Understanding the Structure of Memoir

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SWBAT recognize the parts of memoir that are narrative versus those that are analysis, and they work together to develop central ideas, through analysis of expert and student models.

Big Idea

Memoir is not simply story-telling; it is highly structured to use personal experiences to develop broader central ideas and arguments.


As we get back from our Thanksgiving break, students will come in with some free-writing pieces based on photos that they worked on before the break as a way to generate ideas for writing their memoirs .  Today I want to hone in on the genre moves of memoir—how this type of writing is organized to present narrative not just to tell a story, but to use personal experience narratives as evidence for analysis of central ideas.  We spent a lot of time during the gender unit analyzing how personal experience can be used as evidence; today we fill focus more closely on the type of information that is written in different sections of a text, adding to the study we did of “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Donald Murray last week. 

To do this, I have taken out three excerpts from texts we read:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed, “The Myth of the Latin Woman” by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Donald Murray (Genre moves expert samples.docx).  We will use these excerpts to study the organization of memoir, and how narrative functions in this type of writing.

Deconstructing Expert Texts

70 minutes

 To begin today's lesson, we will do a quick brainstorm of the main types of information we have seen in pieces using personal experience as the primary evidence.  Essentially, there will be two main categories—narrative descriptions of events, people, places, etc., and analysis of those events in building a central idea.  During the brainstorm we will likely have lots of subcategories, like analysis of the current moment, connections to the past, etc.   From these, for simplicity sake in learning organization of the texts, we will narrow down to the two main categories mentioned.

The next step is to see how these pieces look and function in the text.  For this kind of work, I love highlighters, because they provide a clear visual of what is going on, and where the pieces of text fit.  I will use the Cofer excerpt first as an example to model how to find the parts.  With yellow, I will read through and simply highlight sentences, clauses, and phrases that are specifically providing narrative—description of events, places, etc, on the Smartboard.  Then I will go through again with green and highlight those moments where some sort of analysis is occurring.  While doing this, I will read each sentence first, then ask students to help decide what type of information is there so they can participate in the process before they do it with a partner (word choices within the narrative portions also provide a bit of analysis, which I will point out to students while also stating that we will address that level of writing in the revision process; for now we will work with larger chunks of text).  This is also explained in the video included here memoir genre moves.mp4.

After asking for any questions or clarifications, I will ask the students to work with a partner and complete this process with the Wild excerpt—highlighting the narrative portions in yellow and analysis in green.   This will allow me to circulate and observe individual students as formative assessment, and clarify ideas as necessary.

Rather than go through this excerpt sentence by sentence (which may be necessary if students don’t seem to understand how to recognize narrative vs. analysis; I scaffolded this a great deal during the gender unit, so I think only minor clarifications will be necessary here), I will put up my highlights of the text and have students compare theirs.  My goal here isn’t that they have every phrase right, but that they can generally see the differences, so I will ask if their highlights are similar to mine, and ask if there are any specific questions (here is my highlighted document:  genre moves highlighted.docx).

Then, I will make the view smaller on the Smartboard so we can see this excerpt as well as the last (also highlighted), and ask what they notice visually with the two colors.  The two things that should stand out to them (and that I will point out if they don’t), is that there are great big chunks of text that are only yellow, and that there is equal or more of yellow.   I will explain that in developing strong memoir, a writer has to dedicate large parts of real-estate to show readers the events, the places, the people, etc., without interrupting with their own thoughts (I will likely show the excerpt from Donald Murray as well--his use of narrative vs. analysis bounces back and forth more often, but each still is distinct, which I will point out).  

Finally, I will hand back the memoir writing they did a couple weeks ago (two different pieces, one using nature as metaphor, and another sharing experiences with gender stereotypes; I didn't write any feedback on them, knowing I would be using them for this purpose:  Nature metaphors.pdfGender stereotype student samples.docx), and ask them to skim the piece (this skimming is due to time at this point--they will do a more thorough analysis of their own work in a couple days), considering if their's looks like this.  I will let them realize for themselves that they tend to veer more toward analysis throughout at the expense of showing the reader the experience, which has the effect of almost leaving the reader out of the discussion.  This final step will hopefully inspire them as they go home to write their drafts for their essay.  I also think this step is important to make the lesson real to them--to move the lesson from a theoretical discussion of expert texts to a tool to use in their own writing.

Next Steps:  Students will begin writing a draft memoir based on their prompt and photo to develop a central argument about gender codes in our society.  Tomorrow they will spend the class period in the library, too, so that by the following day they will have a complete rough draft.