Discovering Memory: Li-Young Lee's Poem "Mnemonic" and the Brain

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Eight 50-minute sessions
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In this cross-curricular poetry and biology unit, Li-Young Lee's poem “Mnemonic” is used to explore how memory works. Students begin by brainstorming a list of their own memories and circling interesting words and phrases that they share with the class and then incorporating these words and phrases into a piece of writing. Students next discuss the brain and how memory is stored, leading students to dissect Li-Young Lee's poem “Mnemonic.” As they apply this scientific information to the poem, students better understand the kinds of memories the speaker has in the poem and where those memories might be located in the brain. Groups of students then plan and complete projects in which they create a product that relates to memory, in one of three categories: informational, creative, or personal.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In order for students to delve into their own memories, it may be necessary to take a multifaceted approach to teaching them about memory in the brain. This approach can include poetry, reflective writing, research, and art. As stated in Living Voices, "We live in an interdisciplinary world that is constantly pushing us to cross lines. The classroom should be no different" (Wood 68).

"A Guide Through the Labyrinth of Memory" from the Exploratorium Website reveals memory as a complex part of human experience, one that requires varied perspectives to attempt understanding it. The site, a companion to an Exploratorium museum exhibit, touches on all the aspects that comprise memory for humans: "Memory was a new kind of exhibition, an experiment that used science and art from a variety of social and cultural perspectives to help us understand ourselves."

As an attempt to help students comprehend the function of memory, this lesson works in similar ways, giving students various ways to learn more about memory and the brain and to show what they know through the creation of multigenre products.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology




Student Objectives

Students will

  • write personal memory pieces.

  • answer questions about memory and the brain using the Internet as a resource.

  • identify and label lines in Li-Young Lee's poem "Mnemonic" to indicate the various types of memory and where they occur in the brain.

  • compare their memory pieces to Lee's poem in order to better understand the different types of memory.

  • create something new to demonstrate their understanding of how memory works in the brain.

Session One

  1. Write words on the board that spark students' memories.

  2. Ask students to start making a memory list as soon as they see a word that reminds them of something. Explain that the list doesn't have to make sense and the words don't have to relate to one another.

  3. Provide an example for students:
    The words "roller coaster" can lead to "cotton candy" which can lead to "pink tongue" and "headache" and "sleeping in the car" and "seat belts" and "pillows" and "twinkling stars" and so on.
  4. Emphasize that the point is to allow one thing to lead to another and see where it goes.

  5. Once students have the opportunity to brainstorm good memory lists, ask them to read through their lists and circle the five most important or interesting words or phrases.

  6. On a separate piece of paper, have students incorporate the words or phrases they've circled into larger pieces of writing. They can write either poems or stories, but ultimately the writing should use students' memories to bring an experience closer to them and the reader.

  7. Give volunteers a chance to share their writing, and discuss what their memories mean to them and why they used the words and phrases they did to bring the memories to life.

  8. After students have had a chance to share some of their memory pieces, ask the class if they noticed any patterns in the kinds of things that were remembered. Some questions might include:

    • What kinds of people, places, and things did people tend to remember?

    • Did people remember things that had little meaning in their lives or more meaningful things?

    • Did you remember primarily things that had some kind of effect on them (physical, emotional, psychological, etc)?

    • Do you think these kinds of things are easier to remember? Why or why not?
  9. End class by explaining that during the next session students will begin doing some research on the brain and how memory works.

Session Two

  1. Provide Internet access to your class, and ask students to go to the A Guide Through the Labyrinth of Memory. Give them a few minutes to click around and learn a little bit about the brain in relation to memory.

  2. Once they have had a chance to look at the Website freely, display the Brain Questions using an overhead projector and have students work in groups of three or four to answer the questions on paper. Most of the answers can be found in the section of the Website called Sheep Brain Dissection and other parts of the site, but students may have to search other sites to learn about mnemonic devices.

  3. Spend a few minutes discussing the answers students found before moving on to the poem in the next session. You can refer to the Brain Questions and Answers key to guide students during the discussion.

Session Three

  1. Give each student a copy of Li-Young Lee's poem "Mnemonic" and have them read along silently as you read the poem aloud once.

  2. As you read the poem a second time, ask students to apply what they have learned about memory.

    • Is the speaker using long-term or short-term memory?

    • Is he using the hippocampus, cerebellum, or the prefrontal cortex?

    • How do you know?
  3. Have students work individually or in small groups to underline the parts of the poem that indicate some sort of memory. Ask students to identify the part of the brain that best match those lines, along with notes on their analysis.

  4. For homework, have students finish dissecting "Mnemonic." On the back of the poem or on a separate sheet of paper, they should explain their answers using textual evidence and/or information they gathered from the Exploratorium Website.

Session Four

  1. Begin the class by asking students to share the answers from their homework. Refer to the Student Comments on Li-Young Lee's "Mnemonic" as you discuss students' answers.

