(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?

Hah.

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: