Memoir Unit

Nicole Jodarski


Prefatory Statement:

              “Real Life: Stranger than Fiction” is a three week unit in which students will be examining nonfiction (in general) and considering its relationship to truth.  Specifically, students will be learning about the genre of memoir by reading to become familiar with the genre, completing a variety of multimedia activities to deepen understanding, and finally by drafting their own memoirs to demonstrate knowledge gained throughout the unit. 

The primary purpose of this unit is to have students explore how perspective shapes truth.  Gaining an understanding of the subjectivity of truth, especially when it is labeled as “true” (“nonfiction”), broadens students’ ability to practice formal operations of thought and also teaches them how to see truth from another person’s perspective.  Teaching students the skill and value of seeking to understand from the perspective of another person is vital because if students are able to do this, the “us vs. them” mentality that is at the root of nearly all social injustices is broken down.  If we as educators believe that school is a microcosm of society and society ought to be a place free from social injustice, we must also understand that it is our responsibility to teach students how to appreciate difference, foster a desire to understand others, and practice empathy. 

This unit begins this task by introducing students to a wide variety of perspectives of truth, as written in memoirs by authors of diverse ethnicities, races, classes, and genders.  As students read, they will be asked to engage in meaningful discussions regarding perspective and truth.  After students have felt out the genre of memoir and have asked their own questions about the nature of truth, they will then be introduced to new modes in which people express and create the truths that define their lives.  Students will be asked to analyze online personal profile pages and narrated film documentary.  A new question will be posed: students will consider whether a person can ever accurately represent the truths of another person’s experience (biography vs. autobiography).  Finally, students will take ownership as they move into the final part of the unit and express their own truths by writing, recording, filming, or visually representing a memoir piece.  This piece is extremely important for adolescent learners as it acknowledges their need for being seen as competent, self-determined individuals who have something important to impart unto their world.  As students craft their memoirs, they will work as members of a writing/creating workshop.  These workshops will function to give students an opportunity to be accountable to one another, to share in meaningful work, and to practice the peer review process.  The final concluding piece of the unit will be a day dedicated to the presentation of personal memoirs which will serve as a testament to the understandings gained throughout this unit.  


Class Specification:

              This unit is intended for 11th and 12th grade students.  The texts that I have included in this unit are suitable for mature upper class high school students.  Some of the content found in the memoirs I have selected deals with weighty issues with which younger secondary students or students with mild dispositions may be uncomfortable.  For example, one of the lessons in the unit focuses on a chapter from Anderson Cooper’s memoir in which he recounts his brother’s suicide.  Other authors, such as Frank McCourt, use profanity as they recount remembered dialogue.  Nothing in this unit is meant to offend, but students must be psychologically and developmentally ready to engage with challenging texts.    


Adaptations:  This unit could easily be adapted to suit different grade levels by simply choosing different age-appropriate memoirs and by matching content to the cognitive and developmental levels of the students.  The activities can be used for any age group so long as the sophistication of the objectives is properly modified.  In fact, the genre of memoir and the writing of personal memoirs may actually be more engaging to middle school students given their developmental tendency toward egocentrism.  The benefit of teaching this unit to upperclassmen in high school is that they have more life experience to draw on than do middle school students. 


Significant Assumptions:

              Students learn best when they are engaged in material that relates to their life and has a significant impact on who they are becoming as people.  This unit is based on the assumption that students are most motivated when they take ownership of their learning and practice applying concepts in authentic ways.  In this unit, students will be doing this in the final assessment of writing/creating their own memoir.  Another philosophy that informs this unit is that the classroom is a microcosm of society in which students practice forming relationships, interacting, assisting, and being accountable to others.  Students will learn from community members as well as peers because this unit acknowledges the responsibility teachers have for preparing students for life beyond graduation.   

              In terms of activities for this unit, I assume students already know the conventions of working as a member of a writing workshop.  Students should have some experience at peer editing and should understand that they are accountable to one another for bringing in drafts on time on writing/creating workshop days.  I assume the teacher also uses journaling as an everyday (or near everyday) activity.  Students are comfortable free writing about their personal experiences, opinions, and (to some extent) their beliefs.  To engage in critical analyses of texts in the way this unit intends, students will need to be at a formal operational stage of cognitive development.


Desired Outcomes / Standards / Objectives to be met:

Minnesota Language Arts Standard:


  D. Literature

    9. Analyze the characteristics of literary forms.

                            (Analyze the characteristics of memoir.)


