.

I am excited to see how these memoirs turn out. My goal is to get them to really consider who their audience is outside of our classroom and me as well as to capture a snapshot of their life–to dig into the value of that singular moment.

On a completely unrelated note, I am in the midst of my comprehensive exams. Heaven help me. The struggle is real. I also realize in the time I took to write this post I could have been working on comps. Hopefully, I will not regret this post later. More soon.

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