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For Memoir and Personal Reflection Writing, Structure Sets Us Free by Emily Strang-Campbell

The end of the year is the perfect time to ask students to reflect on their lives and those “aha” moments that stand out from the rest. For many grades, the end of the year calls for memoir, personal essay, or personal narrative units. Often, my students would gasp with glee at the announcement of the end-of-the-year memoir, followed by blank and confused stares when they thought deeper about what the genre was about. Many of my students (me included) loved the idea of memoirs but often were confused about what exactly they were. Were they a personal narrative, an essay, or a biography?

Part of the abstractness and the elusiveness of the memoir was what attracted us to the genre but also what made us scratch our heads. Many of us were quietly asking ourselves, “What exactly is the structure of a memoir?” As a teacher, I still struggle with this question – partly because there is no single “correct” outline for a memoir. There are so many beautiful and complicated ways a memoir can go. However, giving kids a few clear planning options early in the writing process helped free up many students. By giving them some visual template possibilities, it supported many in their vision for where they were headed, evoking John Hattie’s research.

Sometimes the more “abstract” a concept might feel, giving options for clear, step-by-step planning can be just the springboard some kids might need into the genre. Often, I would start my memoir unit by collecting lots and lots of entries about moments that matter, with lessons like people/places/moments, or moments we learned a life lesson, or big emotions and the moments in which they occurred, etc. So many of these lessons are still essential early in the unit to get kids writing with meaning, volume, and stamina, but with memoir, I also started to insert a bit more structure early in the process. I would usually show them these structures (listed below) 2-3 days into the collecting phases, to give them a vision of where their writing was headed – to show how they would eventually shape these powerful moments they were currently collecting into a specific structure.

Here are a few that I found worked best:

Opening Reflection – Small Moment – Closing Reflection

I like this structure because it helps add a layer to the student’s personal narrative writing. Many students might have already written a personal narrative earlier in the year, so it’s an excellent strategy to lift the level of this genre, and experiment with reflection writing, while still leaning on the solid foundation of a single, powerful moment. This template is clear and concrete, while still allowing space for analysis and thematic reflection.

Clothesline (the wire holds the big, overarching theme of the memoir) – 3 small moments connected to the clothesline, held up by the theme and reflection.

There may be some writers in your class that are ready to take their memoirs to the next level. The clothesline structure has worked well for many students. They use the clothesline wire as the theme that holds their 3 small moments together and reflection is often written to transition between the 3 small moments. The reflection and the focused small moments all support the big, overarching theme/message of the piece. For example, a personal memoir I often model for kids (using the clothesline structure as my planning tool) is about my grandpa. The overarching theme/idea that ties my moments together is -Times With My Grandpa: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Then, I carefully select 3 small moments that connect with this overarching idea. I transition from each moment to the next through reflection off each small moment and how it circles back to my big idea. I then end with a closing reflection about the importance of my grandpa in my life, and how he always accepted me. No matter how good or bad our experiences were, there was always unconditional love.

Any self-reflection narrative writing is a fantastic way for kids to take stock of their lives at the end of the year. It often gets kids writing with passion and meaning, hopefully increasing their volume and stamina along the way. Using visual planning tools early in the writing process can help kids write with power and clarity.

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