Students will be able to:




Possible Whole-Class Activities:





Possible Small-Group Activities:


Online forum for setting up peer review:



Possible Individual Activities:

Please see my example using Picassa to create an online photo album:



Ongoing Activities:


Student Resources:



Click on “More” and then “Photo”




Unit Launch / Anticipatory Set / Set Induction:

NBC’s The Office

Jim Halpert voicing a “true opinion” on jellybeans:



Photographic Memoir:




Organization of the Unit:

Week 1

Students will be introduced to the genre of memoir by reading short chapters that stand alone as self-contained stories from a variety of authors.  Discussion will focus on discerning the features that the example memoirs have in common.  Students will create visual representations of the progression of plot to determine if memoirs seem to follow a specific narrative structure.  Students will be asked to identify the use of vivid imagery and explain its effect on the works.  Lessons will focus on point of view, tone, timeframe and framing, stylistic choices, purpose, and audience.  Students will be asked why they think the author chose to share this particular memory.  Journaling will focus on the process of gathering memories.  On the first day of the unit, the students will look at a slideshow of pictures as a “visual memoir”.  Their major assignment for this week is to create their own such slideshow.  Students who are working toward the “A” contract should begin working on their “gift memoir.” 


Discussion Questions:


Week 2

The primary task of this week is to broaden the scope of the memoir genre.  Students will be considering how personal narrative takes on more forms than are present in writing.  Students will be looking at artwork, film, and online personal profiles such as MySpace and Facebook (these should be chosen prior to class for screening purposes).  The question: “What is truth and how is it played with in the memoir genre?” will be the focus of this week.  Students will consider the similarities and differences between memoir, autobiography, and biography.  Students will also look at documentary (Grizzly Man) and discuss how personal accounts are altered by the framing of narration.  In journals, students will continue to gather memories.  In-class writing exercises will asks students to begin practicing mimicking some of the features of memoir (such as writing with vivid imagery).  If students are doing the “gift memoir” (described in handout) they should complete it this week.  Near the end of the week, students will be introduced to their final project options and will set up their online blogs.


Week 3

The focus of the lessons will shift from input to production this week.  Students will begin to draft their final projects.  They will look back in their journals to find a memory that they feel passionate, but comfortable, about sharing.  Students will draft their list of characteristics of a memoir using their class notes.  They will be introduced to the process of peer review via blogging (using GoogleDocs).  The students will spend time in the computer lab working on their projects and seeking and receiving feedback.  When their project is complete, they will write a self-evaluation that describes how they incorporated their knowledge of the characteristics of memoir into their project.  The last day of the week will be a day for students (who so desire) to share their memoir project with the class.     


Detailed Plans for Two Days of the Unit:


Transitioning between Weeks 1 & 2:

Lesson Topic: Analyzing Elements of Memoir in Dispatches from the Edge

Grade level: 11th or 12th                         Length of lesson: 50 minutes


Stage 1 – Desired Results

Content Standard(s):

I. Reading and Literature

  D. Literature

    9. Analyze the characteristics of literary forms.

Understanding (s)/goals

Students will understand:

How significant life-defining moments can be blended with mundane moments as an effective technique in memoirs.


Essential Question(s):

What makes this memoir effective?

How have my profound experiences influenced the mundane aspects of my life?

Student objectives (outcomes):

Students will be able to:

  1. Identify key images used in the passages to create the effect of showing rather than telling.
  2. Describe the scope of the passages.
  3. Compare this memoir to others that have been previously read, noting features it holds in common and characteristics that make this memoir unique.


Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Performance Task(s):

Working with partners, students will draft a list of images, a diagram of the story’s narrative structure, and a list of characteristics that this memoir has in common with other memoirs that they have read.


Other Evidence:

Eventually, students will be assessed as they write/create a final memoir.

Stage 3 – Learning Plan

Learning Activities:

Materials and Resources:

  • Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper
  • Handouts of selected passages: pages 39-45 & 89-92


Introductory Activities:

  1. Teacher will ask students to take out their journals and write about the following:
    • Think of a defining moment in your life.  This could be something exciting that happened to you or something that shook your world in a negative way.  Have you ever been reminded of this event by something much later on in life?  What reminded you of this event?  If you haven’t been reminded of this event, why do you think that is?
  1. Teacher will share an example from his/her own experience that is significant, but appropriate for the class to hear.
  2. Teacher will ask if any students would like to volunteer to share what they wrote about.
  3. Teacher will ask students if anyone knows who Anderson Cooper.  If no one does, the teacher will explain that he is a news anchor for CNN.
  4. Teacher will pass out the selection from Anderson Cooper.
  5. Students will be asked to read the selection silently; taking notes on details they find to be significant.


