Writing Our Lives – memoirs and memory

A traditional way to teach a unit on memoir and biography would include the reading of texts followed by analysis and writing to demonstrate how different language features are used in these texts. My focus has been on student writing that is supplemented with textual extracts, and revisiting our Kick off with Reading book Everything to Live For by Turia Pitt. Since 2014, every student and teacher has been gifted a book to read, with each faculty developing learning activities that incorporate the text into lessons across the first term.

We began with strategies taken from the ‘Remembering: Creating Narratives of memory and Self’ in English for the Australian Curriculum. Early in the chapter is an extract from Anne Manne’s So this is Life: Scenes from a Country Childhood that reflects on her recollections of Adelaide. Specifically, there are two perspectives offered – bright summer and darker winter – due to the impact of her parents marriage breakdown.

The most effective lesson included a focus on the author’s tone where students identified all references to the word ‘grey’ in the extract. The next task was to replace these words and references so we gathered different words, beginning with suggestions and extending our vocabulary by consulting dictionaries. I drew a continuum on the board and challenged students to consider where ‘grey’ might fit between

white _____________________ black

We continued to add words on the board to make decisions about where replacements belonged. Students began to make distinctions between words with multiple meanings and shifting usage from adjectives to nouns and abstract nouns. Here is part of our word bank:

ash     overcooked    overdone    silver    metallic   darken   shadowy   sombre   melancholy   fatal   black    gun metal    smokey     charcoal     coal    blackness    miserable   misery   cloudy   misty   confusing   coldness   wetness   sunless   rotten   numb   gloomy   steel

Students shared their substitutions on the board to complete this passage where each underlined word replaces ‘grey’ or ‘greyness’;

I remember my brother’s charcoal raincoat, skies that were overcast, the drab, lifeless houses in the dull, city suburb, and our car, an old gun-metal Humber. the colour everywhere was smokey. Even the sea was always miserable, reflecting the colour of the sky across which clouds scudded uneasily. But all that blackness is because my memories are suffused, drenched, with the very particular emotions of grief. Numb is the colour of loss.

from pp.5-6, So This is Life

Students then reflected on which version was most effective in revealing emotion – many were pleased with their changes and suggested the variety of words would appeal to a reader. Others recognised the impact of repetition for effect, rather than a lazy overuse of words.

To other exercises from English for the Australian Curriculum where well received:

  1. write a paragraph to compare your memory with film

We gathered ideas on the board – a list of specific film features or ways to watch film:



fast forward







black and white



voice over



While the class was working, I wrote on the board:

My memory is like a film. When I’m sad, I like to replay those better scenes that change my thinking. It doesn’t always work, but I try hard to focus on the soundtrack that triggers a memory and close my eyes to see the landscape in the widest shot I can conjure.

2. write a longer piece to compare your memory with either a lock, clock or money

Planning continued as before: write down as many ways of describing the qualities or elements of the object as you can, then link these with different aspects of your memory.

I collated each student’s draft for the specific items of clock, lock and money with the class being divided into three groups according to their chosen object. Working together, students chose the most effective lines, or those links and references that resonated with their perspective to compose a group poem. Students were given these instructions:

  • read through the contributions yourself
  • circle/underline the best lines and links between memory and the item
  • share with a partner – justify your choices to reach consensus
  • as a whole group, decide on the best lines to write one poem that reflects the input of all members

This activity was designed – without student knowledge – to provide an opportunity to reflect on group work and the writing process. Toward the end of the lesson, the class was instructed to write a reflection that honestly outlined their part in the group work, including level of distraction and commitment to completing tasks. We began with a P-M-I discussion and considered different graphic organisers that might be useful when developing a representation of their writing process.

In the following lesson, student developed their own process for writing a poem. Furrowed brows and deep thinking occurred as I moved between students asking them to explain or justify their choice of strategies for the different steps in their process.

Finally, students composed their own poem using examples shared during the collaborative poem writing process. Consider the metaphorical connections with memory and money:

My memories are very precious and are printed clearly in my mind just like money.

I can remember both rich and poor times but some are easy to lose, like money.

Money has changed overtime and so have my memories,

but they are still valuable like money.

People don’t like to give out and share money

and I don’t like to give out and share all my memories.

In my memory I have kept the happy and colourful memories in my mind

just like I keep the high value notes and coins.

My memory is like a lock.

You’ll need a key to open my memories,

I am so self-conscious I lock it away.

Some memories are big, some are small.

Sometimes the best memories are the small ones.

Or how locks can represent aspects of memory:

My memory is like a lock.

Some locks are old and rusty, a bit like my memories.

When I forget a memory it is like losing the key to a lock.

My memories can even be lifeless.

Memory and clocks were found to be quite compatible, too:

My memory is like a clock.

Clocks go round and round, happiness bound

listen to every little sound.

The sound of the tick tock, our lives

going past as you think of the old times you remember.

An the outside a face,

On the inside a whole new world.

Everything is linked together, chain to chain

giving each other orders.

Somtimes the clock needs a new battery – other times the clock steals the day.


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