I wrote the below for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative E-Newsletter, to report on what we’re up to here. I got to sit in on a lovely Professional Development session with public school teachers and a T&W vet on Veteran’s Day, one of only two city-wide PD days for NYC. Professional Development has come to have so many different meanings and so many implications. Over-professionalization of the field. Artless, boring, dry sessions on testing practices. When I was a teacher, so rarely was PD something to look forward to, much less learn from or enjoy.
In this particular case, I was moved to see teachers put in the position of their students, writing personal pieces though it’s scary and hard. For, we can often be our best selves as teachers when we truly understand the difficulty in what we’re asking our students to do and have had to fight through fears to be brave and master the skills or create something specific and true.
In the airy, book-lined Center for Imaginative Writing at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a group of teachers from Aviation High School are buried in their notebooks, scribbling out their responses to a prompt by Karen Ulrich, a T&W writer and author of How to Write Your Life Story. “Today, our goal is to write a scene from your memoir.” This felt big to me, a big goal. But I took a deep breath and put myself in Karen’s capable hands.
Karen gave us an excerpt of her book which contained a list of prompts on “memory triggers.” Turning points-decisions that changed your life. Regrets. Secrets you have kept. World events that have had a powerful effect on your life. “Choose one that you are especially interested in writing about and make a list of moments in your life that apply to that category,” she encouraged. She then asked us to select the one that we were most curious about. This would be the kernel of the memoir piece.
As the workshop went on Karen showed us how a unit on memoir can be employed to teach good writing technique for both fiction and nonfiction. She started with character. Karen said, “List traits of you at the moment in time you’ve chosen.” I had used the world events prompt and from my list, I’d chosen the Blackout of 2003. What was I like then? “Bob haircut.” “Tall shoes.” “Always bustling.” “A bit meek with authority.” Listing in this way helped me to examine myself from the outside and without prejudice. More importantly, it helped me to find the voice for this protagonist-me in 2003.
We then moved on through setting, plot, sensory detail, and dialogue. As each aspect was introduced, we did a bit of writing with that technique or device in mind. At the end, Karen asked us to take the very best bits out of what we’d written and to cobble it together into a whole. This seemed much less scary than being told to build a memoir piece from scratch. Instead we had small bits which we could collage together into a cohesive piece. In this way, Karen modeled beautifully how a teacher could take this work into the classroom and create a well-scaffolded unit for his or her students.
The teachers shared some of their final pieces and they were textured, with strong charismatic characters and richly drawn settings. You could see that they were surprised by each other’s work and how personal and authentic it was. For those who read aloud, there was a palpable sense of the pride in building and sharing this piece of memoir.
So, while they walked out armed with Personal Fiction Writing by Meredith Sue Willis (T&W, 2000), handouts from Karen’s own book, and samples of memoir writing, more importantly, they walked away with their own memoir pieces and the memory of having participated in this process so that when they ask their students to be brave and to write about something true, they will be able to say, “Yes, I’ve done that that too. And it’s hard. But it’s worth it, I promise you.”