Developmental Activities:


  1. When all students have finished, the teacher will ask: What was the defining moment that Cooper recounts in the first part of this memoir?  What reminds him of this event in the second passage?
  2. What does Cooper mean by the line: “‘Khraw, khraw,’ a producer standing next to me screeched, mimicking the sound of circling buzzards”?  Where is he when this line is said?  How is he reminded of his work in this situation?

   Partner Work

  1. Teacher will ask students to get in groups of three.
  2. Once students are settled in groups, teacher will ask the students to take out a sheet of paper. 
  3. The teacher will ask students to find key images in the text with their group, the ones they found as striking.  The students will record these on the sheet of paper.
  4. The teacher will next ask students to draw a diagram of the structure of the narrative, addressing rising and falling action and the timeframe / scope of the passages.
  5. Finally, the teacher will ask the students to find characteristics that this memoir has in common with other memoirs read thus far in class.  The teacher will also ask students to record any defining features that are unique to this memoir.
  6. As students are working on these steps, the teacher will move about the room assessing progress and asking groups if they would be willing to share their examples of defining features.


Closing Activities:

  1. The students will reconvene as a large group.
  2. The teacher will ask each group (as noted in step 6) to share their ideas about certain questions.
  3. The teacher will ask students whether Cooper’s strategies were effective in conveying his story.
  4. The teacher will ask students to be thinking about how Cooper blends the mundane and the extremely significant moments in life and how they might also do this when they work on their personal memoir.
  5. The teacher will review what was covered today and will preview the next day and the upcoming assignments.

Week 2, beginning or middle of week

Lesson Topic: Telling Your Own Truth vs. Having Your Story Told for You

Grade level: 11th or 12th                         Length of lesson: 50 minutes


Stage 1 – Desired Results

Content Standard(s):

I. Reading and Literature

  D. Literature

    9. Analyze the characteristics of literary forms.

Understanding (s)/goals

Students will understand:

The sense of empowerment that comes with the ability to tell one’s own story rather than having their story told for them.


Essential Question(s):

What is lost when others tell our stories from their perspective?

Is it possible to be able to accurately represent another person’s truth?

Student objectives (outcomes):

Students will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between biography and autobiographical memoir in terms of form and focus.
  • Describe the difficulties that come with creating a biography.
  • Describe how documentary narration shapes a story.


Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Performance Task(s):

Homework: Students will interview someone from the community, asking this person to tell them a story about one memorable experience.  Students will take thorough notes on the experience.  Students will draft a memoir, written in first person point of view from the perspective of the interviewee.  Students will share their memoir with the interviewee and ask how accurately they were able to portray the story.  They will then reflect on the difficulties of this task.


Other Evidence:


Stage 3 – Learning Plan

Learning Activities:

Materials and Resources:

Grizzly Man  directed by Werner Herzog


Introductory Activities:

  • Students will journal for the first 5-7 minutes of class.

Journal Prompt:

  • Think of a time when you shared an experience with a friend who later related this experience to someone who was not part of your experience.  How did you feel when your friend was telling about your shared experience?  Did they leave any important details out?  Did they elaborate or fabricate anything that happened?  How would you have told the story of the experience differently?
  •  Teacher will ask for student volunteers to share their writing.


Developmental Activities:

  •  The teacher will write biography and autobiography on the board.
  • The teacher will ask if anyone can describe the differences between these genres.
  • The teacher will ask where memoir fits as a genre.
  • Teacher will play a clip of Grizzly Man that does not contain narration or footage other than that of Timothy Treadwell (the subject of the documentary). 
  • The teacher will stop the clip and ask students to jot down some notes about how Treadwell perceives and portrays himself.  What is the story he is trying to tell?  What are some of the personal truths he is attempting to convey?
  • Teacher will play a different clip in which the narrator, Werner Herzog, speaks while showing Treadwell’s footage. 
  • The teacher will stop the clip and ask students to reflect on how Herzog’s portrayal of Treadwell is different from Treadwell’s portrayal of himself.  How does Herzog frame Treadwell?  Does he edit Treadwell’s footage in a way that sends a certain message about Treadwell?  How is the tone of Herzog’s narration different from Treadwell’s tone?
  • Students will have a large group discussion about this activity, first focusing on the questions they were asked to reflect on.  Further discussion questions:
  • What does this activity tell you about the difference between biography and autobiography?
  • Is it possible to accurately portray another person’s perspective?  If so, to what extent?
  • What is lost when someone else tells your story for you?  What is gained, if anything?
  • How did your journal entry at the beginning of the hour compare to the documentary we viewed?



