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Within non-fiction memoirs provide the best text for literature classes.  Other non-fiction texts are more suited for social studies classes since, unlike memoirs they are not written as a story.  By presenting a story memoirs successfully engage students in the story and its themes.  Psychologists have shown, via studies, that individual stories are more effective at promoting compassion and reactions than are large amounts of statistics, which is why memoirs are significantly more effective than textbooks.  Additionally, most memoirs have a section in which the protagonist is the same age as the students and many authors focus on their youth when telling their story.  This allows students to connect with the author and his/her story, which is important to supporting motivation in learning.     


Specific Techniques for Memoirs

In looking at teaching memoirs we will first provide a list of general techniques that can be used for teaching all types of memoirs.  Next, we have come up with a list of some memoirs that serve as examples of teaching peace via a memoir.  We have broken these memoirs into categories and talked about some more specifics as to how these themes might be taught. 


Journaling/Reaction papers—Since memoirs are such a personal experience, both for the reader and the author, it is important to engage in techniques that focus on personal reactions and opinions.  Students should be encouraged to connect the text not only to their own life but to also connect both of these areas to the concepts and areas of peace that they may have learned about. 


Discussions are also an important technique.  Some good basic questions are: “What would you have done if you were in the author’s shoes?” and “Do you believe the author behaved correctly, why or why not.”  To engage in a more literary discussion students should discuss how imagery, symbolism or metaphors help relay the author’s central theme/message. 


Memoir Suggested Book List (by category): 

1. Refugees and Immigrants--Leaving Your Home

          Of Beetles and Angles: A Boy's Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom.  This memoir tells Mawi's story, which

          starts in a refugee camp in Sudan and ends with a full scholarship to Harvard University.  In the middle Mawi's family is granted refuge in the United

          States and they live in conditions of financial hardship and poverty. 


 What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers helped Valentino, a refugee from the Sudanese Civil War, now living in the southern United States, write his story.  The story tells Valentino's life in Southern Sudan before the war, his time as a child soldier and his eventual escape to a refugee camp and finally to the United States(where things are not quite as peachy as he had imagined). 


As can be seen in the description of these memoirs, stories of refugees and immigration can bring up various important themes.  In this area often, what students can relate to the most is the idea of leaving their home and their family out of necessity.  This theme can be a great theme for using disequilibrium activities.  These are activities that shake-up students perspectives and require them to see things in a new way.  Therefore, teachers can think of various ways to have the students feel that they will not be able to return to their home.  The degree of severity in this depends on what the teachers views as the students emotional and intellectual needs.  The point is not to scare the students but rather have them being to understand what it means to have to change so violently and quickly.  Students can be told they have one minute to leave the classroom and exchange classrooms and teachers for a week.  This is especially powerful for younger students who are likely to have a strong bond with their individual teacher.  Organizations such as Invisible Children host events in which students sleep outside for a night without protection, blankets, etc. to start to understand the experience of other students. 


Disequilibrium activities cannot fully allow students to understand the experiences of others, but can give students a window into that experience. This set of activities all presupposes that students have not have the experience of having to move form their home.  However, many students will have had to leave their home, whether for unexpected reasons such as war or disease, or for a planned family move.  Either way, this shared experience can allow students to find meaningful dialogue in discussing the book and how the characters feelings or actions relate or don´t relate to their personal experiences.  Teachers can also choose emotions from the book, such as fear or sadness and ask students to relate to the emotions, even if they cannot relate to the experience.  This technique can be applied in any of the memoir types which are discussed since it promotes tolerance and acceptance via mutual understanding. 


2. Activism/Humanitarianism/Jobs

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.  In this book Greg tells his story working to build schools in northern Pakistan.  The story is particularly inspiring because Greg wasn't always a humanitarian or working to help others.  He was an adventure seeker who was injured while climbing a mountain in Pakistan.  He was made to rest for a long time in a small village in Pakistan and it was from this time that his motivation to build schools came. 


 Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.  This is the account of John who worked for years as what is known as an "Economic Hit Man" or someone who works for major companies and the government of the United States to manipulate countries into supporting economic development proposals that are beneficial to U.S.  corporate interests but not to the actual country.


Stories in this category are key since they allow students to see what they can do to be peaceful, or not peaceful, with their time and actions.   Frequently after reading memoirs students feel disempowered since they have learned tragic events but do not know what to do about them, especially when these events have already ended.  Therefore, it is important for students to read the stories of those who have found a way (or have not found a way) to navigate the complexities of life in a peaceful manner.  After reading the text students can create a list of what the author did well and didn´t do well in promoting peace through his/her life. Students should also brainstorm various actions they can take, and have the opportunity to implement their actions, which promotes a sense of empowerment. 


When students have thought through these characteristics they can then begin to think about how to implement this into their own lifestyle.  Memoirs are a good tool for this because they are not simply telling students to do one action or another but rather demonstrate to students how to incorporate their beliefs and the fight for peace into their daily life.  Therefore, after reading this type of memoir, students should reflect on what they have learned with regards to their own life.  Many teachers may also want students to go beyond this step and implement something that they have learned, via a service learning project or other form of group or individual activism.  The main caveat for teachers in teaching memoirs is to ensure that students do not idolize the author.  Each student will have their own way of integrating peace into their life and, while they can learn from the authors, they SHOULD NOT feel any sort of obligation to follow in the same footsteps of the author.  Therefore, teachers need to ensure that creativity is presented as a positive trait, rather than a negative one.  


3. War/Genocide
           Night by Elie Wiesel.  In this autobiography Wiesel accounts his time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  Rather than simply dgetailin the horrors that he encountered, Elie presents many of the moral and

           philosophical questions that arise from the experience of the Holocaust, making this a great book for classroom discussion. 


An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina.  Paul is the man whom the movie "Hotel Rwanda" is based upon.  During the genocide in Rwanda Paul kept 1,200 people safe from being killed by the genocidal mobs.  Much like Mortenson, Paul was not an activist before thrust into an extraordinary situation and thus recounts his sotry of how he became a hero but is still an ordinary man.


          A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.  In this book the author tells his story, of being recruited as a child soldier when he was 12 years old. He was recruited to fight in the civil war in his

          home country, Sierre Leone. 


As with the other sections, discussions are an important way to look at these memoirs.  Something that students can look at is the question of if violence is ever justified.  Students can think about if the character in the memoir responded to violence with violence or non-violence and how this influences their opinion about the use of violence in the world.  Students should also talk about internal peace and external peace and how they can see the intersection between these two topics in for the authors.  


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