Memory Collections and Community Building

Like every teacher, I spend part of each summer imagining the students who will be in my care for the next 180 days and thinking about the best way to begin the new school year. Right away, I want to begin cultivating a classroom community based on trust, and I also want to get the academic learning going from day one. I’ve tried the usual: summer souvenirs, “Me” boxes, and “All About Me” bags to help students get to know one another in those critical first days of school. But these activities can too easily become opportunities for showing off material possessions, and the academic connections are haphazard at best.

Recently, I’ve tried something new: memory collections, an idea based on Mem Fox’s lovely book, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. It’s about a boy who helps a woman with Alzheimer’s recover some of her memories by sharing with her objects that represent his own memories.

After sharing some of my own memories and reading the book to students, I teach them how to make their own memory collections, which they then use for developing and sharing stories about their lives. I use our memory stories to teach and model oral storytelling skills, as well as to introduce personal narrative in our first writing unit.

Memory collections meet two key back-to-school goals. First, students begin forging genuine connections with one another, building their social skills and sense of community. And second, these collections launch our language arts curriculum in a highly engaging way. Our memory collection work aligns with Common Core State Standards for listening and speaking, and for writing:

Listening and Speaking Standards

SL.K.4. Describe familiar people, places, things, and events and, with prompting and support, provide additional detail.

SL.1.1 Build on others’ talk in conversations by responding to the comments of others through multiple exchanges.

SL.2.4. Tell a story or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking audibly in coherent sentences.

SL.3.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

SL.4.4 Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

SL.5.6. Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, using formal English when appropriate to task and situation.

Writing Standards

W.K.3. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.

W.1.3. Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.

W.2.3. Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

W.3-5.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

Here’s how the memory collection project looks in my classroom.

Making My Own Memory Collection

Before school starts, I make my own memory collection, searching through closets and folders and dusty boxes for childhood memories students can relate to—memories about friendship, fairness, hard work, sports, and, of course, humor. I fill a resealable plastic bag with images, objects, drawings, and photos that remind me of important moments in my life. The sports tape reminds me of the time I went up for a header in a soccer game and almost got a concussion. The photo of my best friend in fifth grade reminds me of the day she moved away. And the golf ball reminds me of the time I fell into a river reaching for that ball and had to be rescued by my sister.

Modeling How to Share Memories

On the first day of school, I model for the children how to share a memory. Taking a scrap of floral fabric from my memory collection, I tell the story of the time I tried to make a canopy to go over my bed. I had always wanted a princess bed, but my parents refused. I begged and pleaded, but the answer was always no. Eventually, I took matters into my own hands, sneaking into the basement to get the fabric, the hammer, and the nails. I carefully nailed the fabric into my ceiling. After many mistakes and bent nails, I lay on my bed to admire my work. It looked like a mess, but I felt like a princess anyway. Then it fell on top of me. I look out at the twenty-five pairs of eyes while I am telling this story. They are riveted. Exactly what you want on the first day of school.

I share a new memory every day for the next few days. Some memories are funny, some exciting, some sad. I show the class a photo of me at my fifth grade graduation and tell about the special dress my mother spent months making, only to have one of my best friends tell me that she had curtains made out of the same material in her kitchen. My fifth grade class chanted “Curtain Girl! Curtain Girl!” and I started to cry. Remembering that hard moment, I tear up, and some students tear up with me. We are connecting. Through these stories, students learn that I loved soccer, didn’t always get along with my older brother, and sometimes broke the rules.

Students Make and Share Memory Collections

On day two, I read Mem Fox’s book to students and send them home with a resealable bag and a letter to their families explaining the memory collection project. Students scour their homes for objects representing personal and meaningful memories and bring their collections to school. While they are busy collecting, I begin teaching relevant language arts skills such as oral storytelling, public speaking, and narrative structure.

Once all the collections are in the classroom, students begin orally telling their own stories connected to the objects in their bags. With partners and in small groups, students plan, rehearse, and practice. They give each other thoughtful compliments and feedback using a co-constructed storytelling rubric that includes items such as “Did the story have rising action that led to a climax and then falling action?” and “Did the storyteller make eye contact to engage the audience?” Students then draft, revise, edit, and finally publish their personal written narratives from their memory collections.

Through all their work, the children build key social and academic skills:

  • Listening
  • Understanding and respecting another’s perspective
  • Taking turns in conversation
  • Public speaking
  • Working with a partner or small group
  • Oral storytelling
  • Narrative writing

Our Memories Stay With Us

The memory collections remain in our classroom for the rest of the year, and I encourage students to add to them whenever they discover or make another memory. Students frequently return to the collections when they’re looking for writing topics. The collections thus become the foun­dation for our literacy work as well as the foundation of a community based on the rich sharing of our stories and ourselves.

Additional Resources:
  • A video read-aloud of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, read by Mem Fox.
  • The letter Kristen Kaelin uses to explain the Memory Collection Project to students’ families.
  • The rubric Kristen Kaelin developed to assess storytelling skills.
  • A seven-day sequence for launching a Memory Collection Project, seen below:
A Seven-Day Memory Collection Sequence
Day 1 Model sharing a memory of your own and teach introductory oral storytelling and personal narrative skills
Day 2 Read Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and distribute family letters and re-sealable plastic bags for students to create their memory collections
3 & 4
Share another memory of your own and teach more introductory oral storytelling and personal narrative skills
5 & 6
Guide students as they begin to plan, rehearse, and practice oral storytelling in partnerships and small groups; help students co-construct oral storytelling rubric
Day 7 Transition students into writing their stories and then drafting, revising, editing, and publishing
Store memory collections in classroom, easily accessible so students can continue to add to them; review and practice oral storytelling and narrative writing skills throughout the year



Kristen Kaelin currently teaches fourth grade, but she has taught at every grade level, K–5. She has a master’s degree in special education from Bank Street College of Education

Tags: Building Classroom Community, Common Core, Sharing