What Makes a Memoir?

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SWBAT identify key traits of a memoir and find text examples using a common text.

Big Idea

Students are introduced to their first genre study. As a class we piece together traits of a memoir. Then we unpack these traits using a common text.

Check in Memoir & Independent Reading

15 minutes

This is the first day of the new unit. If I have time, I will organize a book-walk for students. Students can peruse the classroom, where I will have collected and displayed a variety of memoir titles. Students can jot down books that they're interested in, and make notes of the books that haven't piqued their interest. This allows them to take ownership over the unit. I always want my kids excited about the books they are reading, and one way to build this excitement is by organizing a book-walk.

Students should make a choice prior to check-in day. For book check-in days, often I will offer the kids a responsibility grade. It is a low point value grade, but if the kids come with their book, they get the full points. I make sure to support every student and check-in with them prior to this date, asking them which book they will choose and how they plan to find this book.

Always have extra copies of the book list, as well as extra copies of the memoirs themselves, on hand. Over the years I've been able to collect copies of these books. I also have a few library copies on hand to get kids started reading in case they've forgotten. Then afterwards, if they're interested, they can check the books out under their own names.

Class Notes: Traits of a Memoir

20 minutes

I start by explaining that our first unit will be memoir and that before we begin, we must fully define what this means. We know that memoir is very similar to autobiography. I pause and ask for the definition of autobiography. Most hands are raised; most students have background knowledge on this term from elementary school. We come to an understanding that memoirs and autobiographies fundamental similarity is that they are both written by the people they feature. They are life stories. Their fundamental difference is memoirs are more stylized and creative. They are about moments in time, filled with sensory detail and often times exaggerated for effect.

As a class, we piece together a list of about nine traits that define memoir. I've attached this Class Notes: Traits of a Memoir. I have the kids write them down as we stumble upon defining traits. I usually have kids write the notes instead of photo copying them ahead of time. The reason being this is more authentic to the class. Often kids will come up with ideas that I didn't even think to write down. Also, the order doesn't have to be so static. Maybe one group will value one trait more than another, and it will resonate more to the group as a whole. 


Read Aloud: Begin Locating Traits

20 minutes

I pass out the partner worksheet ( Finding memoir traits in a common text.). I tell the kids I'll be reading from the Ralph Fletcher's memoir, Marshfield Dreams. As I read, I'll be looking to fill out two examples of traits we've identified as memoir specific traits. I tell the kids if they hear anything examples of what we have talked about to raise their hands. Some hear traits right away and these students can help the whole class with their active listening.

I begin reading. Often, I'll pause dramatically at certain sections when I hear a trait. This cues the kids to raise their hand. The word "I" is a big clue. This signifies first person. This is often the first time kids will hear the term point of view, so this lesson serves as an introduction for unpacking this skill. Or if we hear the author's name, this signifies autobiography.

I fill out the first two boxes with the entire class.

Partner Work: Locate Memoir Traits

20 minutes

Then I put the kids in pairs. If I have time, I create these pairs using Lexile data, so similar reading levels are together. Or sometimes, for this activity, I put together kids at slightly different levels. If I don't have time, I do the "walk and don't stalk" method to find partners. I have the kids walk aimlessly around the room, I say freeze, and then I create the pairs based on proximity.

I explain that they'll be working together with a photocopy of a common text. It is typically a continuation of Marshfield Dreams. The chapters are very short, so I copy two of them and pass them out to each student. Then I tell them to read aloud to one another and annotate their copy of the story. Every time they see a trait (photograph, concrete memory, descriptive language) they should underline it and write the direct quote example on their note sheet. Then they should label the trait.

I circulate and listen to partner conversations, clearing up misconceptions.

If pairs finish early, they can begin reading their independent memoir. I wait to collect these sheets. On the back they will write traits from their independent texts on a different day.