“Now” also encourages an act-react behavior pattern to emerge. Situations must be met head-on. Little or no time or opportunity for reflection is possible. “What do I do now?” replaces “How did I get to this point? Where do I go from here?” This pattern a ffects teachers as well as students.
“Now” excludes the possibility of unexplored potentialities. “Now” always is and always will be. Aspirations are unenvisioned.
I intend to develop Who Do You Think You Are? as a Humanities/Language Arts course suitable for seventh- and eighth-grade students in an arts-magnet middle school. The philosophy of the school encourages teachers in the arts and the academics to make subj ect-area crossovers whenever possible; teachers, as well as students, are encouraged to stretch and to grow. (As my concluding comments will indicate, I have since taught this unit in several different school settings.) The unit, of course, must be adapta ble for students with varying reading, writing, and social skills. While the unit will explore one subject—the self—in depth, the experiences and activities will provide the breadth which Van de Bogart feels is so essential in a Humanities course. It is n ot an objective of the unit to produce a student “who knows more and more about less and less.”1
Who Do You Think You Are? will allow my students to remember, discuss, and record significant events and people in their lives. They will discover the reality of the past. Remembering, a solitary activity, will be more than reminiscence; reasons and patte rns will be sought. Discussions will be both small- and large-group. Recording will be either written, taped, or pictorial (as indicated by lesson plan).
My students will come to recognize and realize their uniqueness as individuals and as group members. Who Do You Think You Are? will be part of our everyday life—not a unit featured for a few weeks and then forgotten. “Group” therefore refers to our classr oom as well as to our families. Theater games stressing trust, cooperation, and a sense of community are an integral part of the unit; the good which can come from these activities goes beyond the unit.
Students will come to recognize and attempt to project the future as a result of knowledge gained through unit activities. Work on cause-effect relationships and creative problem-solving will help us achieve this goal. The dreams and aspirations of Lorrai ne Hansberry and Anne Frank will be read, discussed, and compared to our own. “Tomorrow’s News Today” will allow us to videotape our probable—and our fantastic—futures.
The development of facility in reading and writing is the heart of the unit. Excerpts from autobiographies will be read and discussed. More importantly, the excerpts will serve as models for student-written autobiographies. Identifying the voice of a writ er is an important facet of this objective. The process of identification will help students find and maintain their own voices in their writings. Revision of writings will be part of the process from the beginning. Revision—or reconceiving—will be done b ecause everything has possibilities. A higher level of success or insight may be achieved by approaching a reading or writing assignment from a different angle. Helping students understand that a problem may have a number of possible solutions is importan t.
Specifically, each activity in the unit will be composed of:
Because I would want to start the unit at the beginning of the school year, I’d take certain precautionary measures.
The introduction of theater games into the classroom would lay the groundwork for building a sense of community, trust, and cooperation. We will begin finding out who we are from the first day of school. Warm-up exercises (alphabetizing ourselves by first name or street, arranging ourselves numerically by birth date or shoe size) will help us to focus on ourselves individually and as group members and will introduce the concepts of revising and reconceiving.
If a part of an activity proves painful for a student, he/she should be allowed to opt out of the exercise or to reconceive an approach to the problem. If “Personal Scenes” was indeed too personal, perhaps the student could be encouraged to make up a memo ry to be shared or to fuse together parts of several memories. Such flexibility will help in the building of self-confidence and responsibility.
The literature (and subsequent writing assignments) will be grouped in broad categories. I’ve drawn the categories from student interests as well as needs I’ve recognized. The categories include:
As stated above, writing assignments will grow out of the discussion of specific autobiographical readings. In order to stress the importance of voice in autobiography, an experiment might be conducted with students. “How would you—as Frederick Douglass o r Zora Neale Hurston or Anne Frank—describe the theater game we played earlier?” Such an activity, early in the unit, would give students a solid base for finding and reproducing their own voices in their autobiographical writings. We might also do a thea ter activity called “Whose Story Is It?” Students would pair up, each in turn share an incident, choose one, and then both relate the same incident to the class which would then try to determine whose story it was. The storytellers are coached to keep the story line accurate but make the story their own—embellish it, use their own voices and gestures. The goal is to adapt rather than to trick.
Though I’ve belabored the point, the sense of community and cooperation being established will give students freedom to explore, express, and share themselves. Risk-taking will become less threatening. Environment must play a tremendous part in the depth, breadth, and honesty of students’ response to autobiographical writing assignments. Though the teacher is the immediate audience for the writings, the value of the process ultimately lies with the students.
Self-portraits and family portraits will be juxtaposed with a study of fine art portraiture. Snapshots will be brought in from home and used in a number of ways. Snapshots capture one moment in time. What happened just before and right after the camera cl icked? The stories would be based on fact with details to be supplied or re-created. The past is not always readily available to a writer (Frederick Douglass, Maxine Hong Kingston); it must be imagined and created.
