This curriculum unit is targeted for students in grades nine and ten but could easily be adapted to other age groups by changing the lesson plans slightly to suit the level of the student. The students that I will be using the unit with are ninth grade students in classes that have been designated as basic and developmental English classes. A basic English class contains students whose reading level ranges from grade level 4.5 to 9.9, the average reading level falling between 7.0 and 8.0. The students in a basic English class can be fairly easily motivated if the lesson is made interesting by using reading they can relate to their own experiences. Reading aloud is sometimes warranted in these classes because special education students are often included in a basic English class. Physically handicapped students can also be found in a basic English class. I currently have a deaf student who understands only by lip reading and requires a particular type of individualization and attention.
A developmental English class is made up of a maximum of seventeen students whose reading levels range from grade level 3.0 to 6.0. These students are remedial in all areas of reading and writing and are often emotionally disturbed, learning disabled and extremely difficult to motivate. Their family problems seem to completely overtake their ability to concentrate on academic work. A lesson plan for these students must motivate them to struggle beyond their deficiencies toward a chance at a successful experience. The lessons need to be interesting and short term with an opportunity for each student to have a successful experience at their particular level.
The thrust of my approach centers around the idea that “small” moments, the tiny threads of our everyday existence, weave the real fabric of our lives. These small moments, certain smells, tastes and often music can help foster an awareness of one’s self through autobiographical writing.
I will use this unit to encourage students in my basic and developmental English classes to write about themselves, to look at their own lives and the people who surround and support them, and in so doing to learn about themselves. My students are predominantly black and Puerto Rican with reading levels between third and ninth grade. I have chosen reading for them by authors who I think they can relate to and whose writing will serve as a catalyst for their own writing.
My goal is to motivate students to write about themselves and their lives through reading about the lives of famous and “ordinary” people. I want to instill in them the understanding that everyone’s life is special, and that we can all learn about ourselves through reading about other people and writing about ourselves and the people who surround us.
Students will read selected autobiographical pieces. These will include poems, diary excerpts, excerpts from autobiographies, self portrait poems and short narratives. When we study poetry, the students will write poems about themselves or about an incident or a person that reflects something about themselves.
We will begin with a profile of Rita Dove. When Rita Dove won the Pulitzer prize for poetry last year, the second black winner in history, she was suddenly catapulted out of relative obscurity into national prominence. Although she had been writing poetry for nineteen years (with three books to her credit) her reputation existed mostly among fellow poets, until the appearance of her fourth book,
Thomas and Beulah
Based loosely on the lives of her grandparents,
Thomas and Beulah
is more personal and more compelling than her previous books of poetry. “The story was writing me,” she says. She started with one poem about her grandfather that eventually grew into a whole series. Then she wrote another series about her grandmother. “I’m pleased that I received honors for
Thomas and 8eulah
because it is a story of a very ordinary couple not heroes small people of the country. It says something about where our hearts should be.”
Dove’s poetry covers more than just the black experience, and she objects to being labeled. “8eing black tinges the way one sees the world,” she says. “8ut not all the time. I don’t want to be put in a category that will limit me.”
Rita Dove’s comments reflect very closely the thrust of my unit as discussed above. The poem we will study together will be Rita Dove’s “Sunday Morning at Grandfathers.” After a group discussion of this poem, we will write autobiographical poems that tell about ourselves through exploring and relating an experience or memory from our childhood.
Continuing with poetry I will introduce background information about Langston Hughes and begin with a reading of his poem “Motto.” We will attempt to discover what Hughes is telling us about who he is and how he feels about life. I will use this discussion as an introduction to writing autobiographical poetry that tells the reader who we are. We will also read self portrait poems written by students. In this exercise I will emphasize the difficulty and challenge of being completely truthful and finding that part of yourself that is different from other people. We will discuss ideas about illustrating the student’s self portrait poems with a visual self portrait using various mediums.
1 Jan Farrington,
(Illinois: Curriculum Innovations, Inc., 1986), p. 24.
., p. 30.
I have chosen excerpts from
The Diary of Anne Frank
to stimulate discussion about diary and journal writing and to make students aware of how a diary can give us historical and social information about a period of time as well as intimate details of a person’s life. Anne Frank’s diary, which covers a period of about two years, is the story of the suffering of people forced to live in a world of whispers and distrust. It is also the story of the hopes, joys and despair of a teenager growing up during wartime. The students will spend their writing time in class and each evening writing a personal diary. I will not read the student’s diaries, unless asked to, but will ask them at the end of the writing period to write a narrative statement telling about the experience of writing in a diary and reflections about what they learned about themselves through the act of writing about themselves. I hope that this experience will stimulate them to continue diary writing after the unit is completed.
We will continue the unit by reading autobiographical essays and excerpts from larger autobiographies and by discussing the similarities and differences between this longer genre and the shorter poetry and diary forms we have studied. I would like them to consider the question of what form they have studied thus far offers the best avenue of self expression for the autobiographer. “My Struggle for an Education” by Booker T. Washington will be used to begin our study of essays and short autobiographical narratives. Booker T. Washington was never quite sure when he was born, although he thought it might have been 1858 or 1859. Careful records of the birthdates of slaves were not kept on the Virginia plantation where Washington began his life. But from the time he was a few years old, he knew that he desired an education. After the reading of this autobiographical essay we will focus our discussion on how one passion that an individual has can determine the path his life takes and reflect the person that he is. Our writing assignments will explore our personal goals in our own lives and how these goals are already shaping our individual personalities.
My goal is to allow the students to experience first hand what it feels like to write an autobiographical poem or to keep a diary. I think this experience will give them insight into their own past as well as an idea of what the author has experienced in writing in a particular genre.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes I was struck by how much I learned simply by viewing photographs and reading a few short but powerful lines about a life I am unfamiliar with. In many ways it was more informative and more present oriented than a long autobiographical piece. My goal is to draw from the students a sense of themselves by having them focus on the tiny threads that weave the fabric of their lives. The Hughes and DeCarava book is a wonderful example of this philosophy.
I will incorporate the reading of
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
with a project in which my students will choose a photograph that will become the focal point of a collage. They will write about their feelings and the memories that are elicited when they look at the photograph. The photograph will be surrounded by images, both written and pictorial, that reflect the feelings a student has had at a particular time in his life.
We will spend time together viewing the photographs in
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
and reading the narrative that accompanies the photographs. The students will be asked to write their thoughts and feelings immediately after viewing the book. Then we will begin our discussion and exploration of how photographs interact in the autobiographical act. The students will think about how they feel when they look at certain photographs and how photographs force us to remember painful as well as joyful experiences. Their assignment will be to choose one photograph from their life that will become the focal point of a collage. They will spend time in class viewing the photograph and talking about the photograph with other students and then begin writing about their feelings and memories.
Below are lesson plans that reflect the readings and ideas previously mentioned.