Family Memoir: Getting Acquainted With Generations Before Us

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Nine 50-minute sessions
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After reading a short memoir and reviewing the genre, students choose how to create a memoir of a family member who is at least a generation older. Students first select a family member to interview, and then craft a set of interview. Students create written memoirs, focusing on one or two unifying themes, and can be presented as a photographic collage, a series of panels telling a story, a painting, a video, a musical composition, a sculpture, or another creative way. Students accompany their work with an artist's journal, explaining why they have chosen the particular method of presentation and analyzing their own successes and shortcomings.

This lesson was developed as a companion for The Mystery of Love, a PBS documentary featured in the lesson. For additional information on the documentary and those who made it possible see The Mystery of Love Website.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Speaking of using memoir in the classroom, Katie Van Sluys states: "Through exploring personal histories and rendering these histories public through writing, memoir further connects the lived experiences of writers with their readers. In a classroom context, readers are often members of the writer's class; hence these shared experiences speak to who the writer is and possibly wants to be in the classroom community." (179) In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick, a gifted writer of personal narrative, discusses how important it is for a writer to create a persona. "The creation of such a persona," she notes, "is vital in an essay or memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet; the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking." In this lesson students participate in such a journey as they identifying the unifying themes in their family interviews and compose their own memoirs.

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.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 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.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 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

Additional memoirs selected for study




Student Objectives

Students will

  • understand, from reading and from writing, the nature of memoir.

  • learn how to develop interview questions to elicit stories from the subject of their memoir.

  • explore different ways of presenting their memoirs.

  • reflect analytically and critically on their work.

Session One

  1. Explain that as preparation to write memoirs of their own, the class will examine some of the characteristics of memoir during the next few class sessions.

  2. Pass out the Memoir Assignment and the Memoir Rubric, and review the information so that students are aware of the expectations for this unit. The details will be explored more specifically in later sessions, so a comprehensive discussion is not necessary.

  3. Review the Memoir Definition, and answer any general questions that students have about the genre.

  4. Distribute the essay “Coming Home, Again” by Chang-rae Lee and explain that the author of the essay is a Korean-American immigrant who is using his recollection of his parents driving him to school as a way to remember them and his relationship with them.

  5. Read the first three paragraphs of the essay aloud to the students.

  6. Return to the Memoir Definition, and ask students to identify the focus of the essay, and the time that prompted this essay—what Zinsser describes as the “time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid” in the quotation on the definition sheet.

  7. Ask students to point out words and/or details that they find powerful. Record their response on the board or on chart paper.

  8. Once the list is compiled, conduct a discussion about why the words are powerful. Note the qualities of powerful words on the board or chart paper as well.

  9. Distribute the Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again,” and read the questions aloud with students to familiarize them with what they will be doing for homework.

  10. Ask students to brainstorm other ways Chang-rae Lee might have told this story. Some suggestions they might make include a photographic collage, a short play, a song, and a painting.

  11. Remind students about the difference between subject (what the essay is about) and tone (the author’s attitude toward the subject).

  12. Allow students to use the remaining time to continue reading the essay in preparation for answering the discussion questions at home.

  13. Remind students to have the Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again” completed by the beginning of the next session.

Session Two

  1. Invite students to share general reactions to Lee’s essay, which they read as homework.

  2. Review students’ responses to questions 1–5 on the Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again” handout as a class. Encourage conversation and discussion of the responses.

  3. Arrange students in small groups, and ask group members to complete the following tasks:

    • Share the powerful sentences that they recorded from their reading (Question 6 on Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again”).

    • After everyone has shared, choose the most powerful sentence of all those they have compiled.

    • Write its sentence on the board or on chart paper.

    • Choose a presenter who will read the sentence to the class and explain the choice.

    • Prepare notes that explain your choice for the speaker to refer to.
  4. As students work, circulate through the room providing feedback and support. Allow fifteen to twenty minutes for groups to complete this work.

  5. Gather the groups together, and ask each group to read their sentence to the class and explain their choice.

  6. As groups share, highlight items on the list from the previous session that indicated reasons why the paragraphs in the passage were powerful.

  7. After all groups have shared, review the items you have highlighted and ask students how they work as criteria for powerful writing.

  8. Ask students to suggest any additional criteria for powerful sentences, and add responses to the board or chart paper to create a working list of criteria for the class.

  9. Return to the Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again” and ask students to share their responses to the final question. Refer to the Memoir Definition as you discuss responses. Add class criteria for memoir to the sheet to develop a more student-centered definition of the genre.

