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Unit of Study 6
Memoir: The Art of Writing Well

by Lucy Calkins
and Mary Chiarella
Annotated Table of Contents | Contents: Narrative Format
Annotated Table of Contents
  1. Uncovering Life Topics
    In this session, you will teach children that writers usually have several themes that surface in our writing again and again. You'll invite children to uncover these topics for themselves by rereading their notebooks looking for connections and asking, "What's this really about?"
  2. Writing Small About Big Topics
    In this session, you will teach children that writers often write about significant topics and big ideas by writing focused stories to illustrate them. You'll teach children ways to take the writing strategies they've learned to date and apply them to this task.
  3. Expecting Depth from Our Writing
    In this session, you will teach children that writers of memoir dive deep into their topics. You will share some strategies for writing with greater depth than ever before and will invite children to join you in creating more strategies to achieve this.

  4. View Session 3
  5. Reading Literature to Inspire Writing
    In this session, you will teach children another strategy writers use to write with depth-reading literature and letting its power help us write about our own topics.
  6. Choosing and Developing a Seed Idea
    In this session, you will remind children of the ways they have focused in on a seed idea in previous units. You will teach them that writers use all these ways and more to develop writing, and that each writer needs to invent and adapt a unique process to reach each writing goal.
  7. Studying Memoir Structures
    In this session, you will teach children that writers study published texts to get ideas for ways to structure their own texts. You will demonstrate reading a text and studying its structure to help students learn how to do this.
  8. Being Our Own Teachers
    In this session you will teach children ways to confer with themselves. You will teach children a few questions to ask themselves in order to assess themselves, plan their goals and choose their paths to those goals.
  9. Finding Inspiration Before Drafting
    In this session, you will teach children some ways that writers inspire themselves to write better than ever as they move to first drafts.
  10. The Internal and External Journey of a Story
    In this session, you will teach children that that as each point on the external timeline of a story affects the central character (in a memoir, you) on the inside, this creates the internal timeline of a story. Today you'll teach children ways that writers craft stories that include internal journeys.
  11. Choosing Emblematic Details
    In this session, you will teach children that writers can reveal characters (ourselves) not only by bringing forth internal thoughts, but also by spotlighting significant details.
  12. Writing About Ideas
    In this session you will teach children that when writers write about ideas, just as when we write about events, it is important to find or create a structure that allows us to say what we want to say.
  13. Letting Our Pages Lead Our Revision
    In this session you will teach students ways that writers reread our writing intently, in order to learn from it how we need to revise.
  14. Metaphors and Meanings
    In this session, you will teach children that writers take a tiny detail from our lives-often something that could be very ordinary-and we let that one detail represent the whole big message of writing.
  15. Editing to Match Sound to Meaning
    In this session you will teach children to listen to our writing carefully, then choosing words, structures and punctuation that help us to convey the content, mood, tone, and feelings of the piece.
  16. An Author's Celebration: Placing Our Writing in the Company of Others
    In this session, children will read aloud their memoir to their friends and family. Listeners will say a few lines of a chorus between readings.
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Contents: Narrative Format

This final unit aims to teach children that they can compose not only pieces of writing but also lives in which writing matters. Children will write memoir, and in doing so, they will draw not only on everything they have learned all year, but also on all the writing strategies they can create for themselves and each other. The unit invites children to join in creating methods of writing with power and depth.

At the start of the unit, we invite children to search for Life Topics. We suggest that Life Topics can be found by rereading our notebooks, reconsidering our lives, and living, wide-awake to the topics that feel intensely alive and close to the heart. We know children will begin by writing about gigantic Life Topics: ambivalence over growing older, worries over weight, an appreciation for Grandmother. And we know, too, that we will need to remind children of the saying, "The bigger the topic, the smaller we write."

We will also tell children, "This time, you need to compose a writing life for yourself. You can draw on any strategy you have learned this year, or invent new strategies. Your job is to decide what to do in order to write texts that capture all you want to say." This unit, then, recognizes that the scaffolds we have provided for children all year can also become limiting, and the unit encourages children to push off from scaffolds that limit, to make resourceful use of scaffolds that help, and to do all of this in the service of their own important writing projects. As children invent this last and biggest writing project of the year, we know they will also be inventing their own identities as writers, preparing themselves to go forth with independence, into the rest of their lives.

We help children learn that in order to put themselves on the page with honesty and intensity, they need to write within a community of trust. And so now, as children 'round the final bend of the year, we again teach them what it means to really listen to each other and to themselves.

When writers really listen to themselves and each other, an entry or a topic can grow in significance. In some classes, children in this unit of study refer to their seed idea as a blob idea, imagining a glowing, living, amorphous form. Children learn that the process of choosing a seed idea is a more flexible one than they'd at first learned, for as they live with a Life Topic, their sense of what it is they really want to say changes. We encourage writers to use writing as a way to develop their own ideas and associations around a Life Topic, writing-to-learn in their writers' notebooks.

In this unit, the emphasis is not so much on strategies for generating writing but on strategies for writing with depth. For example, we teach children that writers sometimes find it helpful to write about a single topic from several perspectives. Usually our ideas about a topic are complicated, so once we've written about one set of ideas on a topic, we can come back and revisit the topic, writing an entry that begins, "On the other hand …" In the end, some of our best writing will result from efforts to get our mental and emotional arms around the full breadth of a topic. Then, too, we teach children the wisdom of Eudora Welty's advice, "Write what you don't know about what you know." How powerful it is to take the topics we know best and ask, "What are the mysteries, for me, of this topic?"

Children will read literature in this unit first because great literature can serve, as Kafka writes, "as an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us." Literature calls us from our hiding places, helping us to bring ourselves to the page. The importance of this can't be over-emphasized.

Of any quality of good writing, the one which matters the most may be that elusive quality writers refer to as voice. We write with voice when we allow the imprint of our personalities to come through in our texts. But children also read literature in order to study the craftsmanship of other writers. Because children have responsibility for imagining a way to structure their memoir, they will read the memoir that other authors have written with a special attentiveness to structure. That is, in this unit we do not say, "This is how your writing will be structured." Instead, we teach children that writers often begin with an emerging content, and then combine and create structures (drawing from our internalized repertoire of structures) that will allow us to say whatever it is we want to say. We teach children to read published memoir from an aerial perspective, noticing the component sections and asking, "How did this writer construct this text? What can I learn from the way the writer put component sections together to make this text?"

Although writers can make calculated decisions to organize a text in one way or another, the actual process of writing is more passion-hot than critic-cold. Milton Meltzer, the great non-fiction writer for children, has said, "In the writer who cares, there is a pressure of feelings which emerges in the rhythm of sentences, in the choice of details, in the color of the language." When children draft, we hope their intense commitment to their meaning gives their writing this sort of pressure of feelings.

Some children will write their narratives as a story, some will write a collection of short texts, some will write essays that are more journeys-of-thought rather than traditional thesis-driven essays. Mostly, children discover that the structures they've learned to use throughout the year are not as inflexible as they once thought, and they create texts which are hybrids, containing perhaps one long narrative section set off against a thesis-driven expository paragraph.

As children create structures that will support their content, they learn about revision in a whole new way. They come to understand that writing is a process of growing meaning, and that writers use strategies as needed, as we reach to create meanings that feel deeply significant and personal.

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Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum, K-2
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