Having My Say: A Multigenre Autobiography Project
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Students can be guided to make powerful connections between their life experiences and the world surrounding their individual narratives. In this lesson, Elizabeth and Sarah Delany's autobiography, Having Our Say, serves as a model for student texts. Students read and analyze passages from Having Our Say looking for specific examples of multigenre writing within the text. Students then choose to narrate a life event that has connections to or is informed by a larger event in their lives or in the world around them. They compose a multigenre paper that includes the autobiographical narrative essay as well as an informational nonfiction piece that provides context for and connections to the story from their life.
Autobiographical Narrative Component Peer Review Guide: This handout includes a chart to guide students in a thoughtful peer review of a classmate's autobiographical essay, but it could be adapted for use with any peer review.
Contextual Essay Planning Sheet: This handout provides a chart that guides students in thinking about the kinds of information an audience might need to know to understand their autobiographical essay.
From Theory to Practice
In Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers, Tom Romano describes his ideal ELA classroom as one in which students "are both consumers and producers of all kinds of literature and media" (43). As students are exposed to or are expected to have gained "mastery" of certain genres, teachers can challenge students by asking them to combine genres into cohesive multigenre pieces. In her article discussing the use of multigenre writing assignments in her classroom, Nancy Mack states "I know that assignments must be innovative and interesting enough so that they appear unlike the old drudgery of hackneyed assignments. The format must be open and attractive to invite the possibility of doing something engaging rather than merely pursuing the trivial school game. Topics for writing should make use of the unique knowledge and skills that students already have, connecting school work in a respectful way to things that they value in their personal lives. The completed assignment should be personally significant and full of power and integrity for the author so that the writing itself demands to be heard by a real audience." (98) The writing assignments in this lesson do just that, as they challenge students to write in multiple genres with connections to stories from their lives.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Copies of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (Dell)
- Overhead or large post-its for recording student responses
- Pens, paper for drafting in class or time in a computer lab for composition and revision
- “Teaching Racially Sensitive Literature: A Teacher’s Guide” (optional)
- Determine how much of the book you will ask students to read. You may wish to use this text in its entirety as an example of the genre of autobiography. Alternately, a few of the sections can serve as supplementary resources to existing units. For example, the section “I Am Free! ” could supplement a unit on slavery, “Jim Crow Days” could enrich a unit on Civil Rights and segregation, and “Harlem-Town” would integrate into a study of the Harlem Renaissance. A third option is to treat one of the sections as a stand-alone autobiographical piece.
- Preview the section(s) you plan to teach and read Teaching Racially Sensitive Literature: A Teacher’s Guide. Having Our Say does contain frank conversations about race, including representations of blatant racism through language and action. Determine the type and level of preparation your students might need.
- Make copies of all necessary handouts.
- Think about an event from your life you would be comfortable using in the modeling the drafting process. (See Instruction and Activities Session 3.)
- Plan for computer lab/internet access for any sessions during which you will use ReadWriteThink interactives or students will be word processing.
- If you are unfamiliar with the story of the Delany sisters, the Having Our Say Website includes brief information about the sisters and how their story came to be written, as well as a study guide for the book.
- Test the Venn Diagram and Timeline interactives on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- identify features that are unique to and common between informational and autobiographical nonfiction.
- choose an event from their life to narrate in essay form, adopting genre-appropriate voice, style, and methods of development.
- determine the specific historical, cultural, or familial background information that readers of the above essay would need.
- craft an informational nonfiction essay around that information, adopting genre-appropriate voice, style, and methods of development.
- successfully integrate informational and autobiographical nonfiction.
- Prepare students for the reading by discussing its unique structural features. Have them leaf through the book and take note of its structure while you guide them through the different sections (major sections indicated by roman numerals and titles, unlabeled introductory chapters, alternating chapters labeled with the narrating sister’s name, etc.).
- Point out that the third author, a writer for The New York Times, is the objective voice in the chapters at the beginning of the sections.
- Offer students the label of “multigenre text” and ask if they have read or are familiar with any multigenre texts (Avi’s Nothing But the Truth, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster). Ask them what genres seem to be represented in this work. See the ReadWriteThink lesson Reading and Analyzing Multigenre Texts for more information on this specialized reading and writing, including a booklist with more examples.
- Have students produce a list of ways that informational nonfiction (perhaps students can conceive of it as “newspaper” writing) and autobiographical nonfiction are similar and different. You may wish to use the Venn Diagram tool to facilitate this discussion.
- Extend this discussion into a conversation about what makes each of these genres especially effective. Write students’ observations on an overhead or large sheet of Post-It paper for later use/reference. You can then use these preparatory materials as a rubric for the final student product or use the Multigenre Autobiograpy Project Rubric included in this lesson.
- Have students read the desired section(s) of the book.
- While using the work to teach any of your own specific curricular objectives, be sure to have students attend to moments in the text in which the genre traits are being exemplified (refer to the Understanding the Two Genres handout). For example, while reading the prefatory chapter for the “Jim Crow Days” section, students will notice:
- direct presentation of ideas: “A generation after the end of slavery, freedom for black Americans was still elusive” (90)
- a focus on facts and events: “1896…the Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case” (90)
- development with third-person examples and explanation: “The case stemmed from an incident in which a Louisiana citizen named Homer Plessy lost his appeal to the Supreme Court, which sanctioned the establishment of ‘separate but equal’ facilities for blacks and whites” (90 – 91)
- formal, standard English throughout and objective perspective throughout.