  10. Ask students to consider the answers to all the Discussion Questions for “Coming Home, Again” and describe the role and presence of the storyteller in a memoir. Note their response on the board or chart paper for students to return to in later sessions.

  11. Before the end of the session, review all the information about memoir that the class has gathered: criteria for powerful writing, role of the storyteller, and definitions of memoir.

Session Three

  1. Review the definitions of memoir from previous sessions. Ask students to add any criteria they think are missing.

  2. Write the words art and craft on the board or chart paper, as headers to two columns.

  3. If students are familiar with the terms from previous work in writers workshop, ask them to share their understandings of the two words and record their thoughts under the relevant columns.

  4. Review the ideas that students have shared, and add the following explanation to the ideas that students have shared; or simply explain the following if students have had no exposure to the terms:

    The difference between art and craft is essentially the difference between having an idea and making a representation of that idea.

  5. Work through a class example together. Ask students to volunteer a few examples of a beautiful moment, and choose one of their examples to work with.

  6. Explain that art is defined as seeing and appreciating the moment.

  7. Next, ask students to offer ideas for different ways of representing the beautiful moment you have chosen from their suggestions. If students need additional context, explain that they should share ways to express the moment’s importance to someone else or for themselves. Students might respond with possibilities such as writing a poem, painting a painting, writing a song, creating a photographic collage, or writing a description.

  8. Explain that craft is defined as ways of representing the moment.

  9. Pass out the Art and Craft of Memoir discussion questions, and read the passage from William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth aloud to the class.

  10. Have students jot down their first reactions to the passage, in light of your discussion of art and craft, in their journals or notebooks.

  11. After students have had two or three minutes to write, ask volunteers to share their reactions to the passage. Emphasize any connections that students make to the definitions from the previous sessions as well as to the definitions of art and craft.

  12. Ask students to identify ways that Zinsser defines art and craft, and add the details to the lists on the board or chart paper.

  13. Arrange the class in small groups, and ask each group to work through the questions on the sheet. Ask students to rotate the job of recording the responses, so that a different student in the group acts as the recorder for each question. Ask students to be prepared to share the group’s responses with the class.

  14. As students work, circulate through the room providing feedback and support.

  15. Gather the groups together, and work through the questions as a class, asking group members to share their responses with the entire class. Encourage expansion of the ideas as students talk as well as connections to previous sessions on memoir.

  16. Return to the lists for art and craft that the class has gathered, and ask students to add any details on how Zinsser is defining the terms and their role in memoir. Add the details to the list.

  17. Ask students to reflect on the discussion of Chang-rae Lee’s essay in the previous sessions, and then identify aspects of art and craft from the exploration of his writing. Add these elements to the board or chart paper as well.

  18. At the end of the discussion, review all the information that has been gathered for each term and ask the class to compose a class definition of the words as they relate to memoir.

Session Four

  1. Before students enter the classroom, write the following prompt on the board or chart paper (or display on an overhead transparency):

    Freewrite a journal entry describing what happened during the previous class session. Focus on your ideas, and don’t worry about spelling or grammar.

  2. When class is ready to begin, ask students follow the instructions in the prompt. Give students approximately five minutes to complete their writing.

  3. After students have completed their writing, arrange the class in small groups.

  4. Explain that people remember different things, even if they all participated in the same events. Forecast that though students probably share common ideas about the outline of events, the details they remember may well be different, and some students might not remember either the broad outline or details.

  5. Ask group members to share their responses and gather two kinds of information:

    • Highlight portions of the journal entries that appear in only one member’s writing. The point is to identify the unique information that only one person remembered about the previous session.

    • As a group, look at the information that every member included in the writing, and create a group sentence that describes the previous session.
  6. Emphasize that groups should focus on what members wrote in the journal entries only. Explain that they are now analyzing what they wrote.

  7. After groups have completed the task, gather the class and first ask groups to share their general statements of what happened during the previous session. Note their observations on the board or chart paper.

  8. Once all groups have shared, highlight differences in the memories shown in the groups’ statements.

  9. Next, ask groups to share the unique information that was included in members’ journal entries. Note their responses on the board or on chart paper.

  10. After everyone has shared details, review the lists briefly.

  11. Ask students to imagine that they are historians writing about the previous session. From this perspective, discuss the following question: Given that people remember events differently or not at all, how would you as a historian decide what is “true”?

