Grades 6-8: Mentor Memoirs

Use memoirs as mentor texts to teach narrative writing.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Sensational Stories

Mentor Text: The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3

What they’ll learn: Sensory language

What to do: One lesson that sparks creativity among Lenore Layng’s sixth graders at I.S. 238 in Hollis, New York: using Sandra Cisneros’s “Hairs” to teach sensory language. In “Hairs,” a vignette from The House on Mango Street, the narrator describes the hair of each family member, revealing key personality traits. (She underscores her mother’s comforting nature by comparing the smell of her hair to “the warm smell of bread before you bake it.”)

After reading “Hairs,” the class discusses how Cisneros uses sensory language to convey meaning. Then, for their next class, Layng places a container of cooked onions and garlic on a candle warmer. The students’ first activity is to write a description of what they smell. Layng encourages them to avoid literal descriptors, such as the word garlic, and focus on any feelings or memories the smell evokes.

Layng then reveals the source of the smell and shares her memory. “I tell them about smelling this when I was a child walking down the block to my grandmother’s house and knowing she was inside making sauce. I ask students if my description brought a strong image to their [minds].” Finally, Layng asks her students to write about a “smell memory” of their own.

Photographic Memory

Mentor Text: NPR’s This I Believe essays

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3; W.6

What they’ll learn: “Show, don’t tell”

What to do: Ten years ago, NPR revived the CBS Public Radio show This I Believe, on which people from all walks of life shared short essays about what motivates them. When she taught middle school, Allison Petersen invited her students to craft their own statements of belief. “Having students write ‘This I Believe’ essays is a powerful way to get to know them,” says Petersen, an academic technology coordinator at Mount Pisgah Christian School in Atlanta.

To start, Petersen introduced the essays, including “The Beatles Live On,” by Macklin Levine, a 12-year-old girl who found hope in the Beatles’ music after her father died. The class discussed the essays, in particular the importance of “show, don’t tell,” or allowing a story to speak for itself. To help students understand how authors allow imagery to do the talking, Petersen had them listen to audio recordings while highlighting vivid imagery on a transcript. For their own essays, Petersen urged students to choose a memory and allow their statement of belief to follow. “The memory drives the belief,” says Petersen, who blogs at Try This Tomorrow. After writing their essays, students created recordings using Audioboo and uploaded the print and audio versions to their student blogs.

Once Upon a Time

Mentor Text: Knots in My Yo-Yo String, by Jerry Spinelli

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3

What they’ll learn: Setting

What to do: Step one of writing a great memoir? Setting the scene. During her time as a middle school teacher, Barbara Montfort, who blogs at Wear the Cape, kicked off her memoir unit with Jerry Spinelli’s Knots in My Yo-Yo String. After reading excerpts as a class, Montfort, the director of student services for grades K–8 in South Bay Union School District in Imperial Beach, California, zeroed in on the first paragraph of the second story, “East End.”

First, the class discussed how Spinelli set the scene in the very first sentence: “I am outside in the yard.” They annotated the rest of the paragraph to analyze how the author expanded on that simple description through literary devices and details like smells and sounds. Then students worked on their own scene setting by writing the first paragraph of a story. The goal, says Montfort, was to get students to think creatively about word choice and to play with words in their descriptions—to move beyond “I am outside in the yard” to “a force as feelable as a blizzard.”

Zoom In on Structure

Mentor Text: An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3; W.5

What they’ll learn: Sequence and structure

What to do: To inspire her seventh graders to reflect on their own lives, Joan E. Miller, an ELA and gifted specialist at Gahanna Middle Schools East, South, and West in Ohio, turns to Annie Dillard’s “The Chase,” from An American Childhood. In the coming-of-age essay, the author recounts a seminal moment in her life: being pursued by someone who caught her and a friend throwing snowballs at his car.

Miller has students read the story once for basic comprehension. “For their second reading, I ask them to read with the lens of identifying different parts of the structure,” says Miller. “Students help me highlight, investigate, and define the following parts to an effective memoir: hook, setup, narrative (zoomed-in story), and reflection (zoomed-out story).”

Once students have identified the parts, Miller has the class highlight examples of strong craft. To bring the pieces of the lesson together, she asks students to reflect on the ways these writing devices support each part of the story. For example, students might consider how the descriptive language in the “zoomed-in” section helps further the narrative.

Miller builds on the class’s analysis of “The Chase” to guide each student’s editing process as he or she writes a short memoir. “During a writer’s conference, I’ll ask the student to show me their hook, their zoomed-in story, and their reflection,” says Miller. Student and teacher then discuss areas that might be strengthened and come up with an editing goal.

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