Memoir Unit


In a memoir unit—as with all genre studies—we devote several days at the start of the study to specific immersion activities, though in reality, students will be "immersed" in published texts of this genre throughout the entire study, turning to exemplary touchstone texts to ground lessons at each stage of the writing cycle.

Immersion is a critical part of any genre study. It helps writers discover the defining characteristics of the genre and establish a vision for what they can create during the unit. The texts you provide to students in the immersion phase will do most of the teaching, as students will look closely at them, record, discuss, and defend their observations. This is why it is important that you provide students with a range of memoirs that will help them develop an understanding of the genre. Isoke Nia, literacy workshop consultant and frequent visiting scholar to the Partnership, recommends doing lots of small group work during immersion, so you will likely need 5-7 "stacks" of memoirs, and each stack should include the following:

  • texts that are of different sizes
  • texts written by authors of different cultures
  • picture books and chapter books
  • books that show the genre in a variety of forms (poems, essay collections, short narrative, long narrative, etc.)
  • several books written by the same author
  • books written by authors that the students know well
  • books with interesting text features (prologues, epilogues, notes from the author, glossary, etc.)
  • red herrings (books that are not a part of the genre- Students who are new to this kind of work should have an obvious non example of the genre, more savvy students should have a red herring that is much less obvious.)

Students are expected to work in groups noticing all they can about memoir.  It will be the students' responsibility to support their noticings with evidence from their stacks of books.

Immersion activities might actually begin near the end of a previous unit of study, overlapping somewhat with final publishing and reflection activities. You might, for example, announce that the class will soon begin a memoir unit of study, read a memoir aloud—or several over the course of a few days, perhaps integrating the work with reading workshop—and invite students to begin collecting other examples of memoir, employing their best guesses to gather texts. Or you might read aloud a memoir without naming the genre, and then unveil stacks of memoirs on the first day of the unit, inviting students to explore the stacks, trying to name the genre and notice its characteristics.

As a way to slow students down and help them make deeper discoveries about each genre, Isoke recommends limiting how much of each book students are allowed to explore during stages of immersion. For instance, you may limit students to looking at the front and back covers of books on the first day of immersion, then on the second day invite them to open the books to notice things, and maybe even wait till day three to look past the title page inside each book.  This forces students to slow down and look at parts of a book that they might not normally give much attention to.  It also supports those students who are new to immersion so that they are not overwhelmed by an entire text from day one.

The goal of the immersion phase is for students to collaborate to develop a working definition of the genre. Rather than the teacher telling the students the definition of a memoir, students will actively engage in text in order to gather a firm understanding of the genre.

There may be important aspects of memoir that teachers want students to know but students don't notice right away, or will have difficulty articulating. In these cases the teacher will tell students what they want them to see and then invite students to do reverse noticings and find it in the stacks they have. For instance, students might not notice that memoirs are written with a lens that helps the writer reflect on his/her life. The lens is the event, person, object, or idea that helps the writer reflect on his or her development, perhaps the thing that caused the writer to change or grow in a certain way. The teacher can point this out and then ask students to determine the lens of each memoir in their stacks, perhaps by looking only at the title and back cover of the books.

Teacher Try-It:

Before you teach a memoir unit, read a few touchstone texts and create your own list of noticings in your writer's notebook. What's your working definition of the genre? It's important that you know a handful of touchstone texts very well. Choose three texts to read and re-read before beginning the unit with students. Each year—or each summer—you can intentionally choose a new memoir to read closely and add to your repertoire of knowledge about the genre.


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