My grandmother was a master storyteller. She had a way with the written and spoken word that far surpassed any adult I’ve personally known in my entire life. Gramma could turn normal, everyday occurrences into a story with a plot, rising action, and a conflict. Her characters were her family members, her friends, her pets, her garden full of flowers, and oftentimes, herself. Many people take a walk in the woods, bake bread, pull weeds in a garden, take a nap in a hammock, go to the grocery store, or take a pet to the vet; but when Gramma did these things, she had adventures. Gramma always had a story to tell, and she told it very well. Storytelling was her gift.
The process of turning moments into stories is something I am always excited to share with my students. Some teachers really love the fiction units (I do, too!), but my absolute favorite thing to teach is the literary nonfiction unit because this unit is the one in which students write their own short memoirs. When students go through the process of writing their own memoirs, the learning and knowledge they gain about themselves as writers, and as humans, is unmatched. Watching a student go from struggling writer to storyteller is just the best!
My students do not start this process without instruction. We study memoirs, using tons of mentor texts in all forms to gain a deeper understanding. Students then choose from a selection of mentor texts to write their own memoirs – from authors, musicians, comedians, poets, young people, mature adults, and even teachers. I write my own short memoirs, often as my students are composing theirs, and I share my stories with them for use as a mentor text if they so choose. In my classes, I emphasize to students that everyone is a writer and any piece of writing that speaks to them can be a mentor text. Students may also choose their own form of mentor text – short narrative, vignette, poem, song, essay, even a story with artwork included!
Over the years, I’ve used a variety of mentor texts with my students. These selections have been chosen and collected over time, and each year I add some and replace others. I encourage students to write about anything they choose – memories that are happy, sad, exciting, scary, troubling, or that are otherwise unforgettable. However, not all moments worth writing about are huge, life-changing moments. It is often in the mundane that we find the best stories – just as my Gramma did with her stories of everyday life.
Inspiration for stories can be found anywhere, and music often evokes otherwise elusive memories and emotions. People of all ages have had moments when they hear a certain song and are suddenly flooded with a memory to which the song is tied. I encourage students to listen to music to spark memories, to talk to family members at home about shared experiences, to look at memorabilia or other objects in their bedrooms as a way to coax memories to the surface. An item that seems like trash or a piece of junk to one person may hold a significant memory for another – a ticket stub, a receipt, an old chapstick, a coin, a silly eraser – many simple objects have strong memories attached to them.
During this process, I share photos with my students of objects I own from when I was in middle school. I share photos of my Pop Swatch, my Jon Bon Jovi poster, my boom box and cassette tapes, and my own 8th grade school photo. I tell them the story of that day – how I took off my thick, ugly, brown 80’s glasses to take the photo, how my mom was upset that I didn’t “look like me”, and how happy I was with the result because my permed hair, giant hot pink earrings, and stone-washed jeans with suspenders all looked so awesome! And the story of how a frenemy later saw my photo when I gave her a wallet-size print (we did that for our friends back then – remember?) and then turned my photo upside down in front of many other students and made a snide comment. And of how my best friend stood up for me and talked back to that girl! Students are shown that picture-day in 8th grade can be a story, complete with a villain.
When students begin their stories, I teach them a common trick, one I use in my own writing – don’t begin at the beginning! Middle school students often want to narrate each minute of a memory from first thing in the morning until last thing at night, in a step-by-step manner. “First I woke up, then I had breakfast, then I got on the bus,” and so on. Instead, I encourage students to begin stories in the middle, and then weave the details in and out to fill in gaps for the reader. Students are encouraged to set the scene by using descriptive, sensory language and imagery to help the reader see in their own minds what my writers envision in their memories. I have them brainstorm using their five senses and generate adjectives to describe. “Show me more” is something I often say when I read their writing, and then I ask for specifics. What was the weather like? What time of year was this? What was everyone wearing? What sounds did you hear? How did you feel physically when that happened? Asking students many questions can help them elaborate on their memories and create an interesting story. It’s true that I don’t always use all of these strategies with all of my classes, or all of my students. They are individuals, and I make adjustments for each class based on student need. A strategy that worked well in one class may not get any result at all in another; having a full toolbox of memoir forms, mentor texts, and strategies makes it easier to help any student find their voice.
My students have experienced ordinary and extraordinary things. They lead simple and complicated lives. Some have hardships and joys I will never know. It is a gift to play a small part in their journey. They are unique, complex, difficult, talented, struggling, and outstanding. They are so many things. They are also all writers, and they all have a story to tell.