How to cure the “I don’t have anything to write about” blues

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Students having trouble choosing a memory for a memoir? Have them make a map.

A few weeks ago, my junior and senior students wrote memoirs… creative personal narratives about an important memory that taught them an important truth about life, growing up, or the world in general.

In the past I’ve always passed out an idea sheet to help students gather ideas for their memoirs. It contains about thirty questions that are intended to spur memories or at least interesting stories. That sheet is beneficial, but this year I wanted to try something new: map-making.

I read about map-making in Writing Life Stories, a book by author and writing coach Bill Roorbach. In his book, he recounts how he has his own students draw maps of special places in their childhoods: their house, a neighborhood, a farm, a grandparents’ house.

Roorbach suggested to his students to draw as detailed as a map as they could. He asked them to include the hiding places, the forbidden zones, and the favorite spots of their location. The point: to jog their memory about a forgotten incident… a long ago discarded recollection of a particularly scary game of tag, for example. Or maybe a memory with a grandparent they had nearly let go of.

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Drawing a location will naturally help one remember, says Roorbach. He suggests putting as much detail as possible into their maps. For example,

  • Don’t forget the propane tank behind the oak tree.
  • The dog bowl under the porch.
  • The soybean field.
  • The clothesline.
  • The garden gnome at the end of the iris patch that you tripped over one time.

My students took about one or two 56-minute class periods to draw their maps. Some finished much more quickly than others and once they landed on a memory, they could start writing. Here are some of the maps (or some detail shots) that my juniors and seniors drew:

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Here’s my own example map that I showed students before they started their own. This is my maternal grandparents’ farm in rural southwest Missouri.

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This is my maternal grandparents’ farm near Hume, Mo. I drew in as much as I could… even where I watched a possum play possum one afternoon from the “davenport” near the front of the kitchen. My map shows the grape arbors, a cherry tree, a peach tree, a fuel tank for the tractors, a propane tank. I put a question mark where I couldn’t quite remember the exact positioning of things.

 

My classes wrote first and second drafts of their memoirs. I gave each student full participation points if they reached the word-count minimum, which was 750 words for their second draft. (First drafts could be turned in with only 450 words, but their first drafts did need to be complete with a beginning, middle, and end, including the reflective “lesson learned” part of their memoir.

I still have the second drafts of everyone’s memoirs. In about a month, I’ll pass these back out for further revision. I hope we are able to look at them with “fresh eyes.” We may get into Protocol Peer Review Groups to collaborate on revision and editing.

It’s my hope that there will be a handful of memoirs that can be entered into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in December.

After students had turned in their second drafts, I asked them their thoughts on the map-making portion of the project. Was it beneficial? Did drawing a map help them recall memories they had forgotten?

I didn’t do a Google Form to survey them, but just asked for a show of hands at the end of class. Some acknowledged that yes, the maps were helpful. Most students, however, seemed indifferent (a common response to just about anything it seems!).  But then again, a few were emphatic that the map exercise brought forth the memory that they ended up writing about.

One student in particular agreed that the map helped him.  Drawing his farm allowed  him to recall a tree that he climbed when he was about twelve. That tree caught on fire when he was still in it due to some burning paper airplanes that a cousin, I believe, flew into the tree. Reading about his fiery hot, melting rubber shoe soles and his ensuing panic made for a stirring and shocking story. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt and the main outcome of the fire was that a cousin had to pick up rocks on the farm for a good while afterward.

This story, “The Burning Tree,” has so much potential for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. It’s my hope that further revisions and editing will allow us to enter it into the student’s contest account soon.

And to think it all started with making a map.


Thanks for reading again this week! Are you planning to enter some student work into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards this year? Students could begin opening accounts on September 12. None of my students has opened their accounts yet. Those who submit work will likely upload their work in November or December. Leave a comment or question about the contest and I’ll see if I can help.

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The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

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I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

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Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

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Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

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This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment. 

 

Memoir Mentor Text: Something I Wrote that I Now Use as a Mentor Text

It’s hard to find mentor texts sometimes, and occasionally I just write one myself when the need arises, or I scroll through my sister blog to find stories I’ve already written.

For my students, I define “memoir” as a personal narrative that contains a beginning, middle, and end, plus a lesson learned from the situation. That lesson learned can also be simply a realization or understanding of the writer’s place in the world, or how the world, (or more generally, life) works. For younger or struggling writers, the lessons learned can be overtly stated in the concluding paragraphs, as in “From this experience, I learned…” However, for more skilled writers, the lessons learned can be implied and woven into the piece in a more unexpected or creative way.  Here’s my memoir. Feel free to use for educational purposes.

Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings

 

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Photo by Jiafeng Wang on Unsplash

 

During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.

I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car. My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park.

My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Every day without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.

One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings  of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.

I continued to make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving.

But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew,  if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did.  Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?

Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the  park.

With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that.  I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do every day of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.

Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.

I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time every day) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior.  Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.

Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.


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