The Long Walk and Memoir Writing

I have been very impressed with my 9th graders recently.
Our last book that we read was the memoir, The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. Click the link for a summary and my review.
I had never heard of this memoir before this summer when I read it for the first time. I absolutely loved it.

My students loved reading it. We had very good discussions about this captivating memoir of a Polish forced to work in a Soviet work camp who then escapes with a small group and travels all the way down to India. It helped that they are also taking Geography at the same time and all really enjoy history. We would discuss the history and culture behind the book, as well as characteristics of it being a memoir.

I even had them write their own memoir. (Well, personal essay because we weren’t going to write a full-length book.) This was my first experience teaching creative non-fiction, which is honestly my weakest point in writing. I’m great at fiction and academic writing, but personal essays? Not so much. So, I was a little unsure on how to teach it as well as revise and edit for them. Luckily, one of my English Education projects I had to do in college was to create a unit for a creative-nonfiction work. So, I used sources (and the rubric) from that!

I was astounded with their creativity. A lot of them are very good authors and excellent at descriptive elaboration and reflection! I loved reading these memoirs. I also decided to do it with them. I told them that this type of writing was my weakest, so even I need to practice it. Then, we did a peer editing assignment. They had to peer review each other’s essays as well as mine! I got some very interesting feedback:

Answering the question, “Does the 1st sentence hook you? Why or why not?”
– Kind of, it’s curious, but way to vague for me.
– Maybe less vague terminology in first couple sentences to be less of a sort of corny sense of mystery.
– No. Something more like ‘I was exploding with excitement.’

A weakness:
– Too much history, not enough descriptive elaboration.
– You just start your sentences with ‘I’ a lot. But I’m sure we all do.

As we were finishing our unit on The Long Walk, I found out that there were some researchers who didn’t believe the memoir was true. I dug a little deeper and found out that apparently Rawicz didn’t escape a work camp and stole the story from someone who possibly had. There were accusations, counter-accusations, Polish refugees wanting to stay quiet, BBC in a uproar, interviews, movies, a whole debacle. So, I printed out a few of these articles and had my students, who loved Rawicz and the story and were invested in it emotionally, read these articles. They were shocked. So, we decided to have something called a Fishbowl Discussion.

How a Fishbowl Discussion works:
There are two chairs in the middle of a circle (the rest of the desks form the circle).
There is a list of thought-provoking, opinion-based questions on the board (having to range from what they knew of history and the Soviets, characteristics of memoirs, what the foreword and the afterword in The Long Walk say, why he may or may not have been telling the truth, etc).
The two people in the middle choose a question and start discussing it. They are the only ones allowed to talk. If someone outside of the circle has something to say, or wants to change to a different question, they get up and tap one of the two out of the middle.

I was amazed at how in-depth and how passionate about these questions my students got. They were all waiting on their tiptoes to be able to tap someone out. There was such discussion and debate (by the way, most of my students were also the Speech and Debate class). I was so enthralled at how well this hastily thrown-together activity was. I also invited another class into it (about 10 more students to my 12) since they had also read the memoir. I just wish I had let some of the other teachers know ahead of time so they could’ve come watch.

I will definitely be using that exact same Fishbowl Discussion next year! So, I made my 9th graders swear they wouldn’t divulge any secrets they’ve learned about The Long Walk to my 8th graders. Their reply: “We don’t talk to the 8th graders, anyway!”

Tayler is a work at home mom. She does free lance articles and dabbles in graphic design and virtual assisting for bloggers. She spent 3 years as a history and English teacher. Her passions are her husband, two children, history, reading, nature, and her Savior, Jesus Christ.


  1. Hmm, sounds like quite an interesting class session! I've never heard of the book before–your description and the debate surrounding it make me want to!

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