Life starts with story. The story of the time Jenny snuck into her parents' whirlpool bath tub while they were out working in the yard. She did it even though she was not supposed to. She filled the large tub to the rim with steamy water and submerged herself. She was alone in the house, alone in the tub.
In her retelling of the event, she wrote about going under the water. She felt her long, blonde hair float around her. She felt it get sucked into what she thought was one of the jets of the whirlpool. She felt the tug. Then she felt the air in her lungs. She could see the bathroom window from below the water. She could hear the lawn mower and the sound of the weed wacker outside.
I've used her piece as a model before and whenever I read it aloud, students gasp. The listeners get caught up in her story. It's a scary story. She nearly drowned. The tension works in her writing too. So much so that one year, a boy broke the tension in the room by yelling out,
"You guys, she lives! She wrote the story in Mrs. Spillane's class!" Kids glanced at each other sideways, exhaled and chuckled.
Jenny wrote her piece over the course of a month. We draw. We draw. We revise. We add dialogue. We sequence and re-sequence. It's a fun writing month. When I use her piece as a model, many students choose to write about hard times they have survived or obstacles they've overcome.
When I use Lynn's piece, "The Christmas Rat" as the first model, many students choose to write funny family stories much like Lynn's. In her piece, a rat gets into the house and her parents battle it with paper bags, tennis racquets and bug spray before opening a window and shooing it out. Lynn wrote her piece the fall after I created the lesson during my time at the National Writing Project's summer institute. She wrote it before my current students were born, but it's still a great story to share.
I use a variety of student and professional mentor texts. Our first book club of the year meets around memoir. I wrote a grant one year and got six copies of each book:
Knots in My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli
An Illlustrated Life edited by Danny Gregory
Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers
King of the Mild Frontier by Cris Crutcher
Knucklehead by John Scieszka
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Such good stories. I read pieces from each of these during the first month of school. The read alouds set students up for quick writes that we can later revise and develop into longer pieces.
I love how mapping out childhood gives students plenty of ideas for writing, some terrifying like Jenny's near drowning and some funny like Lynn's.
We start the memoir writing process by drawing childhood places. In the Blueprints of a Lifetime lesson I created during the National Writing Project's summer institute, we draw blueprints of our homes. Then we generate titles, and share the title stories out loud before we write them. I use this narrative writing piece to introduce thinking vocabulary to students, so at some point during our share or read around, I pause and ask students if they are thinking about similar events from their own lives. Inevitably they are associating, so I point out the cognitive process and name it. We will use that thinking vocabulary all year (Tishman, Perkins and Jay). After doing the sequence noted below for a home, we then wrote about other places. We map a school and later we add other memorable places or spaces.
I start with story in my classroom. We read and write memoir the first month of school. It is from story that we first hear our own voices--from family stories, from stories we tell our friends and from the stories we write about our lives.
“...the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in...That is their mystery and their magic.” ― Arundhati Roy,
Perkins, David. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. NY: The Free Press, 1992.