Bridging the Gap

A review by Vicki Spandel

Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core by Lesley Roessing. 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. Foreword by Barry Lane.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades 5 through 12, but adaptable for younger or older students

Features: Chapter by chapter list of recommended published memoirs to share aloud with students (Appendix A); a more extended list of published memoirs to explore (Appendix B); reproducible forms, including full-sized charts, from various lessons throughout the book (Appendix D).

Introduction

Memoir! It’s that magical genre with the power to ignite fires within all of us—first, because we get to read about the incredible real lives of fascinating people, and second because we get to write about the people who fascinate us most of all: ourselves.

Have another look at that subtitle: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. You’re probably thinking “Common Core,” and if so, you’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. Far from it. Bridging the Gap is a book aimed at helping students get to the core of who they are. And in so doing, they learn more than you might think about the world around them—and about writing.

Lesley Roessing’s inspiring new book shows teachers how to transform the study of memoir into something much bigger, namely, a journey of self-discovery, as well as a stepping stone into serious  informational writing and argument. As students ask probing and important questions about themselves—Who am I? Where did I come from? What people, places, or events shaped my life?—they develop a passion for writing that influences both content and voice. Plus, almost inevitably, they wind up delving into multiple genres.

Though memoir requires reflective thought, planning, and narrative skill, answering those questions of family, history, and heritage often calls for research, too—digging to learn more about that country your grandfather came from, the place you lived when you were first born, that second job your dad or mom once held. Along the way, young writers may also discover what they value most, and become inspired to defend those values. Such feelings of conviction mark the beginning of genuine, compelling argument—argument based on internal beliefs, not a topic randomly imposed from without.

Here’s a book that gets it right. It views memoir as a gateway to writing, allowing students to begin with the topic they know best—themselves—then branch out into a more diverse literary world through research and personal exploration of what they value most and why. Bridging the Gap is extraordinarily readable, like having a conversation with Lesley Roessing herself. It’s entertaining (filled with first-rate student examples), inspiring, and jam packed with intriguing lessons on—what else?—putting your whole self into your writing.

Memoir: What is it?

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoir) defines memoir this way:

Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the author’s life . . . Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life . . .

Note that memoir is nonfiction. It’s fact-based. Hence the research component, which could mean anything from interviews, observations, and journeys through attics or old family albums to Internet research or hours spent on Ancestry.com. Also note the distinction between memoir and autobiography: the latter tells the story of a life—while the former tells a story from a life, identifying and reflecting on milestones that have made a difference. A student’s ability to look back and pick out the moments that mattered (instead of listing “every single thing that ever happened to me from birth until right this minute”) is what gives memoir its instructional power—and its punch. Identifying touchstone moments is only the beginning, though.

Building Bridges

In the course of the book, author/teacher Lesley Roessing shows how to use memoir to build—

  1. A bridge across the achievement gap . . . because every single student comes to these lessons with background knowledge, thereby helping to level the playing field.
  2. A bridge to meaningful writing . . . because students find their voice when they can write about what they know best (their own lives), choose personally important topics, and select forms they love through which to share their lives—a poem or graphic book, say, in place of a traditional research paper.
  3. A bridge from fiction to nonfiction . . . because while memoir is narrative in form, it is also nonfiction. It’s not invented—it’s truth. And telling the truth requires digging for facts.
  4. A bridge to argument . . . because in writing memoir, students uncover interesting details that inspire them to form opinions, take sides, question values, develop new positions.
  5. A bridge from reading to writing . . . because the study of memoir begins with the sharing of others’ works, everything from poems and song lyrics to plays and picture books, and requires reading like a writer, absorbing lessons students can later apply to their own writing.

If you’d like to see your students grow as writers right before your eyes, this is your book. Students gain skills with every lesson. They learn to plan and organize writing, to function within a writing community where others’ ideas and ways of expressing them are respected, and to read like writers, noticing and borrowing strategies from every professional writer whose work they encounter. In the course of the book, students have opportunities to—

  • Brainstorm and choose writing-worthy moments from their lives
  • Explore the memoirs of others, including authors like Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Soto, Roald Dahl, Jack Gantos, Billy Collins, and many, many more
  • Practice writing memoirs of their own—memoirs of time, place, or people, just to name a few
  • Examine the traits or characteristics that define good writing
  • Use those traits to evaluate their own writing and that of others
  • Choose a favorite form (poetry, drama, picture book, etc.) to showcase their own work
  • Share their work aloud
  • Publish
  • Connect what they have learned to components of the Common Core standards for both reading and writing

You may be thinking that a book with this much to offer will either be (1) so large you can’t lift it, or (2) so dry and print-dense you won’t want to read it. Trust me, this book is neither.

