Writing the Vignette: A Lesson Plan for Remembering Place

This lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it has three parts: visualizing, listing, and writing.  The objective is to generate memories from a specific place.

In E.B. White’s luminous essay “Once More to the Lake,” White writes about taking his son on a vacation to a lake in Maine that he visited with his own father during the summers of his youth. White recalls his memories of the lake, the cabin, the local restaurant, and the summer weather in clear, sharp prose. While his writing is a model for eloquent, simple style, he also tells us a thing or two about recalling memories. On reminiscing, White writes: It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.

For some reason, my students, who range from 14 to 18 years old, have as difficult a time remembering their childhood as many of the adult students I teach during summer workshops.  While it might seem unbelievable to adults that someone who is only 10 years removed from their 6-year-old self would have just as hard of time remembering those moments as someone who is 40, this experience has proven true in my classroom over and over.

In order to help my students of all ages to “return into the grooves which lead back,” I ask students to draw on the physical realities of a place before trying to mine that landscape for significant memories.

Visualizing: First I ask students to close their eyes and visual a small interior space from childhood—a bedroom, a porch, a hall, an attic, a kitchen.  The space should be a place they can imagine walking through and noticing things to the left and right of their walking path.

I say: “Imagine you are walking through this space. As you walk, stop often and look to your right.  Notice the individual items there –the floor, the walls, the paint, the light switches, the tables or bookcases or lockers, the plants, the windows.  Are there animals or people there? Now look to your left; notice the individual elements there – the walls, the floors, the ceiling, the furniture, the hardware, the plants, the animals, or people.”

Listing: I spend about three minutes having students silently visualize this space with their eyes closed before they ever start to write anything. Then I ask them to get out their writing notebooks and draw three vertical columns on a clean, fresh page.

I say: “Okay, we are going to walk through this space again, but this time with our eyes open and taking notes about the things on either side of us.  Imagine yourself at the bottom of this space. Maybe you are standing at one end of a hall or at the door of a room or on the edge of your grandmother’s front porch.  Walk through this space again slowly, and starting at the bottom of your page, jot down all the items that you noticed as you walk through.  Write down all the things you notice on your right in your far right column. Write down all the things you notice on your left in your far left column.  Leave the middle column open.”

Writing: I give students about seven minutes to list as many things as possible. I encourage them to fill both columns, from the bottom up, with items without describing them in too much detail. The list is only to serve as a reminder of the physical items that were present when a memory was made.

I say: “Now that we’ve recreated two lists of items that would be in this space if you were to return to it and walk through it, I want you to write, in the center column, the memories that you associate with this place. You might want to list, number, or bullet these items or you can just start describing the memories that you have of this space.   Once you have filled up the center column, continue on to the back of this page using the whole page to explore the memories that this space holds for you. If you get stuck, return to the three columns and put yourself back into that space, using the items that you noticed as you ‘walked’ through to jog your memory.”

I give students 20 minutes to write.  During this time, I creep around the room, peering over their shoulders to see what memories have surfaced.  I often jot down two or three lines that startle, surprise or tear my heart out to read to the class later when I wrap up the lesson.

This writing activity may or may not lead to a finished piece, but students have resurrected something from their past that they might choose to write about in the future.