I’ve written six 500-word (or so) memoirs this past month and a half. That’s due, in part, because of my love of the genre, but primarily these memoirs were composed as part of the instructional process as I guided two classes of high school sophomores (their triptych memoir as discussed in the Kirby’s article “Contemporary Memoir: A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens”) and four classes of seniors through the process of composing their own memoirs.
Modeling is a powerful practice in the writing classroom — if not in all classrooms. I wanted students to hear my thinking processes as I grappled with the same assignment in front of them. My modeling moved from the initial brainstorming to uncover potential memoir topics (I used a couple of different strategies — “Stones in the River” and “Map My Neighborhood” — to approach the assignment) to drafting and revising the essay, and cleaning it up with some editing strategies. We did Peter Elbow’s “looping” strategy to get to the heart of the reflection of the memoir — why is this memory even significant? At each step of the way, using the document camera, my students listened as I thought through my own writing.
As an aside, one of the examples of instructional modeling I have experienced as a student was on the South Platte River with my friend and fishing guide, Steve. As he taught me the techniques for putting a dry fly on the water so that it floated naturally to entice fish, he modeled the casting motion, watched as I attempted the same, and guided my “revision” process standing there side-by-side. He didn’t “tell me” how to cast. He showed me. He didn’t demonstrate and walk away. He demonstrated then responded to my attempts with guidance, praise, and (because he’s my friend) some good natured kidding.
One discovery I made in this instructional practice is that I need to be careful as I talk through my process. I want students to maintain ownership over their own papers, so I want them to mimic the thinking and decision-making process. I model the thinking so they can follow a similar process to make decisions about their own writing. One of my favorite questions I pose to myself and, later, pose to my students begins “What if…?”
- “What if I develop this potential topic with some details and see what I discover; is it meaty enough to pursue?”
- “What if I craft these two sentences into one?”
- “What if I break this paragraph into a couple of paragraphs to change the pace and emphasis? (Yes, that would mean that I may have a one-sentence paragraph.)”
So I wrote one in each of my classes. Why? Why didn’t I just fudge it and show subsequent classes the brainstormings and drafts that I did in the earlier class periods? Simple. The product at the end of the brainstorming session is only as valuable as the process to develop it. I liken it to downloading a PDF of a powerpoint from the Internet rather than actually being at the presentation where the powerpoint was used. Sure, I have a product — but I don’t hear the nuance, hear the thinking behind the slides, the inflection of voice, the speaker’s laugh or the asides.
Students benefit from hearing the thinking behind the arrows moving their eyes around the brainstorming; they need the reasons why things are scratched out and written over in the draft; they need to hear how the ideas originally in the last paragraph end up being presented earlier and throughout the essay instead of lumped together at the end. They need to hear me grapple with a decision, struggle with a revision, rethink where I was going as I head where the memoir needs to go.
While none of this may seem particularly new or groundbreaking, as I worked through the process with students, it became clear how powerful modeling is to give guidance, to stimulate thinking, and, ultimately, to release responsibility for their own work.