I used to teach a writing lesson centered around writing an autobiography in fifth grade. It ended up being a traumatic experience with a fifth-grade section.
The idea came from an assignment given to me by my therapist in the late 90’s. She knew I could write and what she requested for was me to write my story – an autobiography.
At this point in my teaching career, I was a reading specialist and I was working on producing work products of my teaching. I had discovered great value in writing out assignments for students. This also worked well because I had a written record of exactly what I had assigned to the students. I often just had the students write what struck me from what I was reading or from an assignment I had given myself. I am organic in that way. Sometimes a child centered discussion would dictate a writing focus.
I wanted to incorporate choice but also have a format for a longer piece of writing. I wanted to scaffold for them so they were not intimidated by a longer piece. Writing about themselves gave them a wealth of material to work with. I found out more than I had anticipated.
One thing I learned is there are consequences of being the type of teacher that gains student trust. The students want to be brutally honest and write for you. The stories the students wanted to tell me were heartbreaking.
- One girl had been on Dateline because there was a court case pending about her father murdering her mother.
- A boy wrote about a sibling and father dying because the dad ran into the fire to save them.
- One child that had never had a birthday party in their entire life and not because of religious reasons
- One child wrote about a baby sibling murdered by the dad in the crib.
What I Would Change Moving Forward
- Have a modeled autobiography. I do always write with students as I do a think aloud but did not save any of my own models from teaching this lesson.
- I would collect student samples of work and use them as exemplars.
- I would have many mentor text examples of autobiographies.
- I used to have a note about not writing about video games but took that out after hearing Ralph Fletcher speak about writing with boys.
Here is the student print assignment:
Your paper will be five (5) paragraphs long. One beginning, three body, and one conclusion. Please circle your choices.
Beginning: Choose One (1)
1.Family History – the country your family is from, interesting stories, famous people in your lineage
2. Birth – Where parents got your name, what it means, where you were born, when you were born, what time, what hospital, etc
Body: Choose Three (3)
1.Early Life – memories of another grade and/or preschool, baby stories
2. Family – who are you are in your family, people brothers, sisters, mom, stepdad -where you live: apartment, trailer, house etc
3.Siblings – interesting stories about your brothers or sisters, you compared to them
4. Pet Peeves
5. Special time/traditions – special family times
6. Life’s Message – collect quotes that mean something to you and reflect what they mean to you. Quotes can be famous or something from parents.
7. What No One Knows – Who you are, what dreams you have, what worries or frightens you, what you care about, what you feel strongly about, something you like to learn
8. Special interests – hobbies, what you like to do when you are not at school
- Your Future – career family college tech school goals
- What is happening in your life right now
Other related activities:
Rambling biography from teacher Linda Reif
“Where I am from” George Ella Lyon
**Something fun that happened was the fascination and interest in the meaning of student names. They became obsessed looking up the meanings!