Practicality—and Process

I don’t know how you read books, but I always begin by leafing through, just to get a feeling for what I’m going to encounter. I’m curious (especially when reading textbooks) to see whether the writer will offer me something practical—things like examples, real student work, easy-to-follow lists of things I can do in an upcoming lesson, things I can model without extensive rehearsal, recommendations, tables or charts I could copy for use with students, and so on.

Robt Smalls 8th Graders

My first thought on leafing through Roessing’s book? There is so much here I can use—right away. I am a big fan of practical; it’s perhaps my number one criterion in evaluating any textbook. Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a “50 Quick Lessons” kind of book all. Though it’s a treasure trove of practical, usable lessons and printable handouts, it’s written with the understanding and insight that only come from a lifetime of teaching. It goes deep into the writing process, beginning at the beginning—where ideas come from.

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Right up front, Roessing gives me what I’m looking for—a foundation. In thoughtful words, she lays out why memoir is important: what it is, and why we should teach it. Best of all, she separates memoir from a simple list of “stuff that happened”:

Adolescents do not spend much time reminiscing; they rarely think about their pasts or talk about memories. However, writing teachers advise them to “write what they know.” And unfortunately they do; they write endlessly about going to the mall, fighting with girlfriends over boys, or trying out for the cheerleading squad or the football team or relate the saga of a fictional sports context, point by point . . . Young writers haven’t yet learned that, to professional writers, these types of events are the settings—the background or catalysts—to larger plots and truths. (p. 3)

I’m only on page 3. But already I know this is an author I can trust. She knows writing, and she knows students. I’m ready to sign on for the journey.

Thoughtful Organization

In addition to being written with conviction and voice, Bridging the Gap is beautifully organized. The book is divided into three large sections:

  • Learning about Memoir
  • Drafting Diverse Memoirs (relating to time, objects, places, people, crises, personal history)
  • Final Writing and Publishing

Students begin by defining in their own minds what memoir is all about, reading expansively to build understanding; then rehearse by drafting several different kinds of memoirs (adding to their understanding while stretching their own writing capabilities); and then wrap up by publishing their work.

Each of the three major sections contains multiple short, highly focused chapters with detailed explanations of what to do in the classroom, specific resources to share, things to model, and countless  examples of original work by teachers, students, and professionals. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community. We are all writers, Roessing is telling us, all in this writing adventure together, all seeking the words that will create meaning for someone else.

Skill Building

Chapters are short enough to read within a few minutes. I love this feature. Chapter 1, for example, focuses on the use of sensory details to inspire memories that may be buried deep within us. It runs only half a dozen pages or so, but within that short span, Roessing deals effectively with—

  • Free writing as a way of inspiring memories (Her explanation of free writing is superb)
  • Reading personal work aloud and creating a safe environment in which that can succeed
  • Using a picture book—in this case Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox—as a model
  • Exploring the power of sensory details—particularly taste and smell—to trigger long buried memories
  • Illustrating the power of sensory detail through an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
  • Modeling, as a teacher, how sensory details recall the past (The smell of lemon conjures up times at the drugstore with her mother, the sound of whistling brings back memories of a father who whistled all the time)
  • Teaching students to chart their own memories in various ways
  • Modeling the writing and sharing of an original piece

This is teaching at its finest. Students are given professional models to read (or hear), discuss, and learn from. Then in addition, they see the teacher doing what she is asking them to do. They see her using sensory details to call up memories that might otherwise remain dormant—and then showing them how to take those details to the next level: the start of a story. Notice what is happening here. Instead of simply saying, “I want you to write a memoir,” Roessing has defined the genre for students, given them examples to read and discuss, and helped them understand the impact of such writing on readers. They can see and feel how both process and product look. They have the understanding they need to begin—and to move forward with confidence. Best of all, they’ve made progress. A sense of progress is essential to good writing instruction because without this feeling of forward momentum students lose both confidence and motivation.

By the end of Chapter 2, students are moving forward at a heady pace, identifying the characteristics of a good memoir. By the end of Chapter 3, they are collecting quotations from favorite works and charting their own responses to various memoirs as they read them.

Every chapter includes models, examples, and recommended resources, such as books to read aloud. Each is carefully written to build on what has gone before, helping students climb the ladder to writing success, one step at a time.

Traveling Across the Curriculum

I love talking about killer endings, and this book has one—a whole chapter befittingly titled “Conclusion: Where We Have Been and Where We Can Go from Here.” As this excellent conclusion shows, memoir isn’t just for language arts anymore. It can also be part of social studies, history, science, and even mathematics. Roessing begins by listing some recommended memoirs from these various genres to read and discuss, then offers suggestions for extending students’ memoir writing into other classes. Bravo.

Link to Common Core

If you’re living these days with one eye on the Common Core, you’ll love this feature. Each chapter closes with a brief and clear link showing how the lessons just presented relate to specific (yes, they’re numbered) Common Core standards. No guessing. And the number of standards covered, for both reading and writing, is impressive to say the least. That’s the good news.

