Activity 1: Introduction to the Genre of Memoir: Writing a Comparison/Contrast Essay, ONCE I WAS; NOW I AM (adapted from BEAT NOT THE POOR DESK, by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen, Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portmouth, N.H., 1981).
Tell the class they are going to do some personal experience writing to begin the
study of a genre known as memoir. Then write on the board:
Once I was; now I am.
Tell students you would like them to write as many sentences as they can using the structure you have written on the board. Provide several model sentences, such as those which follow, to help them get started:
Once I was a frightened stranger in a new land; now I am a bold American.
Once I was a depressed housewife; now I am a happy student.
Once I was a laid-back young girl from the islands; now I am a sophisticated
Once I was an angry, rebellious teenager; now I'm a father with teenage sons
of my own.
Once I was a smoker and a drinker; now I'm a health food nut.
Read through the sample sentences you provide, and then ask students to write
as many of their own as they can within the next five to ten minutes.
When students have finished writing, ask them to share their sentences with the
class. Leave time for students to respond to each other's sentences, and to speculate about the experiences underlying them. The sharing time will allow students a
chance to feed off of each other's ideas, and to think through the possibilities
of some of their own sentences.
Have students choose one of the sentences they have written and use it as the
first sentence of an essay. Tell them, as they write, to follow two rules for
organizing the essay: a) put all the "Once sentences" in one part of the essay and all the
"Now sentences" in another part, and b) keep both parts positive - each part should focus
on what the student was and is, respectively, not what they were not/are not.
Students who are not satisfied with the sentences they have written so far should
write a few more before they get started on the essay.
When students have finished writing, ask a few of them to volunteer to read their
essays to the class.
After each volunteer reads his/her essay, ask listeners to write for two or three
minutes immediately after the volunteer finishes reading. Have the listeners jot
down (a) parts they remember/like the most from the essay; b) parts which they didn't
understand, and c) parts which they wanted to know more about. Then have the
listeners read their observations, going around the room. Help to guide student attention by
reading your own responses to students.
Divide the class into groups, and have students read and respond to students in their groups,
using the framework for observation modeled with the class. As students read in groups,
circulate and provide support as necessary.
Collect essays and respond to them in writing, asking clarification/expansion questions
and drawing attention to memorable elements. (When their essays are returned to them,
ask students to redraft, keeping in mind the responses they received from their peers and their instructor. Assist with editing when students have drafted a final version of the essay.)
Activity 2: Introducing Memoir Through Developing a Framework for Analysis.
After students have written and shared two versions of the "Once I Was/ Now I Am" essay, ask them to list a) two or three reasons why they selected the life experiences they wrote about from among the many they had initially brainstormed during Step 2 of Activity One (above), and b) what they liked most about their "favorites" of all the essays written by their classmates.
Divide the class into groups. Distribute sheets of newsprint to each group, and have students share their lists in their group and compile a group master list.
Have each group report back to the class. Discuss student ideas about how and why an author chooses to write about certain life experiences. Discuss ideas about the students' own "tellings," and how these led to successful essays (as students respond, categorize their observations according to stylistic elements such as "descriptive," tonal elements such as "dramatic" or "humorous," structural elements such as "surprise ending," etc.).
Create a class master list on a sheet of newsprint and post it on the wall. Tell students to keep their ideas about topic selection and successful writing in mind as they read one of the two memoirs selected for the study of this genre. As they read, make sure the students pay attention to the elements the author has chosen to use to make their writing interesting to the reader. Refer and add to the master list as students read and respond to the material over the next several class sessions.
Activity 3: Making and Revising Predictions.
Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Assign WHEN I WAS PUERTO RICAN to half of the groups, and THE COLOR OF WATER to the other half. Set aside class time for sustained silent reading.
Before students begin reading, have students read book and chapter titles and make predictions about what the books will be about.
List their predictions on the board. Have them then read the prologues for their books and check their initial predictions. After students have read the prologues, ask them if their predictions seem accurate? If they answer yes, have them read the first chapter and, at the end of it, ask them to make a new prediction. If their predictions do not seem accurate, have them revise their predictions before they read the first chapter.
At the end of each chapter, have students evaluate their predictions. Then have them make a prediction for what the next chapter will be about. Have the students list each of their predictions in their notebooks, and evaluate them after reading two or three pages of each chapter.
Activity 4: Story Mapping.
After students have read the first five chapters of their books, have them work in groups to map the events in the story so far. Ask each group to list: a) each major event; and b) its cause(s) and effects.
When each group has completed its story map for the first five chapters, have groups reading the same memoir compare their maps and use the text to support the decisions they made.
Have groups report back on similarities/differences among their story maps.
Ask students to create two or three story maps throughout the reading of these texts as a way for them to monitor their understanding of cause and effect, and as means to clarify sequence of events in each text.
Activity 5: Creating Character Charts.
When students have read about halfway through their books, have them work in groups to create character charts. Have each group list the main characters of the book so far. Ask the group to choose two or three characters from their assigned text.
For each character they choose, have groups think of two or three adjectives. Then have them find at least six examples from the text which support this description. Ask students to find examples of what the character does, what other characters say about the character, and what the results of the character's actions are.
Have students draw a chart for each character.
When groups have completed their charts for each of the characters, have them excerpt one or two portions of dialogue or description of each character from the text, omitting any mention of the character's name. When they have found excerpts for each of their characters, have them scramble the excerpts on a new sheet of paper.
Ask each group to exchange its character charts and excerpts with a group that has not read their book. Ask groups to match excerpts to characters, using the character charts to guide them.
Have groups report back and discuss how they made their decisions.
Ask students to write a second "Once I Was/ Now I Am" essay after students have responded to the first essay.
Writing About the Memoir
When students have finished reading the text assigned them, have them use their story maps and character charts to help them write essays about the major events in the author's life, and the personal qualities of the authors and those around them which contributed to their sense of identity.
Comparing Fiction and Non-Fiction
a.) Have students rewrite one of their "Once I Was/ Now I Am" essays as a fictional account. Have them read both essays, the fiction and non-fiction, in their groups, and have group members identify changes that need to be made to the essays: omissions, elaboration, and reorganization.
b.) Ask students to read an excerpt from THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X, and, if possible, then view the movie MALCOLM X, directed by Spike Lee (available at many video stores). Have them compare and contrast the excerpt they read with Lee's film.
Establishing Historical Context
Have groups research and write group reports on the economic and geographic context within which each memoirist grew up. Ask students to include in their reports their ideas on the relationship between geographic/economic conditions and their author's experiences.