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The Power of Memoir: Unleashing Students’ Experiences

This post was written by NCTE member Deborah Dean. 

 

It was my second year teaching, and I thought writing a memoir in our eighth-grade class might help us learn more about each other and provide a good way to begin our use of writing strategies, including mentor texts.

We read short memoirs to see how they focused on an event, and we took some time to consider options for our memoirs: what events in our lives might be fruitful for writing in this genre? As we drafted, we returned to the mentor texts to study craft—how dialogue at a key moment could focus reader attention, how effective description could set a tone, how to craft a moment of reflection without moralizing.

I thought my students were doing well through the process: they all seemed engaged, often sharing pieces with their peers as they wrote. Amy was on task, but she didn’t engage with other students much. I never heard or saw her share, although I think she listened to others as they did. When students turned in their polished drafts, I read her memoir for the first time.  I was stunned. She had written—very effectively—about an experience she’d had just before school started. A drug-crazed man had broken into her home when she was there alone with her mom. He had held them hostage for several hours, assaulting them with his handgun before he finally found enough money and valuables to satisfy him and left.

It was a moving and powerful memoir in which Amy reflected on the value of finding a way to move past horrifying experiences in life, of finding pleasure in a beautiful world and in family and friends.

For the first time as a young teacher, I realized the power of unleashing students’ experiences in a writing class. This was about more than craft.

At parent conferences that fall, Amy’s father approached my table in the gym. He handed me a book, Cold Sassy Tree, and simply said, before he walked away, “Thank you. You gave me my daughter back.”

I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility when I’d given the assignment. Amy had written in the front of the book—and more than twenty years later I keep it above my desk as a reminder. “Thank you,” she wrote. “Keep up the amazing job you’re doing and always remember that you’re living proof that one person can make a difference. Love always, Amy.”

I wasn’t what had made the difference. I had focused on craft and genre. It was the power of writing memoir that made the difference. And I never want to forget that.

 

 

Deborah Dean is a former secondary English teacher, and currently a professor of English at Brigham Young University, where she teaches preservice and practicing teachers about writing instruction. She is the author of Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English ClassroomGenre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being; and What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practices.