(Auto)Biography Project

In addition to my full-time job teaching science, I recently started teaching Adult Basic Education and GED classes.  While I am not new to adult education, it has definitely been a lesson in juggling, for lack of any better word. I only have eleven students, but keeping track of their individual needs and goals has certainly kept me busy.  In addition to making sure I have planned the right stuff for them, enough of the right stuff, and then backup plans, I also start the class with a group lesson.  This in itself is a bit of a challenge, since they are all at different levels.  I have a few that will potentially pass the GED in a few months time (assuming they persist) side by side with students who are reading and writing at a 3rd grade level — plus throw in a recent ESL (English as a Second Language) “graduate” and another LEP (Limited English Proficiency) student.  AND don’t forget about the five new students testing in the other room, getting ready to start class tomorrow! Holy cow!

One thing that most of my students need to work on is “language,” which is not just verbs, capitalization, punctuation, etc. but also sentence structure, paragraph development, and writing conventions.  I have always heard that the best way to learn the details of grammar is through writing, so the first “group lesson” series is writing an (auto)biography.  While we started off by reading a few leveled “biographies” (they were essentially short articles), I have asked students to write about themselves as we go forward.  My reasoning for this is first, most people enjoy talking about themselves, and second, they know themselves better than they know anything else… Plus this way we don’t have to spend any time researching.  All they have to dig through is their mind!

Anyway, as I said, we started out reading a few articles that told stories about the lives of historical figures.  Unlike the traditional textbook stories of revolutionaries, presidents, and war heroes, the stories from these books were about individuals you don’t always hear about — Coretta Scott King, Josephine Baker, and Dorothea Lange.  I matched students by reading level, and they worked together to read through the biographies.  Then, they were asked to find the main idea of each paragraph — this was also just good practice for them — and then combine those main ideas into a summary of each individual.

To look for patterns in the article structure, we shared our summaries by recording them side by side on the board.  We discussed how each article started with an overview of who the person was and “previewed” to an extent the life the article was about to describe.  In the very first paragraph, the reader finds out that Josephine Baker “lived more in a day than others might in their whole lives,” while Coretta Scott King’s biography opens with a description of the woman as a Civil Rights activist in her own right — not just the wife of one.  The stories then tread through the early life of the individual, emphasizing how that early life set them on the path to the achievements of their adulthood.  Finally, at the end of each article, the biographies focused on the lasting impacts of the individual and what they are remembered (or should be remembered) for.

These two activities took place over the course of two days.  On the first day, they read and summarized.  On the second day, we discussed similarities and differences.  After these group lessons, students broke up to begin their individual work.

On the third day, we then whittled our summary down to a single sentence. I asked, What ONE THING does the author want you to know about this person?  Some of the answers were really impressive! One student wrote:

“Dorothea Lange became famous from her skills and the way she captured the human spirit in her pictures during the Great Depression and WWII.”

While there is a tiny bit of tweaking with the preposition use, all in all that was a pretty awesome way to summarize her life and impact.

At this point, it was time to start talking about ourselves.  I explained that we were going to write our own biography (or autobiography, actually).  To start the writing process, we needed to take some time to brainstorm.  I showed them how to make a concept map, placing ourselves in the middle.  Then, we branched off from that center circle with the following topics: characteristics/personality, values/beliefs/morals, achievements/goals, significant events. When they looked at me kind of confused, I ended up using my own life as an example.

And then came the hard part… drawing conclusions.  The tough thing about teaching students to draw conclusions is that it really is up to them.  You can show them connections, you can give examples, you can ask the right questions — but ultimately, what goes on in their brains is up to their brains. Sometimes it gets to a point where it just clicks – and other times, it just doesn’t.  Practice can help, for sure, but it is a tough concept nonetheless.

My strategy to get them through this point was both to ask questions and give examples.  I told them to look at their maps.  We were going to try to come up with that one sentence, that one main idea, that could structure our autobiography.  The goal was to find a way to connect two ideas on our map.  For example, how did events in your life shape your personality? How did your personality shape the events in your life? How have your values impacted your achievements? How have events impacted your values? How has _______ affected ________?

And then we looked at my map.  Branching off of characteristics,  I listed both enthusiastic and impulsive. Beside achievements, I listed my degrees, my teaching position, and one of the awards I won.  Next to significant events, I included a few relationships, moves, and beginning and completing schools.  With the gist of my public life on display (and a little bit of the personal side), I very quickly came up with my autobiography’s thesis:

Impulsive decisions I made as a young adult set me on the path to a career in education that I had never expected to pursue but have come to love.

