Memoir Study Remix: The Broken Piece

One of the best things about the Moving Writers community is the open sharing that happens here, as well as the sharing and discussion that occurs in our Twitter PLN. People ask questions, have them answered, find inspiration and share ideas and resources on a regular basis. It’s quite remarkable, and shows the importance of reflection and revision of what we do in our classrooms.

I’m also blessed to work with an amazing gang of English teachers in my school, and we have a very similar approach in our department.

This makes it much easier to look at something that isn’t working the way you really want it to, and figure out a way to do it better.

For a long time, my Grade 12 students have worked with memoir, reading it and writing it. I am a big fan of reading memoir, and as we focus on a theme of Independence, Identity & Individuality, it’s a natural fit.

But it wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Our reading of memoir was reduced to a pretty typical essay, and our writing was kind of scattershot, lacking any real focus. These things lay at my feet, and as I finished it last fall, I knew it was time to do it better.

In the next few Friday posts, I’d like to share what we did to fix the memoir study in our classes.

Our first step was to put aside what we were already doing, because it wasn’t working. (Well, it sort of was, but we knew we could do better.) Instead, we sat with open notebooks before us, and started talking. What exactly was it we wanted our students to get from reading a memoir? How were we going to have them share this so we could assess it?

We wanted our students to note the highs and lows of the life shared in the memoir. We wanted them to consider the life lessons that could be taken from the life they read about. Since reading memoir is an act of studying a life, we wanted to explore the empathy inherent in such a study.

And we knew that we didn’t want this to be delivered to us in a stack of essays.

What matters about being a part of a team is that you don’t have to figure this out alone. You draw from the varied strengths of the team. You throw out ideas, and talk through them, using the filters of multiple individuals, strengthening the ideas. This is exactly what we did.

Ultimately, we replaced the single essay we weren’t jazzed about with a series of projects, pushing the creative sides of our students a little bit.

This has been pushed to the forefront for me this week, because one of my team members is currently doing the coolest of our memoir response pieces with her students. We called it The Broken Piece.

Last year, she had acquired a small box of broken white ceramic tile. As we were talking about how we’d fix our memoir study, we got sidetracked into discussing what could be done with this broken tile. I mentioned a cool art thing I saw, where marker applied to these tiles, when exposed to rubbing alcohol ran, and created wonderful abstract masterpieces. I suggested that these could be used as cool backgrounds for something, which clicked on gigantic cartoon lightbulbs over our huddle. What if students created blackout poems from the pages they identify as the memoirist’s lowest point? What if we cut out the words we wanted to keep, and glued them to these broken pieces of tile we’d made into gorgeous little pieces of art?

Yes, the metaphorical element in this is obvious to teacher folk, but it was really impactful for the students as we unfolded it. The students I have this year have been with me for a couple of years, and were well versed in the form of blackout poetry. I copied the pages from their memoirs that they felt held the lowest points of the writer, making sure each student had two copies of their pages. They chose the words they’d be using on their “rough” copy, and we set those aside.

imageAfter a quick trip to the hardware store, and some time with a hammer, I had a basket of broken tile. (Buying enough of the cheapest tile they had to be well prepared for 27 or so students set me back about three bucks.) Each student got a piece, and I asked them to colour their tile. I deliberately chose not to reveal the results the alcohol would have on their work. As they coloured, I told them this was where their blackout poem would be going, and we discussed the significance of putting a piece representing someone’s lowest moments on something broken. I’m so proud that they thought this was very deep and cool.

I had wanted to reveal the effects of the alcohol to extend the metaphor we had happening. Very often, our lowest points are due to circumstances out of our control. Since we weren’t really going to be able to control the effects of the alcohol, we’d have a very concrete example of this happening before us as we worked.


This choice on my part inadvertently created a much deeper experience for this. Knowing that we often do our blackouts in an illustrative fashion, many of my students had coloured their tiles accordingly. A couple of them had created tiles that matched the colour palettes, or even printed patterns on the cover of their memoirs. A student reading a memoir featuring a motorcycle gang had drawn the logo of the gang, and another had a tile that illustrated a fire that was important in his book.



Which I wanted them to spray with alcohol, and, well, ruin. I’m blessed with students who follow the flights of fancy I come up with, and though there was much grumbling, everybody sprayed. Colours ran, details were blurred, and cool things happened. There was a lot of buzz has the tiles developed. That bike gang logo looked even cooler deteriorated and distorted. That fire looked wilder.


Trying to control colour, and fire

And we had an amazing discussion about symbols and metaphors that I couldn’t have planned. BJ, who had the gang logo, expressed how much more sense it made to have the logo partially destroyed, because as the memoir he was reading ended, so had the person’s affiliation with that gang. The fire, in Owen’s piece, was in a moment the police officer he was reading about couldn’t control. His fire, like the one in the book, was destructive, ignoring efforts to bend it to a man’s will. So many students saw a connection between the attempts to create a perfect thing, only to have it ruined, in the activity and their books.


If you’re trying this, I should mention here, that before gluing the words to their poems on, two things need to happen. The tiles need time to dry, and then, they should be treated with a clear coat of some kind, Mod Podge or spray varnish, letting that dry too.

imageThe prepped chunks of tile were ready to become backgrounds for the blackout poems students had written using the low points of the lives they studied. There’s a very cool buzz in a room when a project like this is in progress, excitement when it is ready for viewing. I’m not sure if it’s a result of the creative process they went through together, but these pieces seemed to have an emotional resonance as we checked out each other’s work. Even though we had read a wide variety of memoirs, we were able to feel these low points. It was interesting to note, as well, that people who studied the same memoir sometimes drew on different points to showcase as their lowest.

Our English department is very lucky that we have a cluster of classrooms together, allowing us to sneak into each other’s room as our students work. I’ve now gotten to see this piece created three times, and we’ve been able to debrief and refine the process and project. The pride we see students take in their creations is wonderful, and the layers that this has added to our study of memoir is something we hadn’t originally considered.

So much better than those essays.

What have you revisited and revamped lately? What do you want to remix and refresh? What else could do with some broken tile in an English classroom?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!



  1. My sophomores are just finishing a memoir unit and I am so excited to use this as a preparation for the book review that they will write about their text! What are some of your favorite memoirs to use?

  2. What memoirs do you use? I am going to try to do a memoir until for my 8th graders. I don’t really sensor their reading so long as they have their permission slips signed. Do you let them do choice reading for the memoirs? I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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