Now for the really good news: Although the strategies and skills taught in this book are unquestionably connected to the Common Core, Roessing never deals with Core issues in a heavy-handed way: i.e., “Here’s how to comply.” There’s not one shred of formula within these pages. Not one must-do directive. As a teacher, you will have complete freedom to choose the literature you share, model those steps you feel comfortable sharing, and guide students through a process for writing in your own way. You can be as innovative as your imagination will allow. And your students will gain essential Common Core skills while writing in a joyful way that allows them to find their own voice. Of all the bridges Roessing builds in this book, this bridge to independence may be the trickiest. But build it she does.

Read on your own? Or in a study group?

You can surely read this book on your own and begin using the lessons in it virtually immediately. If you love memoir already (reading it, writing it, teaching it), you’ll fall in love with the book from page 1—and I venture to say you won’t be able to wait to get it into your classroom.

If you’re new to memoir, or to the teaching of writing, you might wish to explore the book within the context of a study group. The book lends itself beautifully to discussion—and is an excellent guide to use in trying some memoir writing on your own, which will give you even more confidence in teaching this highly rewarding genre. Following are a few suggestions for discussion questions or activities to enhance the Study Group experience:

  1.  Reading. Scan the extraordinarily helpful Appendix B, a dazzling list of published memoirs for readers and writers of all ages. Choose a few selections from this list (perhaps one or two per study group member) to read thoughtfully, introduce to the group, and discuss. Each person might identify a short passage or two to share aloud, identifying the characteristics that make that particular memoir memorable or worthwhile to share with students. (Study Group participants who have favorite memoirs not on this list should feel free to share those as well, of course.)
  2. Traits of good memoir. Continue reading examples from Appendix B throughout the time the Study Group meets—perhaps for several weeks. As you read, identify characteristics of a good memoir. Make a list. Later, you can use this list as a basis for an assessment rubric (if you want one), or you can share it with students and invite them to add to it based on their own reading.
  3. Recording memories. Follow some of the strategies presented in the first two chapters (e.g., use of sensory details) to prompt personal memories. Make notes, lists, charts, or whatever works to record those memories. Share them with the group or just with one partner, and use them to write a paragraph that could be the start of a longer piece.
  4. Writing a short memoir. Following Roessing’s lead, think about the different things that could mark a touchstone in your own life: time (e.g., first year teaching, year of graduation, travel, a move, marriage or birth of a child), a person who made an impression on you, a place significant for you, an object that has emotional significance, a pet that was part of your life, a decision that affected you. Using examples from Chapters 4 through 10 as models, create a brief memoir of your own in any form that appeals to you: a poem, an essay, a short story, a short drama, a graphic text, an obituary, or whatever works for you as a writer. Share results with the group or with a partner. (Note: It may take more than one study group session to plan, develop, and share memoirs. Do not rush the process. Give your creative juices time to flow.)
  5. Rubric or checklist. Thinking of the memoirs you have read and written, and the initial list of characteristics you compiled as a group to define a strong memoir, create a rubric or checklist you could use to assess memoirs. It can be as simple as a checklist that indicates which important characteristics are present in a particular memoir. Don’t make it too elaborate or you will get hung up in the development of the rubric and probably never get to the important part: using it! Assess your own work first. Be honest—but gentle! And if your rubric needs adjusting or revision, make those changes together. Then, as a group, assess a professional writer’s memoir. Pick something short for this practice, and discuss the process of assessment. What do you learn as an assessor that you cannot learn as a writer or reader? Finally, as a group, assess any piece of student work from the book. As you do so, ask yourself this most important of all assessment questions: “What would the student learn from this assessment that would benefit him/her as a writer?” If you can answer that question readily and expansively, your rubric is a success.
  6. Taking it to your classroom. Close by discussing the benefits of teaching memoir. What do students learn through this exceptional writing journey? Remember to think of the many side roads traveled—such as the use of research to illuminate events or situations from the past that are not wholly clear in the writer’s memory. List all the benefits you can think of, remembering to focus on both reading and writing. Then discuss why and how you will consider teaching memoir in your own classroom.
  7. Distinctions. What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? How will you help your students make this distinction?
  8. Research. This one’s for the memoir enthusiasts out there! The genre of memoir is ancient, as you’ll discover if you research it. Memoirs provided an early form of history books, after all. Consider looking into some of the earliest memoirs: Who wrote them? Who read them? How has the genre reinvented itself for modern times? Whose memoir would you most like to read—if he or she would only write it?

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Author Lesley Roessing, whose work is featured here, was a high school and middle school teacher for over 20 years before becoming director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re excited to announce that prolific author Sneed B. Collard III has just released yet another book—Fire Birds! It’s an outstanding example of nonfiction writing for younger readers, and we’ll be reviewing it here on Gurus shortly. Meantime, welcome back from the winter break, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at Gurus. Come often, and bring friends. And remember . . . give every child a voice.

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