While this is not an idea that is new to me, and I have shared it with others on occasion, I had not planned to tell it to a room of relative strangers. But then again, after all, I was potentially asking them to write about some pretty personal things, so why shouldn’t I have to do so too?


Next, we made an outline.

I. I am impulsive.

a. example one

b. example two

II. I made impulsive decisions in college that set my feet on this path.

a. specifics

b. specifics

III. I began a career as a teacher.

a. details

b. details

IV. I love where I have landed.

a. wonderful things

b. wonderful things

So far, I have students working on autobiographies about the impacts of moving cross-country, coming to the United States, and losing a parent. One student came up with the thesis, “All of my bad decisions have led me to believe in nobody but myself.”  And then she said she didn’t think it would be a good idea to write this essay.  I think she is going to write about a celebrity instead…

So that’s where we are at. While I hadn’t planned to take out my “English Teacher Shoes” since settling into my Science Teacher career, I think I can still pull it off. So far, at least.

For some similar activities, check out the following assignments in my TeachersPayTeachers store:


Teaching Characterization and Inferential Thinking

There are many ways to teach characterization, and I don’t claim to be an expert. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you some of the approaches and resources I have found successful.  This past year, I was teaching at an inner-city school in Charlotte, North Carolina.  While many of my eighth grade students were aware of the general meaning of characterization – the way an author provides information about characters – my students generally just brushed the surface of texts they encountered. They focused on the direct characterization and ignored the many other ways authors characterize their characters.

Authors can indirectly provide information about their characters through:

  • actions
  • speech/dialogue
  • appearance/physical descriptions
  • thoughts
  • others’ reactions to the character.

ReadWriteThink.org has a great PDF printout on direct characterization, as well as a mnemonic to help students remember these methods. Click on the image to access the PDF.

characterization, mnemonic device, teaching tools,

taken from ReadWriteThink.org

Anyway, my students were, for the most part, relying too much on direct characterization and ignoring the wealth of information provided indirectly.  To address this, I devoted a day to studying indirect characterization in action.

I took an excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird, specifically the testimony of Mayella Ewell as she was questioned by Atticus.  The excerpt, from Chapters 16 and 17 I believe (though please don’t quote me on that!), contained so many examples of indirect characterization – it was wonderful. To help students learn to identify these examples, I created an “It Says // I Say” chart on the SmartBoard that we worked through as we read the text in class.

I started by providing students with the examples from the book, asking them to infer something about that character based on the quotes I pulled.

characterization, inference skills,

I scaffolded this task by first providing the quotes and inferences, with the goal of moving toward student independence.

As we worked through the text, I asked students to provide more of the information, as well as utilized Quick Chat breaks to maintain student engagement.

quick chat, technology in education, student discussion

After we had worked through the many examples of characterization I pulled from the text, asking students to provide inferences about the characters, I asked students to go back through the examples they had recorded in their notes and identify which method of characterization the author was using.

Being able to infer information from a text, to make meaning from what is not directly stated,  to create their own ideas from information provided — that is SUCH an important skill and I found the “It Says / I Say” chart a good way to get students thinking.  By highlighting these important quotes that otherwise students would have likely skimmed over, they developed a greater understanding of the text and the characters involved.  This led to the eventual discussion of whether Mayella Ewell was telling the truth — though we had not read any other part of the book, students were able to form an opinion on the question based on the characterization of Mayella – particularly her speech and actions, the information provided directly by the author, and other characters’ responses to her.  Students were able to defend their positions by referencing specific information in the text – another skill so important to achieving success in high school and college.

assessment, bloom's taxonomy, creation

After completing an activity like the one I described above, how can you tell if students have mastered the concept?  One unique way I came across was the idea of Facebook imitation pages.  Instead of writing a long report on characterization, students can creatively demonstrate their knowledge through the creation of Facebook pages for their characters.  I have used this tactic in my own classes, and it is definitely a way to improve student engagement.

I came across this idea after I entering my first full-time Language Arts teaching position mid-year, when the previous teacher abruptly quit. At the time, students had just finished the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and were working on a project called “Farcebook.” The teacher had purchased large posters on which a Facebook template had been created for students to record information about characters from the novel. I absolutely loved the idea.

