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Teaching Guide

Teaching Black Boy

Racism, communism, and Jim Crow (oh my!)

GO TO STUDENT LEARNING GUIDE

Sadly, racism isn't going anywhere any time soon. That means there's always a discussion to be had, and while it's uncomfortable and challenging, it's ultimately rewarding.

In this guide you will find:

  • loads of assignments, including debates about complex topics like racism and communism.
  • reading quizzes to help students follow Richard from boy to man.
  • historical and literary connections to Ralph Ellison, Jim Crow laws, and Richard Wright's comrades in communism.

The best way to understand differences is to experience them, and this guide will help you do just that.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Your kids may not have walked this earth for more than a decade and a half or so, but we're guessing they've already had some pretty meaningful life experiences. Sometimes students' life stories can offer insight into their behaviors, attitudes, and choices. Black Boy certainly offers insight into Richard Wright's choices—he joined the Communist Party for heaven's sake, but by the end of the book, we can at least understand why he did so, even if we don't agree with the decision.

It is in this spirit that we offer students an opportunity to write their own autobiography. Students will hone in on the experiences they think have most influenced who they are, and as they write, they'll consider the purpose of writing an autobiography and hopefully come to a better understanding of Wright's purpose in telling his life story. Plus, of course, they'll exercise those writing muscles.

We like the idea of a longer autobiography so students can explore a few different experiences, but if you're pressed for time, you can shorten this to a brief memoir. You'll need at least two to three days in class for this assignment—more if you want students to do most of the writing process under your watchful eye.

Materials Needed: We're kickin' it old school with just pen and paper.

Step 1: Richard Wright wrote about himself. It seems like a potentially self-indulgent activity, but really, writing about ourselves can be rather cathartic. We have access to all the knowledge we need, there's no research involved… for young writers who need extra practice, this type of writing can be just what the educator ordered.

So, if we're going to write an autobiography, first let's talk about purpose:

  • Why did Richard Wright pen Black Boy? What do you think he really wants us to know about his existence? What does he want us to understand? What's his purpose?
  • Why would you write your autobiography? What is the purpose of telling your story? 
  • What experiences would you highlight? Which events from your life have really shaped who you are? Which will best help an audience to understand you and your choices, dreams, and goals?
  • What do you want your audience to know and understand about you? Who is your audience?

Step 2: Get out those notebooks; it's time for a little prewriting. Have students brainstorm a list of life experiences they might write about in their autobiography. Here at Shmoop, we believe in over-doing the prewriting to make the real writing easier, so challenge students to come up with at least ten different experiences. These should be super-quick statements of situations, events, or family dynamics they want to explore. Remind students to list only those experiences they feel comfortable sharing.

Step 3: Who's up for a little stroll around the classroom? Have students mill about and share their ideas with at least three other people. Those who are listening will need to tell the author which scenarios are most interesting or seem to have the most potential for development into a story. As they cruise the room, students will make notes next to the experiences that their peers feel are the most promising. Ideally, this activity will help students narrow their list of ten possibilities down to three or four events they will write about in detail.

Step 4: Start writing! Despite our lesson title, these autobiographies don't really need to be tomes on an adolescent existence. You can adjust the length of this project to suit your needs, but we want students to give us good details and explore the significance of their experiences, so we'd recommend about two pages for every event they include.

Step 5: We at Shmoop like a good writer's workshop that takes students through the whole writing process, so if time allows, have students peer review their drafts. Yeah, the author's already read over it, but students need to know what a reader thinks about their stories. Ask students to give specific feedback about what they like, where they get confused, and what questions they still have about each story. This is also a good time to discuss how the stories of each experience fit together as a larger "autobiography." Ask students to tell one another what themes or big ideas they notice so the writer can work to develop them further.

Step 6: The whole point of a peer review is to jump-start the revision process, so this is where the proverbial rubber eraser meets the paper. Have those budding authors revise and edit their work.

When their final copies are ready, we like the idea of having students share their work somehow. You might do a whole-class read-around, small group sharing, or come up with some other presentation format (Posting them on a blog? Creating a class collection of stories?).

Once students have shared, circle back to some of those beginning questions and dig a bit deeper:

  • Now that you've tried your hand at your own autobiography, what do you think the purpose of writing one is? Do you think Black Boy succeeds at its purpose? Why or why not?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of writing your own story? Why was it so challenging?
  • What message did you hope to communicate to your reader? Do you think you were successful? Do you think your reader better understands who you are because of the stories you told?
  • Is your autobiography completely accurate? Does it tell the whole story? Why or why not?
  • How has this experienced impacted the way you respond to the novel? Do you see or interpret any part of the novel or the main character differently now than you did before? Do you think Black Boy tells the whole story? Why or why not?
  • How would your story be different if it was told by someone else, like a close friend or family member? What would be lost and gained from an outsider's perspective? 
  • How might Richard Wright's story be different if it was told by someone else? What perspectives might be missing in Black Boy? How does this affect our interpretation of this story?

