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Writing Personal Memoirs: An Opportunity for Differentiation in the Classroom

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 

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My 5th graders spend their first semester of English immersed in personal narratives and storytelling. September and October are devoted to the deep reading of, and written responses to, a variety of mentor texts, including Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, excerpts from Hey World, Here I Am!, as well as several short personal narratives by authors like Cynthia Rylant and Patricia Polacco. As students read these texts, they pay particular attention to each author’s unique tone and writing style. Class discussions center around discovering themes within the text and making personal connections to the stories being told. Inspired by the mentor texts they study, students engage in writing-to-learn practices designed to inspire short narratives about their own families, friends, and experiences.

By November, students have both a broad understanding of the tools writers use to engage readers and a rich collection of personal stories to further develop and revise. Our memoir writing begins with a brainstorming activity in which students map out the significant people and places in their lives, jotting down a few important details about each. From there, the difficult but rewarding work of drafting begins. With a goal of four distinct vignettes, my 5th graders work tirelessly, writing every class period for several weeks in order to produce their first drafts. The writing process is unique from one student to the next, as evidenced by the breadth of stylistic choices they make. Some generate vignettes only a few paragraphs long, while others write for pages. They write the way they feel, and compose pieces that range from serious and heartbreaking to playful, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny. Some vignettes take the form of a traditional personal narrative, while others are in verse, or some combination of the two.

As they draft, students take advantage of many resources to enhance and strengthen their work. They consult thesauruses, mentor texts, and their writer’s notebook in search of the perfect word or phrase. They page through family photo albums and interview relatives, looking for inspiration and reminding themselves of forgotten details from their early years. They conference, proofread, and edit, both with me and with each other, in order to produce their final projects.

I am now approaching my fifth year of leading students through the personal memoir project. Though much remains the same from one year to the next (I have never seen a reason to abandon my fabulous mentor texts), in many ways each year brings a new opportunity for me to reflect and improve on the project. From the beginning, this assignment was designed with differentiation in mind, and every year I am able to tweak my resources so that students at every level can engage and be successful with their memoir.

When I think back to the first graphic organizer I used for this assignment, it’s a wonder any of my students could follow my logic. Each year I make small edits to this document in response to my students—their confusion, their reactions, and their ideas help me improve the way I first introduce the assignment. In addition to creating a more streamlined graphic organizer for initial brainstorming, with each new year I’ve increased the frequency of student-teacher conferences. The graphic organizer allows me to pick up on confusion or misunderstanding in the prewriting stage, and conferencing with students after each vignette makes it easier for me to scaffold skills like time management, organization, and proofreading throughout the process rather than after an entire draft has been completed. By meeting after each vignette is drafted, we turn one long project into several, more manageable opportunities to engage in the writing process.

Each year’s reflection on the memoir project helps me develop a better approach to working with students to address both the quality and content of their writing. The brainstorming organizer is designed in such a way that it clearly lays out the expectation of four distinct vignettes, and we have class discussions about how long each vignette ought to be in order to effectively tell a story to a reader. We also discuss the dangers of writing a rambling narrative, the importance of saying what’s crucial, and the value of avoiding redundancy. With that foundation laid, I can then work more closely with individual students on their drafts, encouraging this student to add detail and flesh out their ideas, referring that one to a resource for “juicy” vocabulary words, and modeling for others how to become more efficient and precise with their language and grammar. Though every year brings me a new crop of young writers and a new set of improvements to make to my assignments, my goals for the memoir writing project always remain the same: to meet each student where they are, to quickly scaffold for them what they’re capable of as writers, and to remind them they have a voice to use and a story to tell.

Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.