  12. If time and resources allow, play the Drawing the Line Between Facts and Fiction in Memoirs radio interview from NPR. Note that the piece does begin with a brief advertisement for an NPR CD. If the advertisement would be problematic in your classroom, cue the piece to begin after the advertisement.

  13. As they listen, ask students to jot down key characteristics of memoirs that are shared in the interview.

  14. Once the interview finishes, ask the class to share the characteristics of memoir that were mentioned in the recording.

  15. As a bridge to the next session, read this sentence, referring to James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, from the interview to the class: “As Frey noted to Larry King, each person's truth is filtered through an individual sensibility, and sometimes what’s recalled is painful to others as well as to one’s self.”

  16. For homework, ask students to freewrite on the first idea expressed in the quotation—how is truth filtered through an individual's sensibility? How did their experiences recalling what happened in the previous class session support the idea of a filtered truth?

Session Five

  1. Begin the session by repeating the quotation from the NPR recording: “As Frey noted to Larry King, each person's truth is filtered through an individual sensibility, and sometimes what’s recalled is painful to others as well as to one’s self.”

  2. Using their homework writing, ask students to share their reflections on the notion of filtered truth.

  3. Arrange students in small groups, and pass out copies of the Multiple Ownership of the Past discussion questions and Writing with Love dDiscussion questions handouts.

  4. Assign half of the groups to work on one handout, and the remainder to work on the other handout. Depending on class size, more than one group will likely work on each handout.

  5. Ask groups to prepare to summarize and present the information on the assigned handout to the rest of the class. Students will probably need ten to fifteen minutes to gather ideas.

  6. Gather the class, and draw attention to the Multiple Ownership of the Past handout.

  7. Read the excerpt from Zinsser’s text to the class, and write “manufacture a text,” “jumble of half-remembered events,” and “manipulation” on the board or underline the phrases on an overhead transparency of the passage.

  8. Ask groups that focused on the Multiple Ownership of the Past handout to act as leaders/experts and discuss the nature of “truth” and memory with the class.

  9. Again with groups that focused on the Multiple Ownership of the Past handout acting as leaders/experts, ask the class who owns the past in Chang-rae Lee’s essay.

  10. Turn attention to the Writing With Love handout.

  11. Read the excerpts from the handout to the class.

  12. Draw two columns on the board or chart paper, and write “sins,” “fallible,” prisoners,” “destructive,” pain,” “brokenness,” “whining,” “revenge,” and “victims” in the first column. In the second column, write “love” and “forgiveness.”

  13. Ask groups that focused on the Writing With Love handout to act as leaders/experts and discuss the relationship between the ideas in the two columns in constructing a memoir.

  14. Again with groups that focused on the Writing With Love handout acting as leaders/experts, ask students to assess whether Chang-rae Lee’s essay was “written with love.”

  15. As a follow-up, ask the class whether a memoir must or should be written with love.

  16. Return to the quotation from the NPR recording: “As Frey noted to Larry King, each person's truth is filtered through an individual sensibility, and sometimes what’s recalled is painful to others as well as to one’s self.”

  17. Using the information from their worksheets, ask students how the ideas of multiple ownership of the past and writing with love are communicated in the quotation.

  18. Review the Memoir Assignment and the Memoir Rubric, distributed during the first session, and explain that in the following sessions the class will work concretely on the assignment. Make specific connections to the ideas explored in the class sessions and the requirements on the rubric.

  19. For homework, ask students to choose the family member who will be the subject of their memoirs. Review the one guideline for their choice: The family member must be at least one generation older than they. As an alternative, students may write a memoir on someone in their community, a religious elder, or another teacher —just ask that the person be at least a generation older than they are.

  20. In addition to choosing the person, students should begin their artist's journals. Ask students to follow the instructions included on the Memoir Assignment handout: talk about their choice, both why they have chosen whom they have and forecasting issues they want to discuss with the person.

Session Six

  1. Review the Memoir Assignment and Memoir Rubric, and ask student volunteers to briefly share who they will focus on and why they have chosen whom they have.

  2. Discuss the qualities of a good interview question, emphasizing the following points:

    • Open-ended questions (“Could you tell me about your family?”) usually evoke more interesting answers than close-ended questions ( “How many people are in your family?”).

    • Interview questions should invite people to answer more expansively. For example, an open-ended question like “Could you tell me about your family?” might well result in an answer like, “Well I can’t begin without telling you about the time my sister . . . .” This kind of response can lead to a series of anecdotes and connections.