Instructions for Your Students

We know Richard Wright was writing about himself and that's why Black Boy is considered an autobiography. Now we're going to put on our own author caps, and work on our own autobiographies. You may be young, but we're guessing you've already had some pretty meaningful—or at least interesting—life experiences. Remember that time great Aunt Ethel asked you to clip her toe nails? Or how about the time Uncle Pete insisted you try his tuna soufflé? What insight do these moments give us into your character?

Okay, you probably have some more serious stuff to share than those goofy memories, and we're hoping that your life stories might help us understand you and your choices a little better. Black Boy certainly offers insight into Richard Wright's choices—he joined the Communist Party for heaven's sake, but by the end of the book, we can at least understand why he did so, even if we don't agree with the decision.

So for this lesson, you'll hone in on the experiences you think have most influenced who you are, and as you write, you'll consider the purpose of writing an autobiography and hopefully come to a better understanding of Wright's purpose in telling his life story. Plus, of course, you'll exercise those writing muscles.

Step 1: Richard Wright wrote about himself. It seems like a potentially self-indulgent activity, but really, writing about ourselves can be rather cathartic. We have access to all the knowledge we need, there's no research involved. Whew.

So, if we're going to write an autobiography, first let's talk about purpose:

  • Why did Richard Wright pen Black Boy? What do you think he really wants us to know about his existence? What does he want us to understand? What's his purpose?
  • Why would you write your autobiography? What is the purpose of telling your story? 
  • What experiences would you highlight? Which events from your life have really shaped who you are? Which will best help an audience to understand you and your choices, dreams, and goals?
  • What do you want your audience to know and understand about you? Who is your audience?

Step 2: Get out those notebooks; it's time for a little prewriting. Brainstorm a list of life experiences you might write about in your autobiography. Here at Shmoop, we believe in over-doing the prewriting to make the real writing easier—we promise it works—so try to come up with at least ten different experiences. These should be super-quick statements of situations, events, or family dynamics you want to explore and that you feel comfortable sharing.

Step 3: Who's up for a little stroll around the classroom? Mill about and share your ideas with at least three other people. Your buds will need to let you know which scenarios are most interesting or seem to have the most potential for development into a story. As you cruise the room sharing your most private experiences, make notes next to the stories that your peers feel are the most promising. This will give you an idea whether anyone really wants to hear that story about the time you threw your retainer away… again. By the end of your stroll, you should have your list of ten possibilities narrowed down to the three or four events you will write about in detail.

Step 4: Start writing! Now, Richard Wright's autobiography may have taken hundreds of pages to unfold, but we're going to ask you to tamp down on the excitement and churn out about two pages for each event. We do expect you to give us good details, include dialogue when necessary, and explore the significance of your experiences—which means you'll need to tell us about your thoughts, feelings, and reflections on the events, not just the events themselves. We need to know what happened and why it matters to you.

Step 5: Once you have a first draft complete (which, yes, implies there will be a second and possibly even a third draft), you'll peer review your autobiographies. We know, we know, you are pretty darned good at this, but even the best writers need a second pair of eyes because you need to know what a reader thinks about your stories. In your peer review, be sure to give specific feedback about what you like, where you get confused, and what questions you still have about each story. This is also a good time to think about how the stories of each experience fit together as a larger "autobiography." Tell your partner what themes or big ideas you notice so the writer can work to develop them further throughout the whole autobiography.

Step 6: The whole point of a peer review is to jump-start the revision process, so this is where the proverbial rubber eraser meets the paper. Look over your work, read it out loud, orally interpret it on a street corner… do whatever it takes to get it as close to perfection as you can.

When your final copies are ready, you'll share your work via a whole-class read-around, small group sharing, or some other presentation format (Posting them on a blog? Creating a class collection of stories?).

Then we'll circle back to some of those beginning questions and dig a bit deeper:

  • Now that you've tried your hand at your own autobiography, what do you think the purpose of writing one is? Do you think Black Boy succeeds at its purpose? Why or why not?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of writing your own story? Why was it so challenging?
  • What message did you hope to communicate to your reader? Do you think you were successful? Do you think your reader better understands who you are because of the stories you told?
  • Is your autobiography completely accurate? Does it tell the whole story? Why or why not?
  • How has this experienced impacted the way you respond to the novel? Do you see or interpret any part of the novel or the main character differently now than you did before? Do you think Black Boy tells the whole story? Why or why not?
  • How would your story be different if it was told by someone else, like a close friend or family member? What would be lost and gained from an outsider's perspective? 
  • How might Richard Wright's story be different if it was told by someone else? What perspectives might be missing in Black Boy? How does this affect our interpretation of this story?

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