Closing Activities:

The teacher will introduce the interview / memoir assignment.  Students will be asked to find a community member (someone who they perhaps are acquaintances with, but do not know extremely well) to interview.  Students should ask the interviewee to recount an experience that was particularly memorable.  During the interview students will need to take thorough notes on this experience.  Students will then write a memoir, in first person point of view, from the perspective of the interviewee.  This memoir should draw on the information gained during the interview to paint a vivid picture of the experience of the interviewee.  After the memoir is written, students will share it with their interviewee and ask how well they did at portraying the experience.  Students will write a self-reflection describing the difficulties they encountered while completing this assignment and the things they learned.

Supporting Materials for Teachers Who Teach the Unit:


Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom. New York: Pembroke, Limited, 1994.


"Scholastic Teachers: Write It - Memoir." Scholastic. 2008. Scholastic. <>.


Selling, Bernard. Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998.


Online forum for setting up peer review:


Online photo album:



Journal Prompts





Memoir Unit Journals


Throughout the semester you have been asked to journal each day.  Nearly every day you have been given a writing prompt in class.  You have already begun to compile a rich collection of your opinions, beliefs, musings, and experiences.  In this unit we continue this compilation.  For these three weeks, our writing prompts will focus largely on your life experiences.  As we study the genre of memoir, our journals will become of utmost importance, first as we begin to understand the features of the genre, and most importantly as you begin to write your own memoir. 


How to use your journal during this unit:

Your journal will be a tool for you to begin practicing remembering events that had a significant (or perhaps insignificant) impact on the person you are or are becoming.  It will also be a place for you to practice using imagery and showing rather than telling.  You will be asked to consider the nature of truth in some of your entries.  I encourage you to do the best you can with each entry, incorporating what we have learned in class.  Ultimately, your journal will be a resource for you to look back on to help choose a memory to relate in your final project.


Journal Requirements:

In order to earn a “C” in the course, you will need to journal every day of this unit.  Each day you will be given a prompt to address.  I will be sporadically checking 5 times to make sure you have been writing journal entries.  The minimum length requirement is one page, handwritten, single spaced.  Remember: the more thought you put into your entries and the deeper you delve into your memories, the easier it will be for you to complete your final project.


Memoir Unit Blogs


Using Moodle as a forum for blogging, you will engage in the peer review process of your memoir projects.



  1. Log into GoogleDocs.
  2. Upload part of your project.  If your project is a written memoir, you may just post your writing in the forum.  If you are using images, video clips, or other visuals please upload these.
  3. Ask for specific feedback on your project.  Describe what you feel is strong about your project.  Describe the areas that need work. 
  4. Comment on the projects of your peers, giving detailed constructive feedback to their questions.
  5. Refer to your grading contract for the number of posts you must do to receive your contract grade.
  6. This is a place for you to test out your ideas, revise your project, and sharpen the message you are trying to convey.  The more you interact with one another, the more opportunities you have to better your final project.



“Gift Memoir”


This is an “A” contract project.  Its purpose is to have extra practice writing within the memoir genre in a way that allows you to write something that has a real audience and purpose.



  1. Choose an audience (a friend, relative, classmate, or someone else who is special to you).
  2. Recount an experience that you shared with this person in a short memoir piece. 
  3. Present this memoir to them as a gift.



Discussion Questions:


For each memoir I have included specific recall questions that can be used to begin discussion or as quiz questions to keep students accountable for having done the reading.  The following questions are applicable to all of the memoirs and serve to help students solidify their understanding of the genre:


“The Voice”


 "2" After Long Silence


“SantaLand Diaries”


Dispatches from the Edge


Assessment Task:



The purpose of this final project is to assess how well you understand the genre of memoir and how well you are able to use your own experiences to demonstrate an understanding of the genre



Final Assessment Options:

  1. Write a memoir to be published in a classroom collection.
  2. Write a memoir, record yourself reading the memoir aloud, and upload the recording to the internet as a podcast.
  3. Write a script, create a storyboard, and film a video depiction of a memoir. 
  4. Create an entirely visual representation of a memory that follows the conventions of the memoir form.