- direct presentation of ideas: “A generation after the end of slavery, freedom for black Americans was still elusive” (90)
- Use an overhead of the Multigenre Autobiography Planning Sheet to have students summarize the Delanys’ story in the center circle. Then review the section opener to list context the third author provides and put the contextual information in the outer circle. Point out that, diverse as the styles of the two sections may be, they work together to show how the sisters’ lives were part of a larger, more dynamic picture than their individual life experiences alone.
- Preview the multigenre autobiography assignment, noting to students that they will write about an event from their life as well as the larger context surrounding it. Encourage students to make connections between their autobiography and the information they include in the contextual essay like the ones from Having Our Say.
The style here stands in marked contrast to the conversational style of the sisters’ chapters, where the narrative is driven by dialogue, descriptions, stories, and opinions.
- Have students brainstorm a significant event or experience from their lives that they would like to share. Some students will choose to start with a significant world, community, or family event first (e.g., the September 11 attack, the closing of a plant or factory in their town, the birth of a sibling) and then determine the personal narrative they will write in relation to that event. Others will have an experience they want to narrate and will determine the focus of the contextual information later. Either approach can work, but ensure that students choose a personal experience that will need to be contextualized.
- Refer to the list of qualities of narrative/autobiographical nonfiction the class produced in Session 1 (or use the Understanding the Two Genres handout ).
- Remind students that they will need to work toward these objectives as they produce a rough draft of their personal essay.
- Distribute the Multigenre Autobiography Planning Sheet .
- Model for students the functionality of the Multigenre Autobiography Planning Sheet. Using an event from your own life, start jotting down the events, feelings, and reactions you would need to include in an autobiographical essay recounting the event.
- As the connections become apparent, or after you’ve modeled the inner circle, write down in the outer circle elements of context you would need to include.
- Answer any student questions about the process and give them time to start planning the autobiographical component in the inner circle.
- At the beginning of this session, ask students to recall specific instances from the book to exemplify the qualities of autobiographical narrative writing (focus on events and reactions; indirect presentation of main ideas; opinions and reactions are central to the piece; etc.) from the Understanding the Two Genres handout or the list of qualities the class developed to help them focus their efforts.
- Give students time to work on composition of a draft of the personal essay. Use the Timeline tool to help students plan the structure of their essay.
- Ask students to complete a draft of the essay by the next session. They should be ready for a peer review activity.
- Put students in pairs to read each others’ drafts and provide feedback to their partners’ essays. Use the Autobiographical Component Peer Review Guide or a similar resource reflecting the qualities on which you wish students to focus.
- After giving students time to share their comments with each other, tell students that their attention will now be shifting to concerns of audience as they prepare for the second essay in the project. They need to consider the questions “Who will be reading this piece?” and “What kind(s) of information do those readers need to gain a full understanding of the experience?”
- Refer back to sections such as “Harlem Town” or “Jim Crow” to give students a model for this way of thinking. Remind them that the essay at the beginning of each section provides historical, familial, or cultural context for the individual stories that the sisters narrate in the chapters that follow.
- Ask for a few volunteers to tell what event they are narrating. As a class, discuss the kind of context they will need (e.g., If a student is writing about moving from a large city to his/her new home in a smaller town, he/she could describe their city/neighborhood as a reporter would; If a student is narrating the divorce of his/her parents, he/she could provide a brief objective chronology of his/her family life up to that point).
- Direct peer response pairs to focus on the type and amount of contextualizing their essays will require. Does the reader need background on the author’s family? On a historical event? About a cultural term or concept? These mini-conferences will produce a plan for the second piece in this assignment.
- Have students record their needs on the outer circle of the Multigenre Autobiography Planning Sheet.
- For homework, have them further think about/refine their plan for the contextual essay using the Contextual Essay Planning Sheet. There they should make firm decisions about the amount and type of background information they will need to give their readers.
- Ask students to begin the process of researching any information to which they do not have immediate access (family history, historical events). This research need not be formal, but students should gather information they will need.
- Check students’ plans for the contexual essay and review the guidelines for effective informational writing (see the Understanding the Two Genres handout).
- Answer any questions students have about the contextual essay and allow time for the composition of the context opener.
- Ask students to have the context opener drafted for the next session. They should be ready for a second peer review activity.
- Students meet in the same response pairs and use the Contextual Component Peer Review Guide or a similar resource to provide each other feedback on their partners’ work.
- Have pairs go back to the autobiographical essays as well as their plans from Session 5 to make sure the contextual essay sufficiently prepares the reader for the autobiographical essay.
- If time allows, give students time to begin preparations for revision.
- Allow students time to revise and polish their project based on feedback and self-evaluation.
- As a class, choose a unifying school, community, national, or world event. Write a collaborative contextual essay and have students contribute individual autobiographical essays.
- Families can choose a unifying event and write a contextual essay together. Individual family members can contribute individual autobiographical essays.
- Expand the multigenre requirement to include photographs, poetry, a play, or another genre of your choice.
- Deepen or expand your study of the literary piece or of autobiographical writing by exploring these related ReadWriteThink Lessons: Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Critical Discussion of Social Issues, Paying Attention to Technology: Writing Technology Autobiographies, and The Year I Was Born: An Autobiographical Research Project.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Use the Multigenre Autobiography Project Rubric to evaluate the revised student work.
- Students should also be asked to reflect on what they learned by putting their story into a larger context. Although they may not have the dynamic connections that are present in the Delany sisters’ story, encourage them to see how putting their stories in a new perspective can help them understand themselves more critically. This reflection could come as a preface or introduction to the completed multigenre piece.