Using Memoirs in the Secondary Classroom
If I could have one lasting impact on the world, it would be to spread a deep understanding of others, which I believe would undoubtedly grow compassion. If we understood every aspect of what another person experiences, feels, and thinks, we’d be less quick to judge or grunt (to put it lightly) at the person who cuts us off in traffic or dresses differently than we would. Far too often, we, as individuals, get caught up in our own lives and world perspectives. We form our opinions, beliefs, worldviews, and actions based on our own surroundings and experiences. It’s often hard to understand why somebody would live the way they do simply because we’ve never been in their shoes.
When I taught 8th grade Honors English in an average Indiana city, my challenge was that my honors kids were stuck in their own worlds. (I think many middle school teachers can relate.) This resulted in cliques, bullying, and daily arguments between students who just couldn’t get along because they were too different—and, of course, this affected the quality of learning in our classroom. I was shocked by the amount of behavioral problems I faced in an honors class, and I finally realized that many of the kids had a hard time seeing the world outside their own perspectives. It was all about “me” and what “I” think and want.
In attempt to help my kids see the world outside their own lives, I created a project that would force them to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Yes, they were still 8th graders, and, yes, this project was important to me—so I didn’t want to take a chance by forcing them to read about someone they didn’t want to read about simply because it I chose the book for them. I greatly believe that choice is one of the greatest teaching methods. So I told my kids that I wanted them to spend the next month reading the memoir of their choice, as long as the memoir was about someone different than them. The word “different” is vague, I know—ANYONE is different than me, but I let them interpret the word however they’d like, and we went with it.
Throughout the project, the kids formed literature circles to discuss what they were learning and how their perspectives were changing based on their books. It didn’t matter that they weren’t reading the same books—it only added more lives, worlds, and perspectives for the kids to see. They could then compare and contrast the lives they were reading about, draw similarities among individuals they were each reading about, and even draw similarities between the individuals they were reading about and their own lives and feelings. To encourage these discussions, I provided the literature circle groups with discussion prompts that could be applied to any of their books.
The reading project led to reading-based research. I told them that one of the greatest parts of reading is being exposed to anything (an event, a person, a place, a religion, etc.) that you didn’t previously know about, and then conducting your own research based on a spark of curiosity. So, based on their books, they each formed research questions, conducted research online and in the library, and created presentations to inform their classmates on their books and research.
It was a blast!
In the end, this project led the kids to see worlds and perspectives they had never considered, find interest and purpose in their research, and share with their classmates. They presented on topics ranging from ventriloquists to living with dyslexia.
I did make one alteration while the kids were choosing books. Some found great biographies, autobiographies, or narrative nonfiction titles, and I decided to allow the variety for the sake of letting kids choose books they were excited to read. What I love about memoirs is the level of personal reflection and emotions that the reader gets to experience with the writer, but I decided any chance for the kids to read about someone different from them was a chance I didn’t want to miss.
I have only good things to say about this project, which I know could be applied to middle or high school English or Social Studies—tweaked in ways to fit your classroom. If you’d like to plan something like it in your own classroom for the coming year, here is a short portion of the many great memoirs and other pieces of narrative nonfiction to add to your middle or high school classroom library:
Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle. 9781452121512. 2015. Grade 7-12.
Just Like Us: The True Story of four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe. 9781416538981. 2011. 10-12.
Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos. 9780312641573. 2012. Grade 8-12.
Laughing at My Nightmare Shane Burcaw. 9781626720077. 2014. Grade 11-12.
A List of Things that Didn’t Kill Me by Jason Schmidt. 9781250073723. 2016. 10-12.
Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews. 9781481416764. 2015. Grade 9-12.
Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Joshua Davis. 9780374534981. 2014. Grade 9-12.
We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist. 9780316251006. 2016. Grade 9-12.
Rapture Practice: A True Story About Growing up Gay in an Evangelical Family by Aaron Hartzler. 9780316094641. 2013. Grade 9-12.
My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel. 9780439339056. 2005. Grade 7-12.
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Change (Young Readers Addition) by Malala Yousafzai. 9780316327916. 2016. Grade 6-9.
Riding the Bus with my Sister: A True Life Journey by Rachel Simon. 9781455526161. 2013. Grade 11-12.
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