Over the years of teaching creative writing and essay writing in various forms, I have tried to use professional models to inspire students. I think most teachers do … BUT this is hard to do (as any English teacher knows) because, generally, students are nowhere near as accomplished at writing as most professionals. It is easy to point out great, published writing. It is sometimes easy, even, to discuss why the writing is great, but it is very difficult to expect students to come near to the word choice, syntax, and/or style of published works. I still believe, though, that it is important to teach from notable published examples -- hopefully some of this greatness rubs off!
For this unit on writing a memoir or “memory narrative,” I have struggled over the years to find a good published model. I’ve used pieces like E.B. White’s famous “Once More to the Lake” and/or selections from Joan Didion (“In Bed” for instance), but I have found that models such as these are so polished and professional that they are more like museum pieces. Reading aloud from and parsing even your average Didion essay with students is somewhat akin to showing highlight tape of the NY Yankees to a little league team -- aspirational, yes, realistic no.
However, a few years ago, I stumbled upon an excellent and more accessible version of the memoir form, “Alicia’s Story” from the San Francisco Chronicle. Alicia Parlette, a 23-year-old copy editor with The Chronicle, is diagnosed with cancer, but, rather than wallow in her despair, she decides to embrace her plight and write about it. Over the course of 17 web-based installments, Parlette details her emotional and physical trials with her cancer. Her writing is witty, poignant, and, at times, even gripping. Parlette is -- and this is key -- also roughly in the age group of my students (at 23) when she writes her memoir. In short, her prose is more accessible and certainly less intimidating than other, more accomplished and seasoned authors.
Also, Parlette’s subject, her cancer, is a universal, and the details of her struggle resonate with students, many of whom have experienced cancer in a family member or friend. I will say, though, that her story ends badly (which is revealed on the SFGate index page as one can easily find links to her obituary), and my students do struggle with reading a “sad story.”
You will want to amend the “reading portion” of this lesson to correspond to the needs of your students with respect to their reading speed and ability -- that is “time” this according to your best judgement as to number of days between installments.
I give a total of three reading quizzes over the course of using this memoir, and they “break down” as follows:
Cha. 1 & 2 (link to my quiz here)
Cha. 3 & 4 (link to my quiz here)
Cha. 5 - 8 (link to my quiz here)
As you may see from looking at the quiz examples, I am "testing" for reading pace, comprehension, and an understanding of particular style elements. Feel free (of course!) to use the “make a copy” feature of Google Docs, copy, and amend as you see fit.
Once students have been able to read the sections of the memoir, corresponding to the quizzes, I organize a think-write-pair-share activity in class.
First, I ask students to “cut-n-paste” 10 especially good passages from “Alcia’s Story” to a Google Doc, and add notes (using insert | comments) as to why these passages are good examples of writing. I ask them to focus on the how the passage/section works as much as that it works at all. Clearly, this is a smallish instance of rhetorical analysis, but I do want them (even as of now) to think more and more like an actual writer -- what choices did Alicia make to (1) tell her story but also (2) to make you feel her story?
Second, students (the following day, say) are randomly paired (I prefer distributing playing cards) with someone else and asked to review the lists and comments of a classmate (via Google sharing). I give students about 8 - 10 minutes, then, to select one passage they want to “share out” -- share out including (of course) the reason(s) that this passage is especially cogent.
Third, I simply “whip around” the rectangularly configured lab, and I gather one passage with explanation from each pair of students. I add these to a Google Doc that I make public for future use among all students. (Here's an example of what I am able to gather.)
Finally, I ask students (on an index card) to complete a short written “promise” as to which style point or strategy from the reading of “Alicia’s Story” they will use in their next revision. I collect these index cards as a “ticket out” before students leave.