Old Memories, Fresh Teaching Methods: On Meeting Students Where They Are

June 29, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Mary J. Breen

A few years ago, after teaching several CNF-memoir classes with the local university’s continuing education department, I decided to run a memoir class just for seniors. Several people signed up, but things started out slowly; no one appeared terribly interested in what I had to say. Then a friend offered to loan me a collection of objects she uses with her Alzheimer group: things like a tin eggbeater, a bar of Lifebuoy soap, old LIFE magazines, a pocket watch, a fountain pen, a safety razor. This changed everything. Suddenly my students were passing these things around, laughing and talking as they went. And for our next class, several brought pieces they’d written connected with their memories of these items. That’s when I knew that I had to change my approach: I had to focus much less on the craft of writing, and much more on my students and their lives. And I’m so glad I did. I’d forgotten that it’s the stories that count.

One thing I already knew was that these people had very different goals from my previous students. They hadn’t come with dreams of publishing contracts and book tours. Instead, they simply wanted to record some of their memories and family stories as gifts for their children and grandchildren: an English nurse looking after young German POWs during the Blitz; a seventeen-year-old off to war; a teacher in a one-room school in New Brunswick for $32/month; a teller in an Ontario village who worked with a loaded .38 beside him on the counter, just in case. Virtually all of them said they wanted their families to know what it was like when they were young, when family, faith, and tenacity helped them survive

As we continued, I also began to realize that, along with the many stories they brought with them, I needed to pay attention to the attitudes and opinions they also brought along—specifically those that could get in the way of their writing:

  • Old insecurities. Many grew up in worlds where they were told they were less important because of their gender, education, class, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or marital status. Several said, “Who would be interested in us old people?” and others said they were sure they weren’t educated enough to be “writers.” Every class also had women who announced they had nothing to write about because their lives were nothing special, filled as they were with “only” housework and children. We talked about prejudice, and I stressed that here, everyone’s stories were welcome. Period.
  • Old rules. They also brought along troublesome old rules: Don’t blow your own horn. Don’t speak ill of the dead. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. You made your bed…. Men brought ideas about being “real men,” and women about being “good women.” We discussed these “rules” and how they affected their current lives in big and small ways—including how they might get in the way when they chose to write about the ups and downs of their lives.
  • Old memories. We all have, of course, both happy and unhappy memories, and the bad ones may be very difficult to revisit. Delving into bad memories, especially if they have never been spoken of before, such as the trauma of unacknowledged sexual abuse or crimes perpetrated during war, can stir up deep old pain. And not everyone sees a benefit in exploring the past: What’s done is done. I told them that I knew that people find ways, helpful or not, to live with serious injuries in their pasts, and I assured them that no one would be pressured to discuss or write about anything they didn’t choose to.
  • Old fears. People also came with genuine fears about telling the truth, sure that their revealing old secrets would do harm: damage their families’ reputations, hurt people they love, and, in turn, bring criticism and punishment on themselves. We also looked at the fact that women who do decide to tell the truth about, say, mental health problems or even their husbands’ “straying” may run into harsher judgements than if they were men. I used to tell my students about a woman who told me she had completed her memoir. “Then I read it…,” she went on, “and I tore it up and started again. This time I told the truth.” I used to relate this story so my students would see that this daring option of telling the truth was there for them too; however, now I know to make it clear that these decisions are far from simple. For some people, both men and women, telling the whole truth after all those years is simply too new and too much. I wanted them to know that, freeing as they might well be, the decisions about how much to reveal were entirely in their hands.


And so, I learned not to give lessons on plot and character and the dramatic arc. Apart from occasionally pointing out key parts of their stories that could be explored further, I do not critique or edit. These courses are called Capturing Your Stories, and it’s a good title—a place for people to find the space and opportunity to tell and record some of the happy, sad, funny, and tragic stories of their lives. It’s also a place to get support since some get next-to-none from their families. Some are criticized for upsetting themselves needlessly and wasting time in class. Others report that their partners won’t pay for classes, or pay to have copies of their manuscripts printed, or even read their manuscripts. Our writing classes are the only writing support they have.

And they do write, and most of them are happy to read their stories aloud. In turn, their audiences are just as keen to hear them and remember. In each class, we listen and laugh and sometimes cry. And then someone asks for more.

Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. She has been published in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Brevity Blog, and The Windsor Review. She has been an ESL and literacy teacher in Canada and overseas, and a writer and editor of easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

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