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Creating Digital Memoirs

Subject: English Language Arts, Writing

Grade Level: 7-12

Materials: Copies of Living Up the Street by Gary Soto, sections of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, printouts of teen memoirs from websites (see below), and computers with Internet access and Microsoft Word software

About: Using various models, including Gary Soto’s Living up the Street as a mentor text, students immerse themselves in memoirs. Reading examples by Soto, McCourt, and others, including teen memoirs published in print and online, provides examples that students can model while they write their own stories. As we examine the structure of the memoir, breaking it down into three distinct parts, students practice identifying each part while writing each section of their own. Lessons on incorporating sensory details, dialogue, and images into their writing (not included here) help students’ writing come alive. Technology is used to help students connect to their reading, collaborate during the writing and editing process, and enable struggling writers to create digital stories. Students use the Internet for more than online research—technology actively participates in their lives as readers and writers. Each student creates their own account and joins a “team blog” that serves as the class blog space. Here they record their thoughts, ideas, and responses to literature. This blog provides the forum to examine Soto’s childhood memoir, Living up the Street, and also facilitates reflection on their own lives. By writing about ten chapters from the book online, conversations are stimulated as students compare their personal experience to the book. Uploaded photos and other personal artifacts from their own “street” further solidify connections to literature. To improve writing, students use the Internet to create memory maps, adding notes to satellite images of their neighborhood to explain the setting of their memoir. These visual cues facilitate the writing of their own childhood memoir, spurring memories and triggering details about their childhood. The memory maps are created using Google Earth and are posted on the photo website Flickr.com. Once students have identified a memorable moment and written drafts of their memoir on paper, typed drafts are posted and revised using Google Docs (explained below). Finally, each memoir is published online to the eZine Writing Matters or submitted to another teen website. Students also have the opportunity to create a digital version of their memoir using images, voice recordings, and even video.

The students produce a digital reader’s response journal in the form of a blog that contains at least ten total responses to Gary Soto’s Living up the Street. They share their responses with classmates and make thoughtful comments to others’ responses. Students create a memory map that relates to their memoir. Using Google Earth, they locate the specific settings of their childhood memories, label each location, and add relevant text that explains the significance of these locations to their memoir. Finally, students use the Internet to facilitate the writing of their own childhood memoir and collaborate on their writing with the teacher and other students. Using Google Docs, they create several drafts of their work, incorporate suggestions from their instructor, and also peer edit their work. After the final revision, they publish their memoirs online to the eZine Writing Matters. As a culminating project, students use digital storytelling techniques to make a digital version of their memoir using images and narration.

The Internet is most effective in the classroom when it is used to create, collaborate, and connect, and this unit covers each of these aspects. Although many students may be familiar with blogs, they discover that they are a powerful and useful tool for responding to reading. Teachers may appreciate how fast they can respond – sometimes instantly – encouraging connections and engaging students in conversations that might not otherwise take place in the classroom. Another value of this unit is that it gives students a unique forum to write about something that they are an authority on – themselves. Students enjoy the chance to communicate ideas and share reading responses with each other online, motivating reluctant readers and writers to join in on the conversation. Many students value the ability to collaborate with their teacher as they are writing, so that they don’t do it “all wrong” and have to start over from scratch. The Internet can enable collaboration early and often, and students will feel more invested in their writing. By giving the option to create a written memoir or digital story (or both), assessment options are flexible enough to enable struggling writers to create a final project they can feel proud of. Students take greater pride in their work by submitting their work for publication on several online websites, including New York City’s Writing Matters. Posting online provides a larger audience for their work, and may give a chance for family and friends to learn more about them.

The best part about this unit is that it does not require any special training, software, or equipment. Sites like Blogger.com and Flickr.com are very user friendly and easy to start up, especially if you have an e-mail account at Yahoo! or Gmail. If you do not have an account already set up, take the time to preview both sites and learn their capabilities. Even if you are not a “digital native,” examples of blogs and memory maps are available to view online, and can be used as models in class. The team blog space can become overrun with responses, so be sure that you sign yourself in as an administrator. Create separate threads for each response to the book. To create a memory map, you may need to download Google Earth (free version) to your computer. Be aware that students write more informally when they chat, text, or e-mail on the Internet. While you may choose to allow students to write informally, they should still use most standard conventions of written English. This can provide a good opportunity for teachers to discuss formal vs. informal writing. But perhaps the best part of this unit is that it limits the lost papers and forgotten assignments, because almost everything is posted online. Assignments can be read and responded to any time, anywhere, using a laptop with an Internet connection and Google Docs.

Students will be able to recognize the structure of a memoir, and apply this structure to their own work.
Students will know the difference between memoir, biography, and autobiography.
Students will read several examples of memoirs from childhood, both in print and online.
Students will create a blog where they can record their thoughts on the memoirs they read.
Students will create their own memoirs, writing about their own childhood.
Students will post work to be edited online.
Students will study one author in depth via the Internet.
Students will use the Internet to take “digital field trips” to the places where memoirs are set.
Students will create “memory maps” from photos that relate to their memoir.
Students will learn to create a digital story online.