Students will discover their voices in many media. The opportunities for making connections are virtually limitless and extremely important.
A tangible end-product of Who Do You Think You Are? will be an autobiographical booklet, two-fold in nature: a collection of personal writings and observations and an anthology culled from the former which could be shared with parents and other classes. T he Humanities activities, which can’t be included in the booklets, are vital to the production of the writings.
Obviously teacher-awareness of students’ environments and capabilities would influence the nature of the activities chosen for use. A working-file of ideas and observations would be helpful in forming and re-forming activities suitable to particular class rooms.
I wrote and first taught Who Do You Think You Are? in 1982; parts, as well as expansions, of the unit have been central to my teaching ever since. In 1982 I was teaching in an arts-magnet middle school which had changed some of the traditional rigidity we ’re all used to: periods were lengthened and/or combined so teachers spent more time with students each day; teachers were encouraged to work with each other across, as well as within, guidelines for the arts and academics. These factors contributed to th e successful teaching of the unit, as written. There was the time and the continuity necessary to complete the activities. Currently I am teaching in a program for talented and gifted public school students. While seventh-grade students meet for a long pe riod of class time, they meet as this group only once a week. It’s been necessary to make alterations in the unit, most of which are dictated by time-structure. What were formerly lead-up activities are now done as follow-ups in the afternoon; greater emphasis is now placed on writing and on including a wider variet y of literature; arts activities have been abbreviated. For the most part, each “lesson” is begun and completed in one weekly class session.
While this is less than ideal and certainly different from what I’d intended, the writings produced and thoughts expressed continue to encourage my belief in the value of autobiography in the classroom. New material continues to present itself, as I conti nue to become more aware of autobiography, the many forms it can take, and the richness it can bring into the classroom. Over the course of the years, some ideas were scrapped; they were too dated or too difficult or too facile. Many more ideas, however, were generated and added to the unit.
I have participated in two other Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminars on autobiography and have written two more units. While I believe each unit, written to respond to a specific need or to explore a certain approach, could be taught on its own, I am most comfortable combining elements from each.
I Am . . . (1988, vol. 3, 56-59) centered on journal-writing as a way of remembering. The goal of the writing is to gain an understanding of our lives and a recognition of our self-worth. When we help students choose form, voice, subject, and audience, we give them responsibility and ownership for their writing.2 Though the majority of the readings in this unit are excerpts from longer autobiographical works, different sources for reading and writing activities were recognized and used: autobiographical p oems and fictions, photographs, and slave narratives. Discussion, rather than the reading journal described in the unit, proved to be of more value as a lead-in to personal journal writing.
Remember (1990, vol. 1, 21-31) is an attempt to make our reading and writing program more representative of our school system’s cultural diversity. Rethinking the practice of the two previous units afforded me the chance to strike a finer balance between the universal and the unique. The unit offers an overview of the history of Hispanic-American literature as well as Chicano literature, a literature of self-search and social protest. The unit focuses on the work of Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana poet who se voice speaks of her roles as Chicana, poet, and scribe. Writing suggestions given in the lesson plans emphasize poetry but could easily be treated in prose.
The following overview contains the selections and suggestions written in 1982; they have been reordered so that they move from the general to the specific; from the non-threatening to the more intimate; from the universal to the unique, as perceived by m y students and me. The unit, whole or in part, has been taught to remedial, average, and gifted and talented seventh- and eighth-graders.
The lead-up activities progress from “fun” warm-up whole-group games to more thought-provoking small-group and individual activities. Difficulties students might experience with themes and in reading ability are fairly evenly-spread. Though the opportunit y to teach specific skills (adding details, sequencing) and forms (script, song lyrics) is there, the reordering reflects, more than anything else, my desire to have students become more at ease with the act of writing.
* in Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle.
** in Some Haystacks Don’t Even Have Any Needle.
A Mass for the Dead, pp. 26-27. The author presents himself as a character in a story. Why is the incident so important to him? How does he give examples of cause-effect relationships?
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, pp. 48-50. What gives Lorraine an early sense of her uniqueness? What makes you unique? In what ways are the memories of Lorraine and Nikki similar? Where do you wish a GIANT STEP would lead?
“Apartment House,” by Gerald Raferty. What attitude or tone is conveyed in the poem? How would you describe an apartment house?
“Vacant House,” by Jeanne De L. Bonnette. A scene is conveyed by concentrating on what is missing or lacking. What do you feel is the most important element of “home?”
In the latter section, Anne feels she’s being more realistic. Do you agree? Why? Why not? What does the future now center on?
Anne steps outside herself in the last section. How does she see herself? Try doing the same activity, using yourself as the subject.