    • Interview questions are just a rough guide for the actual conversation between an interviewer and the person being interviewed. Be prepared to follow the conversation rather than to keep to a set list of questions. After all, with open-ended questions, the interview might go anywhere!
  3. Arrange students in small groups, and ask them to brainstorm together, generating the open-ended questions that they would like to ask the people whom they will interview. Ask groups to record their questions on the board or on chart paper.

  4. If computers are available, groups might also visit the Get Nosy with Aunt Rosie Website for ideas for their interview questions. If computers are not available, you might print examples from the site before the session and make a copy for each group to use as reference while they work.

  5. After the groups have finished choosing questions, ask them to hang their questions around the room.

  6. Read through the lists as a class. Ask students to compare the questions that have been generated as well as to add or revise the questions that have been suggested.

  7. If students need practice in order to hone interviewing skills and gain confidence, arrange students in pairs and ask them to use the open-ended questions they have generated to interview each other.

  8. As students practice their interview skills, circulate through the room, dropping in on and listening to interviews. Make suggestions and offer feedback as appropriate.

  9. To prepare for their own interviews, ask students to choose the particular questions that they will use with the people whom they have chosen.

  10. Demonstrate how to use the ReadWriteThink Notetaker, and ask students to write their primary questions as “Main Sections” in the tool. Under each Main Section, ask students to add a subsection and freewrite about what they hope to learn from the questions as well as to think of possible follow-ups. If desired, show the sample screen from the Notetaker to give students an example.

  11. Ask students to spend the remainder of the session choosing their questions. Remind them to print their work once they have entered the questions in the Notetaker.

  12. Arrange for students to make appointments to interview the people whom they have chosen. Be sure that students explain the project and how the information from the interview will be used. Stress that students should schedule time for a formal interview. Even if they are writing about a relative with whom they live, setting aside an hour or so for a formal interview makes both the interview subject and the interviewer take the activity more seriously.

  13. Review the expectations for during and after the interview (see below).

  14. For homework, in addition to conducting the interview, remind students to follow the instructions for recording their reflections in their artist’s journals. Point the class to the Memoir Assignment handout for more details.

  15. Use the details below to explain the work that students are to complete before the next class session.

During the Interview

  1. Encourage students to arrive on time for their interviews and to be ready to begin. They should have paper and a reliable pen or pencil for taking notes. If possible and if the interview subject gives permission, students should tape the interview so that they can return to the information easily to fill in any gaps in their memory and/or notes.

  2. As students interview the people whom they have chosen, ask that they take time to remind the person of the purpose of the interview, (if appropriate) to ask if the person is comfortable with taping the interview, and to spend some time visiting and talking before moving through the list of questions.

  3. If appropriate for an illustration or other uses, students can take photographs of the person and the location of the interview. Remind students to ask the person for permission before taking and using photographs.

After the Interview

  1. If students have tape recorded the interview, have them return to the tape and take notes on significant details that can be used in their memoirs. If students took notes, have them return to the notes and look for significant details.

  2. Remind students that their task at this point is harvesting details and ideas from the interview. It is unlikely that they will use every detail in their final drafts. They are simply gathering ideas.

  3. Whether they have taped or taken notes during the interview, students should write two pages about what they learned, including some anecdotes and incidents they might want to include. This writing assignment is not meant to be submitted at this time, but students will submit it with the final version of their memoirs.

  4. Remind students also to include reflections on the interview in their artist’s journals.

  5. If appropriate for their memoirs, ask students to take several minutes to write a description of the person who was interviewed and the location where the interview took place. For instance, if students visit a religious elder at their place of worship, descriptive details about that place might be useful in the final draft.

Session Seven

  1. Invite any student volunteers to share reactions to the interviews as the class gets under way.

  2. After everyone is ready to work, ask students how their interviews related to the Multiple Ownership of the Past and Writing with Love handouts. Specifically ask students how their interviews made them think about “truth” and memory as well as the idea of writing with love.

  3. Remind students that memoirs do not simply capture a series of events but are unified by their focus on a specific theme or themes. Ask the class to recall the themes from Chang-rae Lee’s essay as an example.

  4. Arrange students in groups of three people each, and ask group members to discuss the following, referring to the handouts from previous sessions as relevant:

    • explain who they interviewed and what they found, including any confusions or contradictions

    • ask for feedback and advice from other group members about possible threads they might follow

    • offer feedback to other group members threads they might follow

    • discuss the format in which they will present their memoirs, referring to the Memoir Assignment for examples.
  5. As groups work, circulate through the room, providing feedback and support.

