The Advanced Class

Memoir Writing at Frasier Meadows Retirement Community 

by Naomi Rachel 


Telling our stories is good for our brains and it can also be a great deal of fun and help build community. We all have great stories to share and only need help getting started. 

Last year, a friend in Canada told me about the great memoir writing class he was taking for seniors on Vancouver Island. He sent me a few samples of his writing, which were lively and engaged. I was very interested in the historical context of his writing. He wrote about what it was like for him 60 years ago, and it occurred to me that teaching memoir writing to elders could be an educational for me and a new teaching challenge. 

I approached Molly Briggs at Frasier Meadows, an independent living retirement home in Boulder Colorado and found a very enthusiastic educational and activities director. Molly was not sure if there would be interest but we decided to test the waters and announced an eight week class that would meet once a week. 

I didn’t hear for a week and then Molly told me that seventeen residents had signed up. We established a waiting list and I began teaching fifteen women ranging in age from 80-97. I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. For the women involved, the class was an escape, and I’ve never had a more appreciative group of students. They did the assignments and shared them weekly. After eight weeks, no one wanted to stop the class so we continued. We have now been together for about thirty weeks with no end in sight. We are currently compiling a book of participants’ work organized by assignment. 

I have learned a great deal from these students and often wish my college-age students could hear their stories. It’s strange to go from the class at Frasier Meadows where I hear stories of appalling past sexism (women in an orchestra required to use the back entrance) to my university students who proudly proclaim “I am not a feminist.” 

The set up for the class is very casual. We sit around a large table. I often begin with brief ice-breakers. For example, I ask students to close their eyes and imagine a scent that evokes a memory. When they have it, they open their eyes. Then we go around and share. 

For homework, I usually give two assignments: a brief one we can share in a few minutes the next class and a longer assignment of about 500 words. I asked them to keep a sensory image book daily for the first eight weeks to see if it becomes a useful habit. For some it has and for others, not. I do think they have all come to realize that such exercises are simple acts of attention and add to our appreciation of the world around us. 

As with any writing class, I give examples of stellar work and recommend reading. I have never made the assignments easier than I would give to upper division college students or even graduate students and I tend to think that is why the classes have been so popular. For example, in the second class, I talked about titles and subtitles and we went over examples of successful and unsuccessful examples. Then I gave them their short assignment for the following week: title and subtitle your life. I would not give such a challenging assignment the second week of an undergraduate class, and I often teach these elders more the way I teach grad students. They are advanced in age and ability.

Lesson Plans

Here are three assignments the class completed, with examples of writing for each. 

The Photography Assignment 

The Place Map Assignment 

The Character Sketch

About the author

Naomi Rachel earned a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature. She teaches at the University of Colorado, mentors writers in prison and teaches school teachers how to teach poetry and creative writing. She believe that writing is a life support system and helps us live more fully.


'The Advanced Class' have 9 comments

  1. July 30, 2019 @ 4:30 pm Toby Papers

    The first thing I loved about this piece was the photo. I’ve never seen more happy elders. The assignments are very creative and the students are lucky to have such an engaged teacher. I think we need more such courses for all ages.

    Reply

  2. July 30, 2019 @ 5:14 pm Pierre Blancard

    What a wonderful series of articles. It almost makes me look forward to my retirement. I really loved the piece about the bubble gum . I hope I can find such an inspiring teacher like Naomi Rachel.

    Reply

  3. July 30, 2019 @ 5:52 pm Brianna Warden

    I am a high school teacher in Michigan and I was an undergraduate at CU Boulder years ago. When I looked at your magazine (I use T and W in the classroom all the time-thanks!) I was amazed to see my former teacher Dr. Rachel in the center of a great picture of laughing women. It made my day. Dr. Rachel was my favorite teacher- not just in college but of all times. She helped me get into grad school and always supported my dreams. I can’t be more grateful. Everyone who is her student is super lucky! I only hope my students have such wonderful memories of me. The women at the retirement home are so lucky.

    Reply

  4. September 4, 2019 @ 4:42 pm Maise Stedding

    I am an elderly woman trying to work on my memoir by myself. I so wish I had a class like this to help me out. I especially loved the story about WWII (Photography Assignment) and the one about the strict but great teacher (Character Assignment). I wish there were more assignments with examples so I could follow along. Would you consider a series? I don’t know if you do that but it would be helpful to many of us trying to capture our memories . I live in Maine and don’t know of any class like this. These women are so wonderful and they have inspired me to keep writing. I think my memoir has been rather dull so far. I think I spent too much time on dates and the names of relatives . I would like to add more spice to it. My son showed me these articles and also helped me write this. I am a young 86 . Thank you all.

    Reply

    • September 4, 2019 @ 10:27 pm ursula elliott

      I live in a retirement community in Utah and we are going to try to start our own group. Alas, we don’t have a teacher and don’t know how to find one. We live far from any university. We will start with the assignments as part of this article but wish we could get more. Anyone have any ideas? We live rather remote but we do have our memories and would like to write them up to share with family, friends and others. It seems that these pieces have appeal so why not ours?

      Reply

  5. September 4, 2019 @ 7:40 pm Barbara Farhar

    Thank you, elder writers, for your moving comments on our pieces. It is gratifying to know that others are reminded of their own stories and are inspired to write them!

    Reply

  6. September 7, 2019 @ 1:44 pm Naomi Rachel

    Your memories certainly will have appeal to many. If you need more assignments, you can email me and I will try to help. It is difficult to keep a group going without a teacher but it is possible. Let me know how I can help. You can email me directly at naomi.rachel@colorado.edu

    Reply

  7. October 16, 2019 @ 7:35 pm ursula elliot

    Naomi came to our tiny retirement community in Utah and gave us a copy of the marvel of a book the writers at Frasier Meadows published. It is full of great writing assignments and we will follow them faithfully until Naomi returns in the Spring. We are so very very grateful to her for taking the time to travel out of her way and to visit with us. It was one of those days we won’t forget . We are also grateful to the writers in the book. We will use their writings to inspire our own words. We are not too old to learn new things!

    Reply

  8. November 11, 2019 @ 10:59 pm Dr. Naomi Rachel

    For those who live in the Boulder area, there will be a reading of the book the elders published at the Boulder Bookstore on December 4 at 7:30 PM. Everyone is welcome.
    The book is
    CREATIVE CRONES- Having and writing the time of our lives.

    Reply


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