That said, I was working at a private school and the pay was (and still is) mediocre. With an apartment, pets, student loans, and the prospect of a long, pay-free summer, I could not justify spending that much of my own money on posters I could not reuse. So instead of purchasing a set of these large posters from an online company or mail-order magazine, I created my own Facebook imitation page that I called CharacterBook.com.

facebook, book report, lessons, alternative book reports, literature projects, characterization


CharacterBook contains space for students to record basic information, status updates, friends list, causes list, group memberships, photo albums and wall recordings. This PDF file contains two pages that may be printed back to back or simply stapled. If you have access to a poster printer, the document can also be enlarged.

I have personally used this as an alternative book report project, as well as have adapted it for biographies of any individual or characters — including saints (for a Religion class) and presidents (for Social Studies). When I use this worksheet, I ask students to base their profile page entirely on facts drawn from the novel or other resource. For example, students may be asked to cite an exchange of dialogue that reveals how a character feels about a particular group or cause before listing that group/cause on their profile page. This helps to meet Common Core Standards and increase student accountability and reliance on the original text.

How do you teach characterization?


So I daily come to find that I have no idea what I am doing. I feel like I start over every single day. And not in a good, ‘oh it’s a fresh start’ kind of way. I feel like I start over every day, getting nowhere.

I have no idea if the other new teachers feel like this. Whenever we discuss what’s going on in our respective classrooms, I’m pretty sure we all skip over the not-so-hot stuff. Or maybe that’s just me.

I’m just pretty sure I’m drowning in EOGs and SMART and IB and AOI and ESL, DI, PLCs, SIP, PDP, and so on and so forth. And then add in the 8th graders.

I don’t even really want to talk about it. It kind of makes me feel sick inside.

❤ The Newbie

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn. | Literary Kicks

See the original post:  For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn. | Literary Kicks.

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

 by Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 08:42 pm

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

is a short story by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps written to settle a bar bet or perhaps written as a challenge, but either way, it’s a complete work of fiction. It’s a piece of writing I think about a lot, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s evocative, powerful and clocking in at six words, it proves that it’s not necessary to blather on endlessly to tell a good story.

The Hemingway story is an extreme example of one of my favorite types of writing — flash fiction. Flash, also known as micro, sudden, short-short, postcard, minute, quick, furious, and skinny, is a type of story that has a limited number of words (definitely under 1,000, but in many cases, under 500). Typically, it has a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, though of course it happens in an ultra-condensed form. In my experience as someone who very rarely went beyond 500 words with pieces of fiction, I found that I’d often run into people (usually other writers) with the opinion that short-short fiction is okay, but it’s not the real thing, and I think that is an unfair way of looking at flash. Though I definitely make no claims of genius, I absolutely believe that when done by a master, it’s an incredibly fast read that lingers indefinitely. Like quick-moving shadows thrown on a late-night wall by cars passing on the street outside, it often takes a lot of thinking to understand what you think you saw, and with each analysis, its shape shifts and you find something different. Take the story “Little Things” by Raymond Carver (text here), which, at 498 words, is a brilliant example of flash fiction.

Even before I did 70% of all of my reading on a computer screen, I had no patience for unnecessarily long works of fiction. I suppose this is why I became (and remain) a fan of the ultra-short flash fiction. (And probably also why I can’t be bothered to finish Anna Karenina.) Flash is perfectly suited for online reading, and there are quite a few places that deal entirely (or almost entirely) in flash fiction. FlashquakeSmokelong QuarterlyVestal Review, and Pindeldyboz are just a few places online where you can get your flash fix.

In honor of the subject at hand, I feel that I should keep this post short, so I’ll close by mentioning that Action Poetry is a great place to make every word count by trying some flash fiction.

Life Lessons From Critical Literary Theory, New England Wampanoags, and ‘Fish Is Fish’

A Brief Introduction to Critical Literacy/Literary Theory

I’ve recently been investigating the idea of critical literacy through Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents The driving force behind new emphases on critical literacy is the need for individuals in the twenty-first century to be able to approach texts critically–basically, drawing their own conclusions about the world instead of eating up what someone else says.  I’m sure there is a much more refined way to define the need for critical literacy, but that’s the gist.

Anyway, interestingly enough, the ideas behind critical literary theory are concepts I encountered frequently as an undergraduate in the History department at Allegheny College.  We were constantly encouraged to question–whose history?, to examine events and assumptions about events from multiple perspectives.  And that is basically what literary theory does–it considers texts through different “lenses.”  For example, if I were to examine To Kill A Mockingbird through a socio-economic (or Marxist) lens, I would ask: Who has power here?  Who doesn’t?  How do power and class relate?  How does class affect the experiences of various characters–of Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch? What about Helen Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and Maudie Atkinson?  How are their very different lives affected by their socioeconomic status?

