Mentor Text Wednesday: Carol Sherman-Jones’ “A Lesson Not Learned”


Mentor Text: Sherman-Jones, Carol. “A Lesson Not Learned.” I Thought My Father Was God. Ed. Paul Auster. New York: Picador, 2001. 52-53. Print.

Writing Workshop Genre: Memoir

Background: When asked which mentor text had the biggest impact on their thinking and writing in our memoir genre study, most students credited “A Lesson Not Learned” by Carol Sherman-Jones. In the words of one student, “It taught me to always pay attention and to be unpredictable as a writer.”

We studied this mentor text late in the unit, after students had been exposed to the basic traits of a memoir–vivid description, scene, summary, remembered feelings, and present perspective–through several other mentor texts.

My students were well into drafting but struggling to communicate the autobiographical significance or “so what” of their stories.  They struggled to dig deeper, to look past the obvious, to connect the dots of their experiences. And the students who had discovered the meaning were tacking it on the end of their essay rather than weaving it into the story.

How I Used It: So I pulled out Sherman-Jones’s startling memoir, which can be used to teach students about many different aspects of memoir writing (and good writing in general).

First, I shared this brilliant quote by Patricia Hampl with students: The first commandment of fiction–Show Don’t Tell–is not part of the memoirist’s faith. Memoirists must show and tell.

This quote provided a lens through which to analyze how SJ presented the autobiographical significance of her story.

We read it twice: once, to get a sense of what it was about. Twice to look for places where S-J foreshadows her message through show and tell.

Students were really moved by the ending, which they felt came as a bit of a surprise. But after a second and third draft reading, they noticed how hard some of the lines and structures of the memoir were working to help S-J convey her message from the very beginning–lines like “I lost everything,” the title, and the progression of scenes, each loss becoming more significant, her trust in her father the ultimate loss.

Afterwards, students returned to their own writing, eager to discover and communicate a “so what” as powerful as Sherman-Jones’.

As I mentioned before, S-J’s memoir offers numerous additional possibilities for writing instruction:

  • Using one word and short sentences effectively
  • Well-placed, sparse, meaningful dialogue
  • Balancing show and tell
  • Evoking surprise in the reader
  • Powerful leads
  • Effective narrative transitions

What else could you teach with this text? Leave a comment with your ideas, contribute a favorite mentor text to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project, or join Mentor Text Wednesday by grabbing our MTW button below & contributing an idea on your blog!



  1. Another great lesson, another great model. I use a few other essays in Auster’s NPR collection for modeling use of detail and dialogue. I’ll share them in the drop box once I’m done grading finals!

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