Facing our Struggles

6, 7, 8

Students use pre-writing activities to learn about personal memoir. They learn from examples of people who have experienced a struggle and used surrounding resources to make something better for themselves and the people around them. Examples of "servant leadership" are taken from the Our State of Generosity website.  

Lesson Rating 
PrintThree-Five 50-Minute Sessions

The learners will:

  • reflect on the impact of personal experiences on people who have made a difference in others' lives.
  • explain a struggle that they have been through in their own lives.
  • describe a specific period of time, event or place that explains the memory of that experience.
  • employ writing strategies such as dialogue and figurative language to reconstruct the memory and reveal feelings of the writer.
  • define a meaningful conclusion and use it to enrich the memoir.
  • explain their feelings to help the reader understand the significance of the event and lesson learned/new realization.
  • Example of a memoir -- This may be a teacher memoir or copies of student memoirs published on Teen Ink (i.e. "A Bully's Confession" and "Facing the Unknown")
  • Jim McHale's Profile (https://ourstateofgenerosity.org/leader/james-jim-mchale/and handout one) (or a profile of your choice from Our State of Generosity archives:https://ourstateofgenerosity.org/leader/)
  • youtube video of Spoken Word poetry ("Kinetic Affect" or "Raise It Up Youth! Arts and Awareness" have good examples)
  • Memoir Study Graphic Organizer (handout two)
Teacher Preparation 
  • Prior to this lesson, recruit two student volunteers who would be willing to be judged by their peers on first impressions and then share the story of who they really are, not just the person seen on the outside. Try to choose students who are very different in appearance and maybe not well-known by their peers. After you have done this lesson once, it is advisable to bring students back from the previous year to volunteer for this section. They are usually very willing to do this as they have been through this whole lesson and want to teach others what they have learned.
  • Make sure that you are very supportive through this process as this is a difficult thing for a middle school student to do. Explain to your volunteers that they need to be "real" and let others know the truth about something that they've experienced in their life.
  • Preview the Kinetic Affect poem "i am that WALL" to determine its appropriateness for your classroom situation. There are a couple of areas of strong language. Prepare your students for this if you choose to show it.
  • You will need to write your own memoir. I used one that I had written during college about my grandpa. I later used this same memoir to help students see that, even as a good writer, my writing wasn't perfect. We worked together to make several changes to my memoir. Try to pick a topic that your students can relate to about something that you've struggled with in your own life. This will help them make connections and you will be able to build a better relationship with them.
  • Go to the Our State of Generosity archives and find a story that you/your students might connect with to use on Day 3 of the lesson.  I used Jim McHale because he is local to my community. 


  • philanthropy:  giving time, talent or treasure for the common good
  • audience: a collection of people who read what one writes or observes a performance
  • dialogue: conversation or an exchange of ideas
  • engagement: to be drawn into or involved
  • evaluation: an assessment to determine success
  • imagery: pictures created by the mind or by memory
  • memoir: a narrative piece of writing that explains an experience and the lesson learned or new understanding realized by the writer
  • point of view: the way in which a specific situation is viewed
  • reflection: a thought or writing about something in the past
  • sequence: the order of something
  • struggle: something that is or has been difficult
  • transitions: a word or group of words that relate something that came before to what comes after
Home Connection 

None for this lesson. See Lesson 2, Helping Others Overcome handout.


Kinetic Affect website:  www.100poemsforhope.com  

Our State of Generosity: The story of Michigan philanthropy:  https://ourstateofgenerosity.org/

Pinterest:  for anchor/co-constructed charts 

Teen Literary magazine and website:  www.teenink.com  


  1. Day 1

    Anticipatory Set: See the Teacher Preparation to recruit two students who stand in front of the class and allow the students to write about them.

    Tell the class that you are going to ask them to write their first impressions of these students. Let them know the students will be reading what they write. Hand out notecards to the class. Instruct students to make a T-chart on the card. On one side of the T, write the name of the 1st student and write the name of the 2nd student on the other side. Under each name in the T-chart, students write a couple of words that describe their first impression of the student. I often ask: "If you met this person on the street, and didn't know them, what would you guess about them?" Let them know that anything goes as long as it's school appropriate. Don't give a long time for this as it shouldn't take too long for first impressions.

  2. Collect all of the cards as students complete them. Have the two student volunteers divide the cards up between them to read back to the class. Let the student volunteers run this part of the lesson as much as possible. The purpose of this part of the lesson is to make others laugh. It helps students let their guard down and builds trust when we all laugh together at the comments.

  3. After all the cards have been read, the two volunteers will take turns telling the "real" story of who they are. Make sure that you have prepared them to tell a couple of things about themselves that will help others connect with them (difficulties they've experienced such as a parent's divorce, family death, struggle in school, etc.). Thank your guests and dismiss them if they are from another class.

  4. Ask students to define "success" for you. Write down their responses on the board. Expect answers such as money, jobs, house, car, education, etc. Explain to students that these are just external indicators of success but don't really show who that person is. Explain to students that we need to be "real." The results of being real with ourselves, our family, and our peers is true success that comes from within~~internal success. When we build walls to hide who we really are, we aren't being "real" and can't discover who we were meant to be.

  5. Tell students that they are going to watch a spoken word poem in which two young men describe the emotional walls that keep us from being real. Show the youtube video clip "i am that WALL" by Kinetic Affect. (Note: preview this clip for language. The music introduction lasts a couple minutes.) After the video, reflect on the question, "How do emotional walls help us and hurt us?"

