Writing Personal Memoirs: An Opportunity for Differentiation in the Classroom

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 


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.

Getting Started: Round-Robin Oral Storytelling

This is the second part in a monthly series written by NCTE member Mindy Daniels. Here is the first part


As expected, kids admitted to hospitals react differently. For some, it’s “my first day in the nuthouse,” as one teen wrote; for others, it’s a welcome respite from being bullied at school or from abject abuse at home. Also as expected, some kids are extremely active and chatty, others dejected and tight-lipped. Regardless, as teachers we want kids to engage in learning because, as a normalizing process, school is as therapeutic as it is academically important to their overall well-being.

Some students, however, are too traumatized for schoolwork, while others are simply not interested. For both the willing and the recalcitrant, I have found that creative writing activities provide a comfort zone.

One good technique I discovered years ago in a Writer’s Digest article adapts the round-robin reading approach wherein the teacher starts with a simple sentence and each student adds to the story with one to two sentences of his or her own. The one I recall from the article, which I have used successfully countless times, is: “Bill really wanted a drink of water.”

Reasons why Bill is thirsty and can’t get water are infinite. Maybe he’s mowed the lawn and is locked out of the house; he’s broken down on the side of the road in the desert; he’s adrift in the ocean. What he does to get water is equally legion. He crawls through the doggie door; he breaks into someone’s house and is arrested; he paddles ashore. Like playing badminton, the intent of a round-robin is to keep the birdie—the story—aloft as long as possible. For this reason, students can’t allow a character to commit suicide—suicide is a cop-out, according to creative writing teachers.

Some students elaborate without prompting; shyer kids may need assistance, so have ready leading questions like: What if he went to a neighbor’s house and no one was home? What if it was a holiday and the store was closed? What if there were aliens on the island? No matter how bizarre, accept a student’s response so long as it keeps the action and tension going. As the teacher, you can always spin the story in another direction when it is your turn to contribute.

It is critical that teachers contribute as active participants. In this workshop activity, teachers must be more than facilitators; as active participants, our responses cannot be rehearsed. We need to go with the flow of the story and be spontaneous. If you can’t think of any one-liners, try Writer’s Digest prompts (www.writersdigest.com/prompts) or take an opening sentence from a short story. Just about anything works.

Here are a couple of examples from my students: Bill had a broken leg and couldn’t get to the fridge or the faucet. Bill resorted to drinking from the dog’s bowl because the water main had broken and he couldn’t get water from the faucet. Given the opportunity, students can and are creative. Starting with a group activity like oral storytelling cracks open creative doors.

Next time—String Storytelling.

Mindy Daniels has a PhD in instructional leadership. For the last sixteen years she has taught in the children’s psychiatric hospital at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. She is also the author of poetry and of a historical novel.

ReadWriteThink.org A-Z, Part 6

AtoZIn Part 5, we took a look at ReadWriteThink.org from S to W. In this post, we will cover X, Y, and Z.

X is for explain.

Almost all of the content published on ReadWriteThink.org is submitted from folks in the field.  We ask our authors to consider the audience as a novice teacher or substitute for your class. Therefore the authors spell out each step of the instructional plan with detailed descriptions and in the active voice. When in doubt, the authors fully explain their teaching idea.

Y is for you.

ReadWriteThink.org could not have had the success we have had since 2002 without the support from YOU – thank you!

Z is for zoo.

Can’t make it to a zoo? Observe animal habits and habitats using one of the many webcams broadcasting from zoos and aquariums around the United States and the world in this inquiry-based activity that focuses on observation logs, class discussion, questioning, and research. Students begin by viewing an animal webcam, making observations, and describing what they see in a notebook or log.

Thanks for sticking with us on this tour of ReadWriteThink.org! Please let us know if you have any questions.

How Do You Teach Students to Write Solid Sentences?

This guest post is written by author Michael Laser. 

If you’ve had success, please share what worked!

This post is adapted from a much longer post on Doug Lemov’s blog, Teach Like a Champion.

MichaelLaserI’m a novelist and a relatively new teacher of freshman composition (going into my 4th semester). I’ve been searching for effective teaching methods to help my students improve their writing at the sentence level. To give you a sense of the problems I’m trying to address, here are a few sentences from their essays:

Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.

