In 2021, a memoir project at University High had unexpected benefits for the mental health of my students.
In late 2020, fellow writer Paul Connolly and I jumped at the chance to take part in the Creative Artists in Schools Program run by Regional Arts Victoria, which sent 150 creative industry workers into government schools for six-month periods. With English teacher Bridget Costelloe, we designed a memoir-writing project for 250 students at University High.
On the advice of teachers, we chose Year 9 students for the project, because as English co-ordinator Mollie Bobeff says, “They are still working out who they are. They have interesting and unique views about the world, and this project gives them a chance to share them.”
“We were committed to giving these students a voice.”
While Regional Arts Victoria did not require the project to be outcome-driven, we decided a concrete result was important. These were the teenagers who had spent much of the past two years in lockdown, doing online schooling and missing their peers. We were committed to giving these students a voice. The project would be a chance for them to write about their lives in any genre, form and style. The only requirement was that they submit their work on time.
We spent two sessions with each class, teaching them how to think of themselves as a character and find a moment in their lives they wanted to write about. We then edited the pieces, providing each student with feedback so they could write a second draft. If the work was especially personal, we worked with them to ensure they were comfortable exposing this aspect of themselves. We then polished the work, designed the book layout, and published 300 copies using print-on-demand.
The freedom to write in their own voice meant that many wrote in their birth languages. We had pieces submitted in Mandarin, Vietnamese, Greek, Turkish and Korean, and even one in a Game of Thrones language.
Students wrote about feeling isolated, frustrated, meeting new friends, losing old. They wrote about going home to their country of birth, aching to see parents they hadn’t seen in years, being the victim of casual racism, sexism and harassment.
They wrote in essay form, in Haiku, in poetry or in song. With the freedom to write in any form, students played with the conventions of language. This was not a compulsory task, and yet 210 out of 250 students submitted work.
At the launch of the book, all received a copy, and we watched as the students raced through the pages to find their own name. Some were selected to read their work aloud – and they did, with pride.
“They see themselves as an author, as someone with a story to share and a story worth reading.”
Writing memoir isn’t like writing fiction or persuasive writing. It is about expressing yourself in a personal and vulnerable way, and the project has had unexpected benefits for the mental health of the students involved. Mollie said they found the process empowering. “They see themselves as an author, as someone with a story to share and a story worth reading.”
With more than 250 students in each year level, the memoir project has also given the Year 9s a chance to learn more about each other. Mollie told us the project helped them develop connections within their cohort and to the school. “Despite it being quite a personal project, the finished product celebrates them as a group, and they can read about the lives and feelings of their peers,” she said.
Some of the memoir pieces are now being used as teaching materials with the younger year levels, and two stories have been used in a unit about “new beginnings”. At the start of each school year, the new Year 9 students read the book from the previous year to help them think about what they will write.
Teachers have also learned more about their students’ lives beyond the classroom. Academically, Mollie says the project has had surprising results. “It’s been challenging for some students who thrive with direction, rubrics, and structure. And it’s been a really positive experience for those who have not necessarily experienced lots of success in English and might feel intimated by writing.”
The key to the project’s success has been giving students choice about the content, form and genre. This has proved a powerful motivator – and the reason why most Year 9 students have contributed a piece, and why the project has become an ongoing feature of the school year.
Find out more about Regional Arts Victoria’s 2023 Arts & Education program.