Are You Sure That’s a Memoir?

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During writing class recently, I was teaching my students how to write a memoir.  We were focusing on telling short, true, interesting memories from our lives.  As a 49-year old woman, I have plenty of stories to share, many of which are appropriate for children.

Where to begin?  I wanted impact….shock and awe….yes!  I had just the story. As my students listened in awe, I told them – THAT is a memoir.  I sent my charges off to draft their own narratives.  Most of them jumped right in, brainstorming stories from their own lives.  I told my students that accidents, illnesses and injuries were perfect fodder for a memoir. Surveying the room, I could see moderate engagement.  Over the next forty minutes, I had conversations with several of my fifth graders about their ideas.

Finally I came upon Alex.  He was very excited about his writing, and eager to share with me.  As I read his piece, I became aware that his essay – his impactful memory – a GREAT story from his life…..was about playing a video game!  I continued reading, unwilling to show my disappointment to this boy who took pride in his efforts.  It was, after all, his writing – not mine.  Who was I to judge what was significant in his life?

I asked Alex what he liked the most about his essay and gave him a bit of feedback – not about its substance, though, mostly just conventions.  I got to thinking…was that all he had to drawn on?  A video game?  Or had I simply not shared enough examples?  I hoped that I could get more out of Alex.  I hoped that the fullness of his memories wouldn’t be centered around graphics, AI, and noise-canceling headphones.

What I want for Alex is what I want for all children:  a generous, interesting, rewarding life worthy of a memoir.  That’s where the challenge lies.  Is it my memoir, or is it his?  It is sometimes difficult to be an educator and not foist my beliefs and opinions onto my students.  The breadth of what we as classroom teachers address with our students occasionally makes it challenging to draw the line.  To stop short of telling our students what to think, and instead, focus only on teaching them how to think.

My hope is that someday Alex will write about a great adventure, a heart-warming encounter, or a harrowing incident.  But that’s for Alex to decide, not me.

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