Final Assessment Process & Requirements:

  1. Choose the option in which you will best be able to use your strengths to convey your understanding of memoir. 
  2. Look over class notes and think about what we have learned about memoirs during the unit.  Create a list of defining features that are characteristic of the memoir genre.  This list is not limited to, but should minimally address the following:
  3. Refer to your journal to find an experience you feel strongly about and are willing to share.
  4. Complete the project option you have chosen in a way that integrates the characteristics you have identified as important to the genre in your list.
  5. Write a reflection on how your project is representative of the memoir genre.  Specifically, explain the ways in which your project demonstrates universal characteristics of a memoir.  (Using your list will help you!)
  6. Turn in your:

(All three must be turned in or the project will be returned to you as incomplete.)


Final Assessment Rubric









Descriptive list of the Characteristics of Memoir


All of the aspects listed on the assignment sheet are addressed accurately and thoroughly.  Characteristics not described on the assignment sheet are also addressed.  Each characteristic is described and clarified with the use of an example from a work that was read during the unit.

All of the aspects listed on the assignment sheet are addressed accurately and thoroughly.  The characteristics of memoir are presented using descriptive examples.

Most of the aspects listed on the assignment sheet are addressed.  The characteristics of memoir are presented accurately, but minimal examples are used.

Not all of the aspects listed on the assignment sheet are addressed.  The characteristics that are explained are described inaccurately or incompletely.





Clearly articulates how the project demonstrates an ability to create a memoir that adheres to the form.  Specific examples of how the project adheres to the genre are used for each of the characteristics presented in their list.

Clearly articulates how the project demonstrates an ability to create a memoir that adheres to the form.  Most of the characteristics presented in the list are addressed and exemplified in terms of features of the project.

Explains using examples that partially demonstrate the characteristics of the form.  Not all characteristics in the list are addressed, especially those which are more difficult to explain (such as style).

Examples of how the project demonstrates the characteristics of the genre are vague.  Characteristics described are not unique to the genre or are not applicable to memoir.



Uses vivid imagery to make the work aesthetically appealing.  Reader/viewer/listener is drawn in and can clearly “see” the scene.  Images used are novel and work well with the writer’s personal style.

Uses imagery to show instead of tell.  The images enhance the story by giving it a unique feel.

Uses minimal imagery to help describe the setting, characters, etc.  Imagery that is used is sometimes cliché.

Tells what is happening, but does not use imagery to help the reader/viewer, listener “see” the story.

Point of View

First person point of view remains consistent throughout the memoir.  The voice of the narrator clearly demonstrates personality.  The reader/viewer/listener feels as if s/he is hearing from a real person.

First person point of view remains consistent throughout the memoir.  The reader/viewer/listener is able to identify a clear voice / style of presentation.

First person point of view remains consistent throughout the memoir.

Point of view changes within the memoir.  First person point of view is not used.

Clarity of Expression

Ideas are clearly expressed.  Sentence variety enhances readability of the narrative.  The work contains no grammatical or mechanical errors.

In visual representations: The message is clearly conveyed through the use of image.  There is no ambiguity when discerning the theme.

In Writing: Narrative is free from grammatical and mechanical errors.  Sentences structure does not impede understanding.  Ideas are easily followed.

Narrative can be followed with minimal difficulty.  In writing: Some of the sentences or paragraphs are somewhat unclear, but as a whole the story is comprehensible.

In Writing: Difficult to understand the narrative because of grammar or mechanical errors. 


In Visuals: Difficult to understand the narrative because of incomplete representation. 

Narrative Structure

Sophisticated narrative structure which includes digressions within the story that enhance rising action and do not interfere with the ability to identify a central conflict, its climax, and resolution.

Conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution are all present and there is consistency in the treatment of the theme/subject of the story.

Rudimentary narrative structure noticeable.  Reader can clearly identify conflict, rising, action, climax, and resolution.

No clearly defined narrative structure.  Difficult to decipher when the rising action, climax, and resolution take place.


Memoir Unit Grading Contract


Note:  All tasks on the contract must be completed at a satisfactory level.  If they are not satisfactory, I will return the assignment to you and it is your responsibility to revise and re-submit the assignment in order for it to be counted toward your contract grade.


C Contract


B Contract


A Contract