Friday, August 15, 2008

Making Learning Personal: Using Memoirs in the Secondary Classroom

“Memoirs are in essence historical documents. They are timeless perennials that not only describe a period of history, but also address the universality of collective human experiences. History, after all, happens to real people. It isn't just cold facts, but a living, organic changing thing. It is about life, human life, with all its triumphs and failures, its increases and decreases, its courage and weakness, its lights and darks.”
--Eleanor Ramrath Garner
As educator Eleanor Ramrath Garner writes in the introduction to her 2004 ALAN Review article titled “Memoirs In Adolescent Literature,” there has not been enough written about the significance of using memoirs and personal stories in the classroom. Whether it is because some teachers view memoirs as a grey area somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, or whether it is because of a lack of familiarity on the part of teachers, memoirs are generally a forgotten genre in the world of secondary education. This is strange given that the genre has been steadily rising in popularity with the general pubic since the early 1990s. In fact as early as 1996, New York Times writer James Atlas pointed out, “the triumph of memoir is now established fact.” And it is easy to understand why. As many writers have pointed out, memoirs not only expose readers to truths about the human experience, but they also connect readers to the lives of others. Memoirs, Atlas suggests, are “…a democratic genre -- inclusive, a multiculturalist would say. The old and the young; the famous and the obscure; the crazy and the sane…” Because anyone can be a memoirist, everyone can connect to the memoir.

This is an even more important idea to consider when reflecting on the use of multicultural literature in the classroom. A great deal has been written about the benefits of using the voices of writers from a variety of backgrounds in the classroom setting. Caroline Cavillo suggests,
“One should think of critical multicultural literacy as citizenship or character education, precisely because it concerns itself with issues of power, domination, authoritarianism, and the diversity of human beings and their decisions about how to act, think, and behave with others.”
It is for these reasons in addition to so many others that the use of literature from non-western writers has become a priority for many educators. Literature from traditionally under-represented populations not only broadens students’ cultural horizons, but it also aids in the articulation of shared and differing values, exposes students to a variety of writing styles and themes, builds empathy, and connects students to a world that is growing smaller through technological advances.

Although a great deal has been written about the importance of including multicultural voices in the classroom, and some has been written about how memoirs might be used, when combined, there are very few educators writing about the use of memoirs from non-western authors as a way to connect students to perspectives and voices from other walks of life. And yet, this seems to be intuitive. As educator and writer Katherine Bomer points out in her book Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning--and Triumph Over Tests, memoirs are “…how we connect to each other, how we find out that other people feel the way we do. It is also how we learn about lives that are vastly different from our own so that our minds and hearts can stretch to understand how life is for others” (Bomer 2). An exploration of memoirs written by non-western authors brings numerous benefits to the secondary classroom. Such works are pivotal for
  • encouraging students to make connections;

  • encouraging students to think about how writers engage their readers;

  • exposing students to a variety of perspectives, beliefs, and values;

  • broadening students’ cultural horizons;

  • aiding in the articulation of shared and differing values;

  • exposing students to a variety of writing styles and themes;

  • building critical thinking skills and reasoning abilities;

  • and, building empathy.

  • As a genre, non-western memoirs would benefit from more exposure. More and more writers of non-western memoirs must find their way into our classrooms.

    For more information on using non-western memoirs in the classroom, check out these resources:
  • Ward's World Wiki: Using Non-Western Memoirs is a wiki that I've started to develop with a list of example memoirs, lesson plans, and resource links for educators

  • The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School is a site put together by Annenberg Media’s Learner.org which explores Native American, African American, Asian American and Latino works through various pedagogical approaches and offers many linked lesson plans.

  • Web English Teacher: Autobiography, Biography, Personal Narrative, and Memoir Lesson Plans and Teaching Ideas, put together by teacher Carla Beard, this site offers many linked lesson plans for how to use personal writing and memoirs in the classroom.

  • Supporting Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Learners in English Education is a list of guidelines established by the Conference on English Education together with the National Council for Teachers of English meant to educators think about integrating a variety of cultural perspectives and materials into their curriculum.

  • Booklists for Young Adults on the Web: Nonfiction, compiled by librarian Maggi Rohde, is linked to many other sites that provide extensive booklists and book reviews for using memoirs with students.

  • Read Write Think is a wonderful resource that offers a wealth of lesson plans for teachers. Use the search box in the upper left corner to search for lessons on “multicultural memoirs.”


  • And here are some great examples of memoirs written by non-western writers that could be used with high school students:
  • Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

  • Alphonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak’s They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky

  • Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

  • Paul Rusesabagina’s Ordinary Man

  • Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves

  • Yang Erche Namu’s Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

  • Farah Ahmedi’s The Other Side of the Sky


  • If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

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