  6. During the last five to ten minutes of class, ask students to share any potential challenges they have identified for their work.

  7. Together with other class members, work to suggest solutions and alternatives to the challenges that students share.

  8. For homework, explain that students should complete their memoir presentation and artist’s journals. Explain how many days students will have to complete this work before the next session, during which groups will complete peer review of the projects. Allow several days for students to complete this work.

  9. If preferred, include additional work sessions at this point in the lesson so that students can work on their presentations during class time.

Session Eight

  1. Pass out copies of the Memoir Peer Review and read through the questions.

  2. Draw connections between the Peer Review and the Memoir Rubric as well as to the information that has been discussed in previous class sessions.

  3. Arrange students in pairs or groups of threes, and ask students to examine one another’s work, and use the Peer Review form to comment on the projects.

  4. Once students have completed the Memoir Peer Review, gather the class and discuss how to use the feedback to revise the projects. For instance, if the reviewers found few details that made the events or facts seem truthful, students might review their interview notes for information that they omitted and add more specifics as they revise.

  5. Allow time for students to ask questions individually if possible.

  6. Review the presentation guidelines from the Memoir Assignment so that students recall the expectations:

    • If they have written a memoir, ask that they choose a paragraph to read to the class.

    • If they have chosen another option, ask that they prepare to show their work and choose a paragraph from their artist’s journals to read to the class.
  7. For homework, ask students to revise their memoirs and artist’s journals with the help of the feedback they received during the session. Allow several days for students to complete this work.

  8. If preferred, include additional work sessions at this point in the lesson so that students can revise their presentations during class time.

Session Nine

  1. If desired, create an “Art Opening” ambiance for Session Six, serving refreshments as a part of the sharing.

  2. Allow a few minutes at the beginning of the session for students to make last minute preparations for their presentations.

  3. Remind students of the expectations for this session:

    • If they have written a memoir, they will read a paragraph to read to the class.

    • If they have chosen another option, they will show their work and choose a paragraph from their artist’s journal to read to the class.
  4. Encourage positive and supportive comments from the class as students present.

  5. After everyone has presented, if desired, ask students to reflect on the process of creating memoirs, especially as it relates to the issues that the class has covered (e.g., balancing truth and faulty memories, writing with love).

  6. At the end of the session, collect students’ memoirs and artist’s journals so that you can provide assessment.


  • Use the “Love and Friendship” Vignette from The Mystery of Love to explore the characteristics of memoir in more detail:

    • Pass out copies of the Discussion Questions for “Love and Friendship” from The Mystery of Love, and review the questions before you show the excerpt.

    • Show the vignette from the film.

    • Discuss the segment, using the Discussion Questions to guide conversation.

    • Encourage connections to the other aspects of memoir that the class has explored (e.g., multiple ownership of the past, writing with love).

    • Give students time to write the first sentences of Boris’ and Camilla’s memoirs and then ask students to share their sentences with the rest of the class.

  • Select a longer memoir from the annotated bibliography to use with the above strategies.

  • Using National Public Radio’s project “Story Corps” as a model, students can set up “story booths” locally—for instance, in the school, in their places of worship, in local senior homes, or in a shopping mall. Listening, “an act of love,” can help them to learn about the community beyond their own families. They might then extend the notion of memoir by creating audio diaries or audio scrapbooks. National Public Radio’s project “Story Corps” is a kind of national memoir project. The Website for Story Corps says:

    “We've modeled StoryCorps—in spirit and in scope—after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, through which oral-history interviews with everyday Americans across the country were recorded. These recordings remain the single most important collection of American voices gathered to date. We hope that StoryCorps will build and expand on that work, becoming a WPA for the 21st Century.

    To us, StoryCorps celebrates our shared humanity and collective identity. It captures and defines the stories that bond us. We've found that the process of interviewing a friend, neighbor, or family member can have a profound impact on both the interviewer and interviewee. We've seen people change, friendships grow, families walk away feeling closer, understanding each other better. Listening, after all, is an act of love.” (source: http://www.storycorps.net/about/)

Student Assessment / Reflections

Review the work that students complete during this lesson on an on-going basis for the thoroughness and completeness. In particular check for completed artifacts: handouts, project drafts, interview questions, peer review feedback, and so forth. While students are working on these projects, talk to the students and observe their work and the connections they make to the memoir characteristics and the criteria for the project. Grade finished projects and the artist’s journals with the Memoir Rubric.

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