Friday, August 26, 2022

Teaching Memoir Writing to Kids: An Interview with Author/Educator Lesley Roessing

It's the start of a new school year and teachers are looking for ways to provide authentic and engaging writing experiences for students. With that in mind, I'm circling back to the topic of memoir with an interview and Q&A with Leslie Roessing, M. Ed. Lesley is a featured author in my book, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning Through the Power of Storytelling (Brookes Publishing, 2021), and wrote the chapter entitled, “Memoir: Writing Our Lives.” 

She also has a book on the subject called Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. In this exciting resource, she uses memoir and creative nonfiction with reluctant readers and writers to form bridges between reading and writing, fiction and nonfiction, and narrative and informative writing. Lesley has vast experience on the subject. She taught middle school for more than 20 years, served as Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, and was a Senior Lecturer at Georgia Southern University.
Carolee: In your chapter in Story Frames as well as in your book, Bridging the Gap, you talk about using memoir as a bridge between narrative and informative writing and even argument writing. What connections do you see between these very different genres, and how do you bridge that gap with students?

See Roessing's chapter entitled
"Memoir: Writing Our Lives."

 Lesley: When I teach or work with teachers, I advocate moving readers and writers from the familiar to the less familiar, moving from narrative to informative to argument in reading and writing. When we think of narrative writing, we think of fiction. Humans have always been storytellers (“Once upon a time…”). Young readers usually begin with reading stories and writing stories. And, therefore, that was how I began my teaching year—with reading and writing stories.
I found the jump to informational reading and writing presented too wide a gap. Students see that mode as completely different from the narrative mode that is more familiar, and many teachers teach fiction and nonfiction reading and narrative and informative writing in completely different ways.
I realized that memoir, as narrative nonfiction, contained elements of, and used strategies for, both narrative and informational and could be employed to bridge that gap. Memoir, as creative or narrative nonfiction, is that perfect bridge between the two modes. Students read information and facts about others through narrative structure as they write information and facts about themselves through narrative structure, meeting both State Standards in Literature and in Informational Texts and in Narrative Writing and in Informative/Explanatory Writing.
Memoir writing can also lead to more effective opinion and argument writing. Through writing memoir, writers discover and uncover their own passions and convictions, leading them to choose more effective argument topics; readers are introduced to the roots of the passions and convictions of others as they read memoirs.
Carolee:  You have observed that writing memoir helps students close the achievement gap because they are able to activate prior knowledge which improves success. You say that memoir essentially “levels the playing field.” How have you seen students transfer success with memoir writing to writing where they may not have as much background knowledge?
Lesley: Because memoir writing is personal and writers are sharing their stories, in all my classes and in classes where I facilitated a memoir writing unit, I have found that students want to do their best writing when writing memoirs. This was one unit where all these students participated and wrote (which is why I decided to write Bridging the Gap). Therefore, writing focus lessons have more meaning and students are more willing to employ lessons in their writing. Also, this is a unit where I encouraged students to take risks in their writing (with no chance of penalty for a “failure”), so they were more willing to try new strategies. This transferred to their writings in all modes for the remainder of the year and led to better writing.
It is true that writers have all the background knowledge needed to write memoir, but to make their memoirs better or to expand their memoir writing, they were taught to employ “research” strategies, such as experiential research (researching their memories and learning how to include what they experienced effectively in their writing). Even though memoir is writing about experiences as the memoirist remembers, there can be some interviewing people from the past for some details and writers learned research techniques. And last, memoirists were encouraged to utilize Google Earth and Maps to aid memory of places as well as artifacts and texts, such as pictures and news articles. In these ways, they are amassing research strategies they can employ in informative and argument writing and which can provide background knowledge.
Carolee: You use mentor texts as exemplars for good memoir writing. What are some of your favorite mentor texts to use with students?

 Lesley: My favorite mentor texts vary with the writing format I am teaching—poetry, prose, graphics, and audio memoirs, but, for memoir in general, I love Patricia Polacco’s memoir picture books and Cynthia Rylant’s picture books and her poetry book. In my book on memoir reading and writing, Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core, I include mentor texts in each chapter. I have updated some of the oral or audio memoirs that I included. I love Jerry Seinfield’s Halloween which is available on YouTube and also was published as a picture book. Another favorite for older students is Carmen Agra Deedy's TED Talk "Spinning a Story of Mama" which I had the opportunity to see her present in person.
In April 2020 I wrote a guest blog for YA Wednesday, “Memoirs for Reading and Writing,” that reviewed full-length Upper Elementary, Middle Grades, and Young Adult memoirs but also included collections of short memoirs appropriate for different ages:
Carolee: Do you have any final tips for teachers who want to use memoir writing with struggling students?
Lesley: My best tip for teachers working with struggling or reluctant writers is to spend more time on brainstorming and prewriting. In Bridging the Gap I provide brainstorming forms for all the writings because the more brainstorming ideas and prewriting strategies (such as organizing ideas, adding details, using the senses, etc) writers employ, and the more time spent on prewriting, the easier, and better, the writing. Donald M. Murray wrote that “few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft.” (“Write Before Writing” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381, National Council of Teachers of English.
Carolee: Thank you so much for being with us today and for your invaluable insights.
Be sure to check out Lesley’s chapter in Story Frames for Teaching Literacy as well as her most recent book, Talking Texts: A Teacher’s Guide to Book Clubs Across the Curriculum.

To explore the contrast between memoir and autobiography, see my blog post from earlier in April about Memoir Vs. Autobiography: All Our Stories Matter. For a list of books written by children’s authors about their personal life experiences, go to the end of my teacher’s guide on
Activities for Using Watercress with Older Students. The guide includes several writing activities linked to the Common Core for grades 3-8 based on autobiographical stories.

To revisit posts from other Story Frames authors, go to:

Amy Miller and Superhero Stories

The Family Story: Interview with Parent Advocate Mary Jo O'Neill.

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