Similarly, if I were to examine that same novel through a gender (or feminist) lens, I would consider:  Which female characters reinforce society’s gender assumptions? Which rebel against them?  How do these female characters reflect the reality of women’s lives at this time? Is Aunt Alexandra a stuck-up b*tch–or is she a woman trapped by society’s expectations? Does she strive to be the perfect Southern lady not because she lacks other ambition, but because it is the only ambition society allowed to her?

To summarize: Critical literary theory asks readers to examine texts from multiple perspectives–from the point of view of author, reader, societal observer, social commentator, language analyst, and even psychologist.  There is more than one way to see.

On To A More Personal Note

While we might learn to practice a critical evaluation of the texts we encounter, I wonder how often we apply our critical eye to our personal lives.  All too often, we see only what we want to see.

There is a children’s book by the name of Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni.  In the book, a tadpole, having become a frog, returns to the water to tell his fish friend of all the wonders he has seen on land .  The fish tries to join the tadpole and finds that he can’t survive on the land—he must stay in the water.  He only realizes this after he leaps onto the shore and flops around, gasping for air.  Oh what will become of our fish!? (SPOILER ALERT:) Though there is a moment there when it gets pretty intense, Frog comes to the rescue, and our fish makes it in the end.

But none of that is important.

On To The Important Part Of The More Personal Note

The key here is what goes on in the fish’s mind while the tadpole describes the sights he has seen on land.  Everything looks like a fish.  There are fish birds, fish cows, fish people… so on and so forth.  Check it out for yourself:

Now, what does this have to do with critical literacy?  Well, as I said above, critical literacy (and in literature specifically, critical literary theory) expects readers to consider texts from multiple perspectives, to not simply accept at face value that which is written as truth.  Because again: whose truth? (Side Note: That’s a-whole-nother topic that I’m sure you’ll be hearing about in the future as I work my way through my unit plan for Avi’s Nothing But The Truth.)

All too often we see things through our eyes alone, from our perspective alone, and sometimes that means we don’t see things as they really are.

Case In Point:  My senior thesis at Allegheny College focused on Native American women in Puritan New England.  In the course of my research, I read a number of documents written by New England Puritans, describing the culture and customs of the natives around them.  Of particular relevance here are their descriptions of native religion.  Though there were a number of cultural groups in New England at the time (Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Narragansett, etc.), they shared many customs and beliefs.  These native groups believed in two main spirits — Keihtan, their creator-god, and Hobbomock, a mischievous spirit who could help or hurt.  After creating the world, Keihtan pretty much checked out–he (she?) didn’t get involved in human affairs.  Hobbomock, on the other hand, was within call, and so spiritual leaders most often worshiped/prayed to Hobbomock. Instead of seeing this very different belief system as something unique to native culture, Puritan observers associated Keihtan with their Christian God and Hobbomock with their Christian Satan.  Thus, the natives were devil-worshipers.

Now, I realize this might seem irrelevant, because the Puritans landed in New England a good four hundred-some years ago… but this is a phenomenon that has occurred on a number of cultural fronts.*  (I’m pretty sure it’s even an educational pedagogy called schema theory.)  When presented with new knowledge, an individual interprets that new knowledge in light of what he/she already knows.  Everything is translated to meet our expectations.  We see what we expect to see, and oftentimes, we reject what doesn’t fit.

So, how is this personal? Well, all too often we see what we want to see in people, what we hope or expect to see.  We don’t see them as they are.  Mrs. Bluebird might really wish Flounder had wings, but alas, Flounder is a fish, and a fish is a fish.  Flounder will never fly.  Did Flounder hide this from Mrs. Bluebird? No, not so much.  After all, can you really hide being a fish?  No,  it wasn’t Flounder’s fault.**  Mrs. Bluebird chose to see what she wanted to see (what she expected to see).  She disregarded the rest.  A little critical analysis could have saved Mrs. Bluebird a good deal of time and heartache.***

Oh well.  Lesson learned.

Yours truly,

Mrs. B.

*Check out Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off In Early America if you don’t believe me.

**Then again, rarely are things completely one-sided.  There may have been just the slightest bit of subterfuge early on in the game on Flounder’s part.

***That said, a little critical analysis could have saved history a good deal of pain and suffering as well. But if that were the case, we might not have America… or the field of genetics.