Writing from Memory

Do you remember the good old days when … ? In 5th grade classes, we visit rooms full of stories.

I remember the good old days cutting through an old-fashioned 5 & 10 cents store on my way to Roosevelt Elementary School, one of Livingston’s oldest schools that long ago converted to upscale shops. The penny candy that tempted me on my walk home from school is among my memories of Mrs. Williamson’s fifth grade class. 

That year sprang to mind recently after visiting a room full of stories in Peggy Mitchell’s class at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School. Her fifth graders were writing memoirs, some as sweet as the candy that beckoned me at the five and dime, and others more bittersweet than you might imagine. 

Sometimes I remember the good old days, their stories began … 

“Splashing the fresh water of the beautiful lake.” 

“Sitting on the cold bench waiting for my coach to put me in.” 

“In bed with my grandpa; thinking about the book he’s holding in his hands.” 

“Reading the children's memoirs reminds me that every student has a story that touches them and that they want to tell,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell created a museum to share their memoirs and poems based on their narratives, with memorabilia -- seashells, a dog collar, trophies -- displayed to illustrate their writing. Music played in the background, sentimental songs from Beatles (“There are places I remember”) and Paul Anka, “Times of your life,” while students shared their stories as nostalgic for the good old days as the music. 

Similar sentiments were expressed in classrooms throughout Livingston Public Schools. Their memoirs were in fact doorways for students to not only begin to learn the basics of narrative writing, but also to think deeply about their world and to share their lives through language. 

“Life Isn’t fair,” began a memoir by Kayla Gamara at Harrison Elementary. “I’m sure you know this, but just in case you don’t: Lesson learned.”

“Kayla,” her teacher wrote,” Your memoir gave me goose bumps.” 

It’s takes craft, said Elaine Bakke, Supervisor of Language Arts, for students to take a typical life experience like scoring a first goal or going away to camp to make it significant. 

It’s a unit, too, that goes beyond writing fundamentals. “Giving students an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to understand students better and to let them know we care about their feelings,” Mitchell added. 

At Harrison, the lessons began with “seed ideas,” explained fifth grade teacher Lauren Condon, with students examining photos and objects meaningful to them. 

“The biggest challenge was getting the students to realize what’s appropriate for a memoir,” Condon said, differentiating, for instance, a sleepover versus a story that reveals something unique or special about you. 

This was the fifth graders first big writing assignment of the year, and their stories covered everything from sports to the birth of a sibling and death of a relative. Stories of life and death that proved insight into “what’s going on in their minds as writers” Condon said. 

Memories … 

“Playing with my great grandfather; shooting rockets on the roof.” 

In “When I Was Young in China,” Jeffrey Lia writes, “When I was young in China we would scour the airport looking for my grandparents who would always greet us with a warm hug. I wrapped my arms around my grandmother’s cashmere sweater and shook hands with my grandfather – just to be polite.” 

”Remember, they’re 10 years old,” Mitchell said. “I just can’t get over it.”

  •  Learn more about the District’s Strategic Plan for English Language Arts (ELA) Curriculum Grades K-5 (Strand 1) by clicking on the BOE presentation here.

This article was written for the Livingston Public Schools Web site @ www.livingston.org 



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