Ready to teach your students how to write a memoir essay?
Here are steps to help you teach effectively and your students to produce a meaningful piece of writing.
Let’s dive in!
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What is a memoir essay?
A memoir is a personal essay that explores an event that a person has experienced. It’s different from a personal narrative in that the writer of a memoir usually reflects on the event and what it means.
So rather than your students simply telling a story of about something that happened to them (personal narrative), they tell the story and reflect on its meaning (memoir).
What if your students aren’t sure they have a story?
I love this quote from Madeleine Albright:
“EVERYONE WHO CAN should write a memoir, whether for publication or just to deposit in a drawer or beam to the cloud. There is drama in every life. Fame is irrelevant to one’s worth and can sometimes be an obstacle to an appropriate appreciation of others. Further, the effort to reflect on our opportunities and choices is, for all of us, a challenge worth attempting.”
― Madeleine K. Albright, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir
Before asking students to write or even think about writing, build their confidence. They have a story to share!
1. Provide mentor texts
Before your students even start writing, be sure they understand what a memoir is. Provide examples to your students. A good way to start class is to simply read a few pages from a memoir.
Don’t forget to look into picture books as a source for mentor texts. These can provide a wonderful overview to the genre.
You can even use memoirs as the text for literature circles or book clubs. This is extremely helpful when you start asking students to add dialogue or description to their writing. They can refer to the mentor text to see examples they can mirror.
2. Create an anchor chart
As you share mentor texts with your students, create a custom anchor chart with your class — and add to it as you are exploring the elements of a good memoir.
But don’t stop there…
Make sure your students have anchor charts that work for them. When your students make their own “personal” anchor charts (in a resource book, for example), they will understand the genre much better than they would with a ready-made chart hanging on the classroom wall.
3. Provide time for generating ideas
We often rush students into picking a topic. And students will often pick the first idea that pops into their mind, which may not be the best.
As you’re planning your lessons, allow for a few class periods (at least) for students to journal and brainstorm. This is where reading a memoir or a portion of a memoir comes in handy. Students can respond to the reading and use it as a jumping off point to their own memoir.
Additionally, you can provide writing prompts such as:
- what is your earliest memory?
- who were your friends in first grade?
- what was your favorite toy?
- do you remember what you brought to school for show-and-tell? why did you bring that item and how was it received?
- what is a favorite holiday memory? best Halloween costume? most memorable birthday?
- where did you live or go to school when you were five? describe what you remember about it.
- what do you remember about your first day of school?
- write about your memories of relatives
- if you have siblings, what are your early memories about them?
- describe your experience of learning how to ride a bike
- write about what you remember about learning how to play a sport
- what do you remember about learning how to tie your shoe?
4. What makes this a memoir?
As you begin teaching your students how to write a memoir, they’re going to have many ideas.
When students begin to choose their topic, take time to have them reflect on how this topic will be a memoir. What about it makes it a worthy memory?
If a students is going to write about the first day of preschool, be sure to provide a writing prompt that asks, “Why is this something you want to remember and share?”
This is the question that will help students see the difference between a personal narrative and a memoir.
5. Narrow the focus
As your students get ready to write the first draft of their memoir, don’t forget to have them check to make sure they have narrowed their topic. This can (and often is) a huge stumbling block for student writers.
How can they check?
1. Have students create a quick outline of events they want to include in the memoir.
2. Write a six-word summary of their memoir. (Similar to the Six Word Memoir, which you still may want to do, and there are fabulous examples on the website!) Having students summarize their memoir in just six words will help them focus on the heart of the event.
3. Write a haiku memoir summary. Provide students with a recipe for their haiku (three lines, 5 syllables in line one, 7 syllables in line two, 5 syllables in line three). This is another opportunity for students to focus on the heart of their memoir.
4. Use hashtags. Can they write a hashtag for their memoir? What would it say?
5. Create a graphic novel page that will illustrate what happened.
6. Share often along the way
Build in time for students to share their ideas. You can even use a quick “turn and talk” activity to give students a chance to not only share what they want to write about, but also to hear what another student is planning.
Wow — step 7 is drafting?? Finally!
I like to tell students that their draft is going to write itself because they have done so much prewriting that they know exactly what they want to write and how it will look.
(Need a bit more help? I’ve got 20 mini lessons for you in my shop.)
8. Peer review
Once your students have finished a draft, be sure to have them participate in peer reviews. These can be as simple as reading their memoir to another student.
As students work on peer reviews, they can look at description, dialogue, or the epiphany the writer has had through the event. Peer reviews are most successful when students have a specific task.
9. Publish & share
The best part of the writing process is the publication (ahhh!) and the sharing (yay!). Especially with a memoir, students will want to share their stories. You can have an author’s chair for reading memoirs to the class, or students can share in small groups.
Enjoy this wonderful genre with your students!