The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones. 

The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage. 

I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays. And, though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.

I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.

Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.

Have you seen significant improvements in your students’ grammar and style between September and June? If so, would you be willing to share some of your methods? The more specifics you can provide, the better.

You can post suggestions in the Comments section, or email me at Michael@michaellaser.com. Eventually, if enough people respond, I’d like to compile these ideas and present them for other teachers to use, either on the Web or in book form. Either way, I would credit the teachers who suggested the methods.

Note: Many writing specialists believe that an emphasis on correctness crushes confidence, stifles creativity, and produces less capable writers. For decades, they have sought to engage students by assigning topics that matter to the writers, encouraging students to flesh out early drafts with more detail, and overlooking most errors. They have worked to overturn students’ belief that I can’t write—a belief that results from finding their best efforts bloodied with red marks, repeatedly. These insights are important. Still, it seems to me that, in the reaction against oppressive teaching methods, basic skills have been lost. If students graduate from college and go on to write emails, letters, and reports that are as awkward and error-filled as the papers they’ve written in my class, they’ll be judged harshly.

I want to encourage my students to think creatively. The challenge is to build their confidence at the same time that we teach them to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.

Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers. You can read more about his work on his website, michaellaser.com. 


Just Prison: Rethinking the Boundaries of Bars in the Age of Mass Incarceration

This post is written by NCTE member David E. Kirkland. 

DavidKirklandRolando Cooper [a pseudonym]is the type of kid who epitomizes what we mean when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline.  Rolando attended a school fitted with metal detectors and barred windows. The doors of his school locked automatically so that no one on the outside could enter. The same doors were also chained shut so that no one on the inside could leave too easily.

Rolando had been suspended five times from his school during his sophomore year for offenses ranging from not taking off his hat when asked by a teacher to missing too many days (a punishment which to me felt kind of oxymoronic, but carry on). Rolando was smart. He was street smart. He could break down the logics of hustle like an expert math teacher explaining complex concepts in calculus. I can recall the one time he reprimanded students in one of his English classes for reading books that “caged their minds.” He was prone to these kinds of talks—conversations of theories and ideas so acutely fashioned that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Rolando reading the likes of Marx or Fanon. Thing is, Rolando could barely read, at least not in the ways that we value in English language arts.

Indeed, before he was locked up, Rolando was on a path to leaving school, for he was confined both physically and ideologically by barriers so stable and firm that most members of his community waste away between various boundaries of carceral confinement with little chance of escape. In Rolando’s community—at least in his neighborhood—crime was typical as was the desperation of people who did not always eat regularly or enjoy proper access to medical care. On Rolando’s block, close to 80 percent of male residents were unemployed. It was not uncommon for young mothers to be high school age and single. Few of the community members felt supported or safe. And even fewer felt that they lived in a place where freedom reigned. For them, the American Dream was elusive. The American Nightmare was all there was.

The realities of this nightmare could be seen in the decaying properties that littered the crumbling street. Many of the homes were barren and eroding. Some gutted by fires, and others diseased with neglect and the thumbprint of poverty. The homes that were still standing were wrapped in layers of metal. Fences that mimicked walls comprised a first barrier. The other barriers were the barred windows and doors, vaulted by heavy locks and in some cases even chains. In order to secure safety, the people locked themselves in with hopes of locking others out.

In Rolando’s neighborhood, men disappeared like shadows into the night, or like the Black and Brown boys who vanished routinely from the city classrooms. Some never returned, expelled into a fog that leads to the other side of life. Others fall prey to a dance of bars, ushered into revolving patterns of submission that exchange one form of captivity for another. It was all a play of cages, from the womb to the grave. In Rolando’s neighborhood, there were no pipelines to prison because it was all prison.

From home to school to an eventual county jail, Rolando’s life was defined by bars and barriers, boundaries and preimposed borders—multiple states of confinement that were mutually reinforcing. Sadly, Rolando’s story is far from unique. For approximately 100 million Americans, there is no school-to-prison pipeline. There is just prison. This is the unfortunate state of being that uniquely affects our most vulnerable citizens, those who exist alongside us without much freedom in school or at home.

