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Tools of the Trade: Using Objects to Spark Memory Writing

by Kelly Virgin

In Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas a little boy literally interprets explanations of memories and brings a collection of objects to his aging neighbor. At first the neighbor, Miss Nancy Allison Delacort Cooper, thinks the boy is strange, but then as she handles each object she begins to remember…

This story of friendship proves how powerful objects can be in provoking strong and vivid memories. With this in mind, my students and I spent a week observing the tangible in hopes of triggering the intangible.


A Penny for Your Thoughts

Students selected a penny from a small pile on their table and then quickly listed as many memorable moments from the year on that Penny as possible. (Note: be sure to only offer pennies with dates from your students’ accessible memories – for my students this was 2007 – 2018) I prompted students to first orient themselves in that year by considering what grades they were in and then to think about milestones, celebrations, friends, family members, homes, etc. We rotated quickly through several rounds of this brainstorming before students returned to their lists and picked one surprising or unexpected memory to write about. The fast pacing of the list brainstorming prevented students from editing their thoughts and the longer second round of writing enabled them to really dig into one or two memories.

Color Writing

Students selected a color pencil and then quickly crafted lists of things that are that color, feelings that are that color, places that are that color, and memories that are that color. They traded color pencils a couple times at their tables in order to gather a plethora of ideas and then they selected one or two items from their lists and wrote more extensively about the memories and moments associated with it.

Expanded Sensory Writing

For the first round of this writing activity students worked in groups to compile lists about an object selected from the outdoors: a patch of grass, a pine cone, a freshly picked flower, a gourd, and a tree branch. They first focused on closely observing the five common senses – sight, touch, sound, scent, taste. Then I asked them to expand their sensory observations to include the organic, which captures their internal reactions such as heartbeat, breath rate, runny nose, etc. And finally they observed their kinesthetic senses, which includes how they react and move in relation to the world when observing the object – tunnel vision, slow motion, heightened awareness, etc.

For round two we followed the same sensory observation steps but in response to various food items: a cold can of orange soda, a bag of potato chips, a fruit roll-up, a bag of chocolate M&Ms, and a bag of Skittles. After this collaborative brainstorming, students individually listed memories they associated with their sensory observations. We then studied a short sample of sensory memory writing titled “Back Porch” from writers With this mentor text in mind students crafted their own sensory memory writing.

Keepsake Show and Tell

For our culminating memory writing activity students brought in a collection of keepsakes from home. These objects included photographs, awards, articles of clothing, family heirlooms, items from collections, postcards, etc. Students took turns showing the items off to each other and explaining their significance.

After the show and tell, we studied several excerpts from Lois Lowry’s book of memories titled Looking Back. In this book, Lowry uses various photos and objects to tell memories from childhood through adulthood.

With these models on display students, wrote about the memories their objects brought to mind.

If you would like to check out some of their memory writing please feel free to visit our class blog site. Leave them a comment to let them know you were there.

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