Manchild in the Promised Land, pp. 426-27. What influence did fear have on Claude’s vision of the future? How does he separate “challenge” from “fear?”
“. . . That’s all that matters, that a cat does what he wants to do.” Do you agree or disagree?
“Dreams,” by Langston Hughes. Using symbolic language, how would you define a dream? How would you define the absence of a dream?
2Frank Thomas, How to Write the Story of Your Life, 5-6.
Bananas. Center for Theater Techniques in Education, 800 Dixwell Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut. A rich source of multi-arts activities based on theater activities and practices. I’ve found it an invaluable source of ideas.
Burns, Marilyn. I Am Not A Short Adult! Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977. Deals with aspects of childhood: school, legal rights, money, work, TV, the body and its language. Emphasis on making the most of yourself.
Canfield, Jack and Harold C. Wells. 100 Ways to Enhance Self-concept in the Classroom. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976. A collection of activities (writing, art, discussion) centering on building a positive self-image and a caring environment.
DeMille, Richard. Put Your Mother on the Ceiling. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Imagination games designed to increase children’s belief in their own effectiveness. Especially successful with fifth- and sixth-graders.
Dunning, Stephen, Edward Leuders and Hugh Smith. Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1966.
---. Some Haystacks Don’t Even Have Any Needle. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1969.
Both of Dunning’s books are fine collections of thematically arranged poems which appeal especially to fifth- through eighth-graders. Jaffe, Charlotte. Discovery Unlimited: Thinking Through the Humanities. Phoenix, Arizona: THINK INK Publications, 1981. Activities using critical thinking skills as an approach to the areas of art, literature, music, and architecture. Sections on music and literature are very good. The unique angles of approach to “creative” areas tie in with the concept of “re-conceiving” in the unit.
Thomas, Frank P. How To Write The Story of Your Life. Cincinnati: Writers’ Digest Books, 1984. Written by a teacher and journalist, this book offers many research/writing suggestions. The chance to review your life and gain new insights is stressed.
Van de Bogart, Doris. Introduction to the Humanities. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1968. Ideas about incorporating the Humanities into your curriculum. Helpful.
Weitzman, David. My Backyard History Book. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975. The main contention of the book — learning about the past begins at home — is vital to the unit. Many fine activities and projects are suggested.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. Beautifully illustrates the experience of “ordinariness” — school, first love. Reading about the ordinary will help students start where they are in their writing. Strong focus on details.
Baez, Joan. “My Father.” Baez presents a physical, social, and moral portrait of her father. The clustering of memories is a technique students may wish to use in their writing.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. New York: Bantam Books, 1964. A grave, solemn tone is chosen and established. Autobiography as crisis. Powerful.
Brown, Claudia. Manchild in the Promised Land. New York: Macmillan Company, 1965. Sections on education, future. “Strong” language might dictate use of anthologized versions of passages from the original.
Chisholm, Shirley. “Back to Brooklyn.” Chisholm reminisces about being kept on a tight rein by her parents, who wanted her to grow up to be something. The opening section is a good example of place memories.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Garden City, N.Y.: Dolphin Books, 1963. Powerful sections on education—the ability to read, write, think. Freedom expressed through the act of speaking. Sense of community is expressed.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1964. The recording of the experience of ordinariness—and extraordinariness. Obvious tie-in with journal writing. Eloquent passages on “future.”
Gibson, William. A Mass for the Dead. New York: Antheneum, 1968. Autobiography as a search for origins. Chronicle of family relationships. I’ve concentrated on early memories.
Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. New York: Signet Books, 1970. Her works—drama, poetry, art, articles, and interviews—present her life. Especially helpful for “family” and “future” sections of unit.
Hurston, Zora Neale. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. Autobiographical section has wonderful passages on family, love, the search for a future, superstitions. I use this frequently with my students. A source of many ideas for writing.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1961. Communication—on many different levels. Offers a heightened sense of “place.”
Parks, Gordon. A Choice of Weapons. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1966. A quiet, terse recounting of the efforts to create a life. Engrossing rather than flashy, heavyhanded.
Sanchez, Roberto and Oscar Lewis. “The Time I Ran Away.” Sanchez describes the first time he ran away from home, prompted by a need for adventure and freedom from his family. After barely subsisting for three months, he returns home to be welcomed rather than punished, as he’d expected.
Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. The “strong” language in the original might make widely-anthologized sections more palatable.
Walker, Alice. “To Hell With Dying.” Walker presents a loving picture of Mr. Sweet, an elderly neighbor she later realizes was her first love. A humorous recounting of a “revival” from one of Mr. Sweet’s many encounters with dying segues into the recognit ion of loss, aging, and love. Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. Autobiography as crisis—eloquently told. Sections of the book appear in many anthologies. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. I’ve chosen to concentrate on early memories and family. A powerful oratorical voice comes through in the readings.