Compared to where and how they lived previously, individuals like Rolando, ironically, feel some sense of freedom in prison. According to Rolando, “At least in prison, I eat. I got a bed and a home. I don’t have to worry about the rent. The police [prison guards] respond when there is trouble. Shit, it’s better here than where I live.” His analysis is, of course, as striking as it is heartbreaking. He continued:

“I went to the dentist for the first time behind bars. We ain’t have no [health] insurance at my mother’s house [to go to the dentist]. So I never went to the dentist before . . . Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t heaven in here [jail]. I mean . . . I miss my family and friends and stuff like that. But it ain’t heaven out there either. I’ve seen so many people die, yo. People get hurt on the outside just like they do on the inside. So what’s the difference? It was only a matter of time before it would be me. I mean . . . I be scared whenever I leave the house. It got to a point [that] I [began] to have [sic] nightmares that someone was gonna break into my mom’s house and kill all of us. My first night in here [jail], I got my first good night of sleep in a long time.”

Rolando’s fear wasn’t too off base. Less than a month after he and I had the above conversation, one of Rolando’s friends was killed at home, along with his friend’s mother. Apparently, Rolando’s friend’s mother had a boyfriend who made bad company with some bad people, whom he owed. Whatever the case, someone came looking for the mother’s boyfriend. And while they didn’t find him, the killers did find Rolando’s friend and his mother. They tied them naked to chairs and shot both of them five times in the head and chest. Whoever killed them understood well the ambiguities of Rolando’s neighborhood. The place was a snare—perhaps less safe than prison but no less confining.

In recent years, much has been made of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, recent NCTE blog posts have fruitfully advanced this important issue. However, in recent months, my own work and understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline have shifted somewhat as my analysis has become much deeper. In analyzing the relationship between mass suspension and mass incarceration, I too have found a relationship between the schooling and jailing of our most vulnerable citizens. However, in analyzing the conditions under which our most vulnerable citizens live, I am beginning to find that there are also other relationships that are important to notice, such as the relationship between the growing wealth gap and mass incarceration, residential segregation as a form of internment, and violence and fear as continuous states that span across home, school, and prison for so many vulnerable people.

Such citizens find themselves perpetually locked into labels that, like their physical living conditions, reinforce their internment at all facets of confinement, from one institutional margin to another, from the brims of birth until the edges of death. There are the qualitative realities of communities beset with poverty, which make up about a third of the American society and function and act much like prisons with and without bars. Hence, for many Americans, there is no school-to-prison pipeline. Again, there’s just prison—the varied states of incarceration existing with different but mutually reinforcing apparatuses for confinement. Each swells and shrinks, tightens and loosens, based on individual circumstance.

The reality of this should be heartbreaking but also groundbreaking for us in education because the extent to which we can truly understand the crisis of incarceration will determine our ability to resolve it. Sadly, we have spent years, if not decades, searching for the wrong kind of pipeline, a thing that may not even exist. What if we moved beyond our pipeline quest, away from understanding vulnerable schools or vulnerable communities as much different than prisons, to understanding them as forms of imprisonment? Based on this latter logic, the quest evolves beyond a mission to dismantle an invisible system fitted between the school and the prison to a mission to dismantle the very apparatus of incarceration itself.

Within this logic, the work isn’t about dismantling pipelines from school to prison, but about dismantling prisons/imprisonment by erecting new pipelines from school to opportunity. Dismantling imprisonment (decarceration) would mean rethinking policies and practices within and outside schools that drive mass incarceration (within and outside schools). It would mean transforming communities and dismantling the intellectual/ideological bars that keep people confined within them. In English language arts, this work means locating classrooms as sites of freedom and opportunity, decarcerating the very space that confines and, thus, limits our thoughts, drives, and motivations. In this light, the goal of the school-to-opportunity pipeline in English Language Arts becomes more obvious: to teach English in ways that promote freedom and free-thinking individuals capable of transforming their communities and abolishing the multiple states of confinement that bind so many Americans within the fences of inopportunity.

David E. Kirkland is an award-winning author, activist, cultural critic, and thought leader. He serves as the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He guest edited a themed issue of English Education on “Teaching English in a Sea of Change: Linguistic Pluralism and the New English Education” (2010). Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at davidekirkland@gmail.com.