    • How might the poem itself be a mnemonic device?

    • How might the speaker in the poem or Lee be using the poem to remember his father?

    • Does it work? Why or why not?
  2. Next, relate the poem "Mnemonic" to the memory pieces your students wrote at the beginning of the first session. Ask students to think about the kinds of memories they wrote about and the part of the brain they were using to access those memories.

  3. Write these three categories on the board: Informational, Creative, and Personal.

  4. Ask students to brainstorm items or products that fit into each category. The goal is for students to create something new that shows what they have learned about memory and the brain. If desired, share the following examples to get student conversation started:

    • For informational, they might come up with things like a newspaper article, brochure, public service announcement, or PowerPoint presentation.

    • For creative, they might think of a board game, play, sculpture, or painting.

    • For personal, they might think of a journal entry, photo album, poem, or letter.
  5. Explain that students are going to choose from these categories as they decide on a product that relates to memory and the brain.

  6. Give students the rest of the class period to write proposals for two project ideas in two of the three categories.
    For example, a student might write a proposal to make a model of the brain (creative) and to write a newsletter about memory loss (informational).
  7. Explain the purpose of the proposals to the class so they understand that their ideas will most likely be revised based on who they are working with and what new ideas come up in their groups during the next session.

  8. Ask students to turn their proposals in at the end of the class period so that you can look over them and put students in groups according to what their interests are. (Note: It is important to have groups in all three categories so everyone isn't working on similar projects.)

Session Five

  1. Return proposals to students.

  2. Arrange students in small groups based on similar ideas, and explain that each group will choose one product to create together.

  3. Once they are in their groups, ask students to share their proposals with one another. Have groups discuss how they might combine ideas or choose new ideas for their final projects. Give students a time limit for this discussion, and explain that they will share some of their ideas at the end of the allotted time.

  4. Give each group time to share one or two of their project ideas with the class.

  5. Allow the class to ask clarifying questions such as:

    • Which category does your project address? (e.g., Informational, Creative, or Personal)

    • How does your project relate to memory and the brain?
  6. In groups, ask students to make a final decision about what their projects are going to be.

  7. Meet with each group to approve their general idea before they begin their project plan and description.

  8. Provide each group with a copy of the Mnemonic Project Planner sheet. Have them select their group roles and complete the tasks below.

  9. Have each group member complete the appropriate section on the sheet. Remind students that more than one group member may work on the same task and that all group members are responsible for creating the final product in addition to their assigned task. Each group should assign its members to do one of the following:

    • list necessary supplies and/or resources such as the Internet

    • list responsibilities of each group member in order to complete the project with quality

    • create a project timeline with steps showing when each part will be finished. Students can use the Interactive Timeline tool to create these timelines.

Session Six

  1. Provide additional class time for students to finish all parts of the project description including supply list, responsibility list, and timeline.

  2. Ask all group members to collaborate on a final project description to be turned in at the end of the session.

  3. Have students share their final project ideas with the class before turning in their descriptions. Then have students turn in the Mnemonic Project Planner and timeline with their proposals.

  4. Sign off on students' final project plans before the next session.

Sessions Seven and Eight

  1. Give students the Project Checklist & Reflection handout, and explain that this form will be used as a self-assessment. Ask students to refer to the checklist as they work to complete their projects.

  2. Students can now move into their groups and begin working on their projects. Explain that they will have this session and the next to complete their in-class work. They should use this opportunity to ask you any questions that may arise. Note that some students may need additional out-of-class time to complete their projects.

  3. If students would like an additional challenge, ask them to incorporate Lee's poem "Mnemonic" into their projects. They might do this by dissecting the poem and explaining how memory functions in the poem. They might also use the poem as an example in their project.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Informally assess the memory reflections students complete in the first session.

    • How well did students follow the process?

    • Did they write a list of things that related to their selected memory?

    • Did they circle five relevant/interesting items on their list?

    • How well did they use the five words/phrases to write a poem or story?

    • Did the student use descriptive language that brings the reader closer to their memory?

  • Assess how well students were able to answer the Brain Questions based on their Internet research.

    • Were they able to answer the questions on the Brain Questions overhead accurately?

    • How well did students work in their groups during this activity?

    • How well were students able to participate in the class discussion of the Brain Questions?

  • Informally evaluate the completion and accuracy of students’ dissection of the poem “Mnemonic” by using the Student Comments on Li-Young Lee’s “Mnemonic.”

  • Have students use the Project Checklist & Reflection sheet as a self-assessment tool. Because of the various types of projects your students will create, you may want to design your own rubric(s) based on what projects they have signed up to make and the grading criteria on which you want to focus. In your rubric, you might want to assess:

    • project creativity

    • mechanics, grammar, and spelling

    • group participation

    • student understanding of memory and the brain

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