This is the site where students upload works in progress, read teacher comments, and edit each other’s work online.
This is the site where students set up a blog, which they use as a digital writer’s journal, recording their thoughts to their reading. Students also respond to their classmate’s blogs, providing feedback and comments to their postings.
Teen Ink is a web site that posts writing written by teens.
Merlyn’s Pen is another great online resource for writing models.
Using a satellite photo of their childhood neighborhood, students make a “memory map” using notes to tell their story of growing up.
Literary field trips to settings in the book on Google Earth.
An anthology of writing by teens on the Web.
The official website of Gary Soto, author of Living up the Street.

Students read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding.
English Language Arts
Students compare and synthesize information from different sources.
English Language Arts
Students make perceptive and well-developed connections to prior knowledge.
English Language Arts
Students read, write, listen, and speak for literary response and expression.
English Language Arts
Students read and view texts and performances from a wide range of authors, subjects, and genres.
English Language Arts
Students understand and identify the distinguishing features of the major genres and use them to aid their interpretation and discussion of literature.
English Language Arts
Students evaluate literary merit based on an understanding of the genre and the literary elements.
English Language Arts
Students read, write, listen, and speak for critical analysis and evaluation.
English Language Arts
Students evaluate their own and other’s work based on a variety of criteria and recognize the varying effectiveness of different approaches.
English Language Arts
Students read, write, listen, and speak for social interaction.
English Language Arts
Students listen attentively to others and build on ideas in conversations with peers and adults.
English Language Arts
Students express ideas and concerns clearly and respectfully in conversations and group discussions.
English Language Arts

Day 1: Author Sketch: Creating our Digital Readers Response Journal as a Blog
Students will conduct research online about the life of Gary Soto.
Students will create an online blog using Blogger.com.
Students will create a short biographical sketch on Gary Soto and post it to their blog.
Students will read and post comments to other students’ blogs.
Students will learn to write appropriate comments.
Computers with access to Internet
Projector connected to laptop computer
The first task is to show students what a blog is, and then help them create their own using Blogger.com. Once they have completed this task, they use the Internet to research the life of Gary Soto. In order to learn about author, students view at least three different online sources and take notes on paper. They then write a summary of the most important details from Soto’s life and post this short biography online.

Show students what a blog is and what it can be used for. Tell them that in today’s day and age, major news organizations often get breaking stories from journalists’ blogs, and entertainment news is often found on fans’ blogs. Presidential candidates also have their own blogs, and often list their thoughts on important issues. For example, politicians use blogs to reach people. Show Barack Obama’s web site and blog: http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/group/ObamaHQ.

Using your laptop connected to your projector, take students on Blogger’s online tour, showing how they can record their thoughts and make comments on blogs written by their peers.

Students create an account for themselves on Blogger.com. Once they take the online tour, students are ready to create their own account or join a team account that has already been prepared. (Note: students must have a current e-mail account to register.)

Direct students to Blogger’s website: https://www.blogger.com/start Walk students through the process of entering an e-mail, creating a password, and verification. They give their blog an appropriate name (you may want to create a standard like first initial, last name), and select a template. Once they have completed the process, put the site aside and have them turn their attention to conducting research.

Provide students with several different websites dedicated to Gary Soto:




Give them 15-20 minutes to review these sites and instruct them to take notes on the most important details about his life and his writing life. This is a good opportunity to discuss the difference between biography and bibliography. Show students that there is interesting information in the FAQ section of the websites. Define the word barrio. Circulate the room and direct students to jot down important details, such as where Soto gets his ideas and what he decides to write about. Note that he often writes stories or vignettes about school, the playground, summer activities, and baseball.
Direct students to record their notes in the form of a one-paragraph biographical sketch. This can be completed for homework, but students should have about 20 minutes to work on the piece. Students should drafts their sketches in MS Word to check spelling, and then post their completed work to their blog.
If time allows, have students read the summaries of other students created on their blogs and add comments to them. Show students how to make an appropriate response.
Using the notes taken in class, write a one-paragraph (at least five sentences) summary of the life of Gary Soto. Answer questions such as: Where was Soto born and raised? What does Soto write about and why? Was he a good student? Who are some of his favorite authors? Does he revise his writing? What is he writing now? (Answers are found on the FAQ section of garysoto.com.)
Teachers should informally walk around the room to keep students on task. As the administrator of the team blog, the teacher then reads them and adds comments. This could lead to future lessons about how to write for an online audience and make appropriate comments.

