If it is possible to take on the voice and appearance of a character for an oral presentation, so to it is possible to imitate the writing styles of great writers, It is unfair to ask children to write in their own voice when they haven’t yet developed one, We learn by imitation, and in section three children will be doing autobiographical writing activities, many of which are based on the styles of others. The objectives of section three are the better understanding of autobiography as a writing form and the development of a writing voice on the part of each student. Activity one requires a trip to the library. Children are asked to find and read from microfilm, a copy of the newspaper on the day they were born. They are then asked to compare their feelings concerning today’s world and the world at the time when they were born. The purpose of this activity is to generate interest in the past, while at the same time forming a time frame within which students will work—a time line.
As a second activity, closely related to the first, children can describe and give feelings about their family histories. The information will be gathered through conversations with older family members. Included in this section would be answers to questions such as nationality, when their ancestors arrived in America, their first occupations, and how they came to be born where they did.
Many famous writers begin their autobiographies with the idea that if you want to know about the writer, you must first know where he or she came from and how they view their past. In the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, at the beginning of Chapter I, an example of this searching to know one’s origin is presented. It can be read to the class as an example of what is to be done in activity two. Other examples can be found by students as a separate or follow-up activity.
In the third part of their autobiographies, children are asked to remember early life experiences by writing poems entitled “I Remember . . .” These poems are simply a series of declarative sentences beginning with the words “I Remember . . .” This type of brainstorming in which children remember past experiences will be of great use later in the prose expansion of many of these ideas. A second poem entitled “Childhood is . . .” and following the same format should follow. Both poems should include at least eight thoughts.
Many times students will have interesting thoughts but do not expand on their ideas. Once children have listed their thoughts on a subject, as in the “Childhood is . . . ” poem, they can be asked, in activity four to add four or more details to one of the thoughts. The article, “Hers,” by Laura Cunningham in the September 1981 edition of the
New York Times
, offers an example which can be used to illustrate this technique. If the statement made by a child is, “Childhood is when my grandmother comes to visit,” what details can you add? Laura Cunningham, in her article describes such an arrival in the following manners:
My main concern on the day of my grandmother’s arrival was: How soon would she start the cookies? I remember her arrival, my uncles flanking her as they walked down the apartment corridor. She wore a hat, a tailored navy blue suit, an ermine stole. She held tucked under her arm, the purple leather folder that contained her work in progress, a manuscript entitled “Philosophy of Women” She was preceded by her custom made white trunk, packed with purses, necklaces, earrings, dresses and more purple-inked pages that stress “the spiritual above the material.”
The description continues, but certainly children can see the tremendous amount of detail stemming from a single thought. Not only do we learn about how the grandmother looked but we learn about her as a person and the way in which others view her.
Activity five involves having children describe their relationship with a family member or friend. Throughout all of these activities, photographs or drawings can be incorporated, as children enjoy sharing photographs with others. Examples of this type of writing, in which relationships are discussed in great detail, can be found in,
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
In Chapter 20, Angelou describes meeting Louise, her first childhood friend. The teacher should read this chapter to the class as an example of exploring ones inner feelings. The chapter concludes with the author saying, “. . . after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl.”
As Roger Porter and H. R. Wolf point out in
The Voice Within
, “We are less interested in what you did at one time than in what you think about it now and the way you define and elaborate your understanding.”
The authors further explain that no autobiographer can represent exactly what happened back then any more than a historian can definitely describe the real truth of the past. What is important is that authors be committed to examining their inner selves in language that is faithful to their sense of experience. Angelou is a perfect example of an author who is constantly searching to better understand the meaning of her past and its effect on the present.
The temptation for students in writing autobiography is to write only about times of crisis in their lives—the broken arm, the flood, or the time they had to move. While this is not wrong, and certainly these events are important, students should realize that descriptions of everyday events are also interesting topics for autobiography, and are in fact a much greater part of our lives than the occasional crisis. Having now read Anne Frank and Maya Angelou in section one of this unit, students will be familiar with examples of very common everyday activities and the beauty with which they can be described. In activity six, children are asked to describe in detail an everyday or very ordinary experience. The responses can range from sitting in the back seat of the car on a long trip to brushing one’s teeth.
Earlier in this unit, we discussed the idea that in autobiography each person is able to write about events which are important to them. For Franklin, it was his career, for Douglass, it was learning to read and write. The attention each man gave to these topics makes this obvious. They do, in fact, describe in great detail their entries into cities where they are able to pursue their goals, Franklin in Philadelphia and Douglass in Baltimore. After reading of these journeys, students, in activity seven, are asked to describe their entries into a new experience in quest of a goal. It may be leaving elementary school and going to middle school that is described, or perhaps it is trying out for a team. Whatever it is, the students are to describe their debuts in the same manner as Franklin and Douglass and with the same degree of significance.
Autobiography is not limited to prose. Activity eight allows children to explore other areas of expression. Artists such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt allowed us to learn more about them through self-portraits and Rousseau and Thoreau used poetry for self-study. Children in this activity must use another medium, perhaps poetry or art, as a part of their autobiographies. The poem, drawing, or other form of expression may represent a favorite interest or talent, or be a self-portrait.
Activity nine is a creative writing assignment dealing with autobiography in the future. Students are asked to write a story entitled, “The Class Reunion.” This reunion occurs in the year 2000 and should include all members of the class. Not everyone will enjoy what their classmates feel is in store for them, but they will certainly enjoy sharing their stories.
Finally, in activity ten, the completed autobiographies should be given a worthy title. With careful thought, students should select a title which they feel represents their experiences and how they feel about themselves. The title of a recent autobiography by Richard Rodrigues,
Hunger of Memory
is just such a title.
In his autobiography, Rodrigues describes his life as a struggle to educate himself by learning English and therefore bettering his life. Never, however, is Rodrigues able to forget completely his past. He does, in fact, hunger for memories of family times when Spanish was spoken at home—a past he had to leave.
In concluding a unit on the autobiography, the teacher should discuss with students the idea that when a person writes his or her autobiography, they should not be writing something they already know. The author must think things through and try to understand them in a different way The autobiographies read, oral presentations given, and writing activities completed have hopefully helped students better understand the personal nature of the autobiography and its value as a writing form.