Memoir Writing: A Celebration of Heritage in English Language Arts



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.

William Zinsser


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.


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.

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.


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.


© 2023, Literacy Today