  6. Day 2

    Anticipatory Set:Pass out an index card to students. Tell them that it's their turn to be "real" just as the student volunteers were and as they just viewed with Kinetic Affect. Tell students NOT to put their name on this card. This will be an anonymous activity. Invite students to write on their card about a struggle that they've experienced in their own life. They can reflect on what their peers shared or what they heard from Kinetic Affect. Try not to give too much direction as students have different perceptions as to what a struggle is and that's what you want to discover. Let students know that the more they can be "real," the better the tools will be that they're putting in their writing toolbox. Give students a few minutes to reflect and complete their cards.

  7. Pick up student cards as they are finished. When all of the cards have been collected, sit down with the class and share what has been written. I usually preface this with "what's said in this hour, stays in this hour." Assure students that this is completely anonymous and no one will know who each story belongs to unless they give it away. While you are reading, point out similar struggles and identify, if you can, a theme that is running through the stories.This is a chance for you to connect with your students in a safe, non-judgmental way.

  8. Be prepared for some of the stories to be tragic and some to be silly. Praise students who took the activity seriously and remind them that by doing this, they are fueling their writing. We write best about things that cause passion in us. Once you've read all the cards, point out that not one of us has a perfect life and we all face struggles. Encourage students to support each other. Remind them that they never know what the person next to them has been through so they should be kind to everyone.

  9. Give students time to complete a draft narrative about their struggle. Tell them that they can use the struggle that they wrote about on their card or choose another one to write about. Sometimes, after they've heard what others have been through, students choose to write about something more "real" for this piece. The draft doesn't have to be perfect. You can determine how much time students need for this portion of the lesson.

  10. Once students have completed the basic story, explain that they will be turning their struggle into a memoir which will show a lesson learned or new understanding. Ask them to choose a small moment of the story to concentrate on for their memoir. For example, don't tell about going to the amusement park but write about your ride on the roller coaster. Small moments evoke more emotion.

  11. Day 3

    Anticipatory Set: Share the "Servant Leadership in Michigan Philanthropy" quote from Jim McHale's profile from the Our State of Generosity archives (top of handout). Have students work in small groups to read Jim McHale's profile online [http://ourstateofgenerosity.org/leader/james-jim-mchale/] and answer the reflection questions in the handout. In the whole group, ask students to identify why Battle Creek (Michigan) citizens helped escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. What did they get by doing this? How do we see this at work in our community today?

  12. Introduce the definition of a memoir (writing based on a significant event in which the writer gained a new understanding about himself or herself, other people or the broader world.) Ask students: Why is it important for citizens such as Jim McHale to share events in their lives with others? How does learning from the experiences of other people impact us? Why is it important for us to give back to our own community? What are the benefits? What opportunity cost (thing you'd give up to help someone) might there be?

  13. Tell students that they will be writing a memoir about a time in their life where they learned a lesson and/or gained a new understanding.

  14. Share "A Bully's Confession" (or short memoir of your choice) with students. It's best if students each have a copy of their own to mark on.

  15. Read "A Bully's Confession" together as a class. The purpose of reading and discussing this together is to help students identify the feelings BEFORE the event, AFTER the event, the EVENT itself and the NEW UNDERSTANDING of the memoir. (The feelings BEFORE are those moments leading up to the main event; the feelings AFTER are moments afterwards; and the NEW UNDERSTANDING is the lesson that was learned from this event.)

  16. Project the Memoir Study Graphic Organizer onto the overhead screen and work with students to fill out the information breaking down each part of "A Bully's Confession." Once students demonstrate understanding of the parts of a memoir, give students a second short writing piece (i.e. "Facing the Unknown") and have them complete it as partners or small groups. Have students turn this paper in to check for understanding.

  17. Days 4-5

  18. Anticipatory Set:Share your own memoir with students. Ask students to identify your feelings BEFORE and AFTER the EVENT and your new realization/understanding.

  19. Create a co-constructed "Elements of Memoir" Anchor Chart. Have students copy what you are doing on the large sheet of paper in their Writer's notebooks. Post the anchor chart in the room for future reference by students. (Ideas for this anchor chart can be found on Pinterest.)

  20. Give students time to work on writing their own memoir. Use your own judgment as to how long your class needs to have to do this.


Day 1: Student participation will be assessed through teacher observation of student engagement in the activity and discussion. Day 2: Student filled out index cards of a struggle they have faced in their lives can be used to assess student pre-writing (brainstorming) their memoir. Day 3: Memoir Study graphic organizers can be used to check for student understanding of the definition of a memoir. Student notes which define "Elements of a Memoir" through building a co-constructed chart may also be used to check for understanding. Day 4-5: The teacher can assess student understanding of memoir writing through the student's first draft.

Cross Curriculum 

The service components for this Unit are developed in Lesson Two: "Helping Others Overcome" and Lesson Three: "Following in the Footsteps." In Lesson Two, students present their spoken word poetry in a performance. At the performance, attendees must bring a donation item (may be food, gently-used clothing, or books). In Lesson 3, students develop a project to address a local community need, based on student interests, which grows out of their research about the importance of giving to their community. This project could involve serving at a soup kitchen, collecting supplies for a women's shelter, volunteering at an animal shelter, collecting food items for a local food pantry.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Give examples of how individuals have helped others.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Identify and describe the actions of how citizens act for the common good.