To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.
I’ll never forget the first time I looked through the pages of Rainbow of Dreams: Memories in Black and White (Tiseo and Emery, 2000). I was instantly hypnotized by the countless faces reaching out to me. There was something about these silent images that beckoned me to read their stories. I needed to know who these proud and determined people were. I had to find out where they came from and why their pictures had been captured at that particular time in their lives. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m nosey by nature and this marvellous compilation of writing allowed me to satisfy my curiosity for several hours.
Shortly after that, I made up my mind this was the type of project I would love to try out in my own cycle three classroom. I knew I could easily weave this genre of writing into my Language Arts curriculum. The following is the story of how this project came to life and the impact it had not only on my students but on me. I knew that if I was going to teach memoir or constructed memoir then I would have to engage in the process as well. Mem Fox (1992) reminds me always that “If you are not a writer, you will not understand the difficulties of writing. If you are not a writer, you will not know the fears and hopes of the writer you teach.”
Before beginning the challenge of writing about historical family photos, we practiced the necessary skills we would need by looking at pictures of ourselves dressed up for a special occasion. With guidance from a list of prompting questions, shared below, we successfully described the story behind our photograph.
Where was the photograph taken (city, town, country)?
When was the photograph taken (date, year)?
What were you feeling at the time the photograph was taken?
Did your expression in the photograph match your feelings at the time (e.g., If you weren’t smiling, but had a good time at the event; if you were smiling but had a bad time at the event, etc.)?
What memories are brought back to you upon seeing the photograph?
If there are people in the photograph other than you, who are they?
Who else was around when the photograph was taken (but not in the photograph)?
Who took the photograph (a family member, a friend, a professional photographer, etc.)?
Describe any tastes, sights, sounds that you remember from the day the photograph was taken.
Did the photograph signal a life-changing event that profoundly affected you at the time, and how has this event affected you as a person today?
Does the setting of the photograph still play an important role in your life and how?
If the photograph portrays a family tradition that has been passed down from
generation to generation – How long has this tradition been practiced in your
family? (i.e. With what family member did it begin? Does it continue today? Has the tradition changed at all over time?)
Orally, we shared our photographs and the stories behind them. Peers asked questions to assist with remembering to include aspects that might have been neglected. It was a true celebration to share and congratulate each student on the positive details they had discovered about this special occasion in their lives. Using the information they had investigated, the pointers offered by their peers and the photograph itself as a scaffolding tool, we each wrote out the story behind our photograph. Our pictures and accompanying memoirs were then hung on a clothesline above our heads to serve as a visual reminder of the process we went through and as inspiration for the future.
We dove deeply into rich mentor texts to understand the structure and features of memoir. It was only by being able to deconstruct these rich texts and exploring the elements that published authors used, that we could understand what we needed to include in the next pieces of writing that we were going to produce. The following is a great list of mentor texts that you can use in your elementary classroom to immerse your students into the genre of memoir.
The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant
When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali
I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Going Down Home with Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons
The Memory String by Eve Bunting
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe
Knots in My Yo-yo String by Jerry Spinelli
My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
Drawn Together by Minh Le
A Different Pond by Bao Phi
The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott
My Baba’s Garden by Jordan Scott
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
Together we read countless stories and selections from novels to create anchor charts of what features made these pieces of writing memoir and what elements of writers’ craft the authors had employed to create effective and engaging pieces of writing. We also considered what type of family photograph we could choose on which to base our constructed memoir and ways that we might go about finding one that really spoke to us. The students were keen and eager and old family pictures started arriving in class. Some came from as far away as Sri Lanka. These were truly treasured memories we were looking at.
Once we had a snapshot of our family history captured though the magic of photography, we set out to find the story behind it. We knew that we had to interview either a parent, a relative or a close friend of the subject in the photograph. We also learned the importance of how to arrange an interview, the types of questions we must ask and how to take orderly notes and information that would be later transformed into the story of a family member’s life. I have shared below the interview techniques we developed and practiced before we went live with family members.
Before you interview someone about the photograph, given them advance warning so they can start to think about the topics you are interested in. Explain what you want to do, why you want to do it, and why the interviewee is important to you and your research. If there are multiple people who can tell you about the photograph, make sure you let all these people know you would like to talk to them about it.
Think out your questions before the interview. Write them on a piece of paper in an organized manner. Once you have written a list of questions, review them carefully, keeping the following in mind:
Will these questions really lead you to the answers you are seeking?
Are some questions unimportant or redundant?
Are your questions open-ended, or do they require only one-word answers? (For example: Instead of asking someone “Did you enjoy working at your father’s store when you were younger?” ask “What did you like and what did you dislike about working at your father’s store when you were younger?”)
In what order will you ask these questions?
What time limit, if any, do you have for asking your questions and listening to the answers?
If possible, record the interview on a device. If you have a difficult time taking notes, you can later use the recording to help you fill in missing pieces in your notes. Remember to ask permission of your interviewee to record the interview.
If you think of other questions while the interviewee is talking, write these in point form so you can come back to them at a later time in the interview.
Don’t be afraid of silence. Give your interviewee time to think about your questions. Sometimes silence on your part will allow for the interviewee to add information that you might not have obtained.
Don’t be afraid to ask the interviewee to explain unclear points in more detail for you.
Be sensitive to what your interviewee may reveal about their memories. Sometimes people become emotional talking about the past. If your interviewee is upset by a memory, either remain silent or quietly ask, “Is it alright if we talk some more about this? Or would you rather not?” Give your interviewee the choice of whether or not to continue.
At the end of your questioning, ask the interviewee if they want to share any final thoughts that might not have come up before.
At the very end of the interview, thank your interviewee, and remind them that they will be able to see your finished product at a later date.
Once our interviews were completed, we shared orally with each other the information we had learned about our families. We then created narrative pieces from the notes we had taken. Some created letters or journal entries in the voice of the person in the photograph. Others took a first-person perspective and created a constructed memoir, using writer’s craft to fill in any gaps so that the story flowed, and the memory was honoured.
The unveiling of the Treasured Memories: Stories from Our Past took place on our curriculum fair night. Students and parents stood together, reading, viewing, laughing, and crying. The tribute to family and the impact it had on these grade six students was one of the best moments of my teaching career. Photographer Ralph Hattersley once said, “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” What better reason to dive into this type of project? It will be memories in the making.
Tiseo, F. and Emery, W. (Eds.). (2000), Rainbow of Dreams: Memories in Black and White. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.
Fox, Mem. (1992). Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books, Even the Pathetic Ones. NY: Harper.