Day 2: Creating Memory Maps to Trigger Memory Details
Students will learn to identify an area on a satellite map.
Students will locate significant places on the map related to their memoir.
Students will add written notes to each important section of the map.
Students will post their completed memory maps to Flickr.com.
Students will add details from their memory maps to their written memoirs.
Computers with access to the Internet
Projector connected to laptop computer, if available
During today’s class we are going to take a photograph of the location of where our memoir is set. It could be set anywhere in the world, but by using a satellite that orbits the earth, we can take a picture of just about any place, even our school. All we need is the address. Go to Google Earth on the overhead projector, and demonstrate how to enter the address of your school, watching how Google Earth zeroes in on the location.

Explain to the class that they will be creating a “memory map” which is a snapshot of a satellite image taken from the Web.

Show students an example of a memory map located at http://flickr.com/groups/memorymaps/
Walk students through the process of creating a memory map. Discuss the different ways to create them.
Students go to Google Earth, adding an address that they wish to locate.
Students then add placemarks to their map. Have them select the “pin” style mark with the number in it. Then they add a title to the mark, and add notes that correspond to the location in their memoir.
Take a screenshot of the page, by pressing the Print Screen button on the computer.
Save the picture to the computer in the MyPhotos section of the computer.
Memory maps can by uploaded to Flickr.com.
Students may add more detailed notes to three sections of their map and add them to the maps the next day. Read another chapter from Living Up the Street and write a reader’s response on the blog.
Teacher should be able to see that students have found an area on Google Earth, and then added at least 3 placemarks that describe the relevance to their memoir.

Day 3: Collaborating on our Writing by Posting Drafts to Google Docs
Students will incorporate locations from their memory maps into their written memoirs.
Students will draft a beginning, middle, and end for their memoir.
Students will post their memoirs online via Google Docs.
Students will collaborate in the editing process with peers and teachers.
Computers with access to Internet and MS Word.
Projector connected to laptop computer if possible.
Once the writers in the class have completed a first draft of their memoir and typed it using MS Word, they are ready to begin to collaborate further using the Internet. Students upload their work to Google Docs (account required), and then invite classmates and teachers to view it and make comments.

Teacher should model how to make helpful edits and suggestions to an essay. Inform students that there are surface details, such as spelling and grammar, that need to be addressed. But perhaps more importantly, students should be looking to see that they have included a beginning, a memorable moment, and an ending to their memoir.

Distribute computers and allow students to open a web browser.
Demonstrate how to upload a document to Google Docs. Upload a sample document, and then ask students to practice editing it.
Explain the difference between making “surface changes” (correcting spelling and grammar mistakes) and deeper structural changes. Students often only make surface changes and leave the heavy lifting for their teacher.
Show students that they can share their work with others by inviting them to view it. Student should add a short note that asks others to look for specific problems or just to give it a read. Note: students will need to have e-mail addresses before completing this stage, and they will need to made known to members of the class. Generic or school accounts are best for this task.
Review the editing tools that are available in Google Docs under the Edit tab. Review the various tools found under the Insert tab, especially comment, and show how they can be used. Finally, display the Revisions tab to show the history of revisions. Explain that their comments and suggestions will be saved to the document once they make them from their computer and save them.
Allow students to upload their own work and invite others as collaborators or viewers, including the teacher if they wish. Remind them that only people assigned as “owners” and “collaborators” may edit their work. Students may wish not to invite the teacher right away if they want to show a version that has already been cleaned up.
Once edits have been made, instruct students to review the suggestions and corrections that have been made, and to make appropriate changes.
When they are satisfied with the changes they may re-save the document and invite their teacher to review it.
Have students incorporate further edits to their work. Their memoirs can also be “published” at this stage using Google Docs.
Students may continue to edit their or others work online. Students add another reader’s response to the blog.
Teachers must view student writing versions to see that edits are being made. Teachers should be invited as “viewers” to the first stage of editing between peers.

Day 4: Publishing Online and Celebrating Our Memoirs
Students will add final revisions to their memoirs so they are in a “publishable” format.
Students will publish a completed memoir assignment to the Web.
Students will read their classmates’ work online.
Students will add comments to their classmates’ work.
Computers with access to Internet and MS Word.
Projector connected to laptop computer if possible.
Students review final comments by their peers and teachers, and make final edits and revisions to their memoirs.
Once final edits have been made, writers format their work so that is easily publishable. If they haven’t already, they need to change the font to a sans serif, and remove any extraneous capitalization and bold formatting.
Using their computers, learners can publish their memoirs in a few different ways. They can publish using the feature provided by Google Docs, which will e-mail a web address where their work is posted. Another way is to post their work to the class blog. The instructor can add a new section to their team blog page, and enable students to post there.
Once students have published their work, they can make comments celebrating the positive aspects of their peers’ stories.
Finally, students can explore different literary websites that accept writing from teenagers. They can explore many sites such as:






Invite students to share their work online with friends and relatives.
Students will take pride in their finished product, and it will be there for all to see!


Tom Burke


West Bronx Academy for the Future
500 East Fordham Road
Bronx, NY 10458

Utilizing his background in book publishing and technology consulting, Thomas Burke teaches 8th grade reading and writing at West Bronx Academy for the Future, a small, technology-theme school in the Bronx, NY.


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