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    Writing Autobiographies
    By Deb

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    I teach fifth grade, and ask my students to compose an autobiographical piece each year as part of a larger family project. Maybe these suggestions will help:

    1. Model, model, model. Use your own life experience to draw on; offer an example of what you are expecting by walking them through the process with some of your own information. You will be amazed at the motivational value of this technique.

    2. Talk to the students about their individual day of birth. What do they already know about it? (They will want to tell you, but urge them to save that information for the writing piece -- they should jot down notes of what they already know instead.) What was the weather like, the time of day? How had the parents prepared for the child's birth (showers, classes, purchases, etc.)? What did the dad do while s/he was being born? What were the first words spoken by the parent(s) upon seeing the child? Did they already have name(s) picked out? Help the class generate about 20 questions that will help give them focus as well as prompt the memories of their parents when they take home the printed list of questions (which you have typed out) to use to interview their parents (both, if possible) about this very special day. If enough space is left between the questions, the child will record the answers under each, and have a complete list of notes/ideas to bring back to class for the writing component. Using the interview idea, children will often hear new facts or surprise stories related to them that they didn't know before. They love to write about the day they were born when they have enough details to make it interesting.

    3. For the next part(s) of their lives, we recall as a class ('close your eyes and think back to your very first day of kindergarten . . . can you remember your feelings that day . . . what you were wearing . . . the sounds, smells' -- you get the idea) a series of 'firsts' or 'bests'. Some examples: first operation/serious injury; first time on a bicycle (or snowmobile, rollerblades); first overnight; best personal performance; funniest day at school; first scary movie; first or best pet; best friend and how you met. Depending on the abilities of your writers, you can ask them to compose several pieces in this fashion, or combine them in some manner. I often use 'toddler years', 'early school years' and 'intermediate grades' as section subtitles.

    4. The key to success is working in stages. Consider what you want as an end product, then determine the most effective way of getting there one step at a time. I find that students this age still need a considerable amount of guided thinking, discussion, and modeling before they are willing to explore writing and risk the judgment of falling short of a perceived expectation.

    5. A personal timeline is a great idea. Be sure to teach and practice many examples of what a timeline is before asking the students to create their own. It might be best to put the timeline at the end of the project, as a way of plotting their own special events. You could construct the line itself as a math lesson, using ruler or meter stick to measure and mark evenly-spaced intervals. Decide on five points/events that everyone will include on his/her timeline, and offer more credit/points to anyone who plots more. (Discuss with the class and agree on a resonable maximum, or the timelines will be useless as a tool -- too crowded to read).

    6. Sometimes photos are hard to locate on short notice, or parents are unwilling to give them up for fear of never seeing them again. Perhaps the students could cut out pictures from magazines (although suitable magazines are getting harder to come by, too) or draw their own pictures, visual symbols or representations of the events. Use blank index cards, to keep the size manageable, and suspend them from the timeline with short colored yarn or string.

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