© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
 
Teaching Guide

Teaching I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

We Know Why the Shmoop Bird Teaches.

GO TO STUDENT LEARNING GUIDE

We're not trying to brag, but we do know why the caged bird sings. You do, too. But your students don't yet. We'll help you crack open the cage, which is filled with heavy topics like gender, race, and sex (where are the bees?)...with a little bit of humor to get the discussion flowing.

In this guide you will find

  • activities comparing the book's themes of identity and appearance with modern American advertising.
  • reading quizzes to make sure students don't think this is an Audubon Field Guide.
  • essay questions exploring topics of education, race, and freedom.

Your class won't feel caged when you open up discussion with this teaching guide.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

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.

With your purchase, you’ll get unlimited access for 12 months. And if you like what you see, you can subscribe to all 200+ Teaching Guides for just $19.84/month.

Instructions for You

Objective: Students have a story to tell. It may not be a 300-page, Pulitzer-Prize winner, but being retrospective is important for students and, well, for all of us. That's sort of the point of memoirs like Caged Bird. In memoirs, writers look back on their lives and think about how their experiences have influenced who they are now and who they will become. Students have read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, so now it's time for them to write their own memoirs and think about the purpose of memoirs in our literary canon.

Taking Maya Angelou as our example, students' memoirs will look back at 3-4 vivid memories from the past, will have a title that is inspired from a line of poetry or song, and will have the coming-of-age elements common in a Bildungsroman. Students must also use literary devices inspired by Ms. Angelou, such as imagery, tone, theme, etc. You can expect to spend between two and four hours of instructional time on this assignment. 

Materials Needed:

  • Computer with internet (to view resources)
  • Word processing software such Microsoft Word 
  • Copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Step 1: Students end up doing personal narrative writing all the time (What I did over my summer vacation…), so why bother hitting this up again? Well we tend to ask students to write lots of memoir-esque pieces without ever really talking about purpose or intention, which means they churn out lots of summaries of events from their lives without ever getting at why those events matter. So, let's talk about it:

  • Why did Maya Angelou write Caged Bird? What do you think she really wants us to know about her life? What does she want us to understand? What's her purpose?
  • Why would you write your own memoir? 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?

Step 2: Let's transition from chit-chatting to writing. Give students some time to brainstorm 10-15 vivid memories from their lives. Remind students that these don't have to be earth-shattering events. A time they did something they regret is just as important memoir material (in fact, probably more important) as the time they broke their arm. Or, if they broke their arm doing something dumb, maybe these are the same experience. Then have them circle the 3-4 events that are the most interesting and influential; these will be the main events for their memoir.

Once students have these events listed, have them go back and look at specific parts of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings to get refreshed on Angelou's style. As a group, discuss the book's genre, style, and identify some of the literary devices that Angelou uses throughout her memoir. Main ones to focus on are imagery, symbolism, tone, setting, point-of-view, and allusion.

Step 3: Now let's get serious about the writing. Students should start drafting (and go on to revise and edit—obviously) their stories about the events they chose. Remind them that they are not writing full-length autobiographies (whew); they are writing short memoirs that have some stylistic similarities to Caged Bird. Feel free to have students think of each story as its own vignette. Each vignette should be between one and two pages.

Step 4: Caged Bird's title is packed with meaning (like, packed), so take a look at our analysis of the title and discuss the importance of a meaningful title with your kiddos. In the spirit of Dr. Angelou, have students choose a title for their memoir that derives from either a line of poetry or a song lyric. You may want to have students include a brief paragraph to explain the meaning of their title and how it relates to their memoir.

Step 5: Know what our students need now? An audience. After all, memoirs are made to be shared. Students should read their work to the class or in small groups, then wrap things up with a few final questions:

  • What was it like to share your personal experiences with the class?
  • Now that you've written your own memoir, what do you think about the purpose of a memoir? Why are they valuable for the writer? Why are they valuable for the reader?
  • What were you trying to accomplish with your memoir? What exactly were you hoping readers would understand about you and your life?
  • What literary devices did you use to accomplish your purpose?
  • What about Maya Angelou's memoir? What was she trying to accomplish? What literary devices contributed to her purpose and how?

Instructions for Your Students

You have a story to tell. It may not be a 300-page, Pulitzer-Prize winner, but being retrospective (it means thinking about your past) is important for all of us. That's sort of the point of memoirs like Caged Bird. In memoirs, writers look back on their lives and think about how their experiences have influenced who they are now and who they will become. You have read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, so now it's time for you to write your own memoirs and think about the purpose of memoirs in our literary cannon.

In a nutshell, your memoir will look back at 3-4 vivid memories from the past, will have a title that is inspired from a line of poetry or song, and will have the coming-of-age elements common in a Bildungsroman. Fancy word—means a "coming of age" story or a story about growing up. And you're still growing, so how could you write a story that isn't about growing up on some level? See, this is going to be a piece of cake. Oh, and in honor of our novel, you will also use literary devices inspired by Ms. Angelou, such as imagery, tone, theme, etc.

Step 1: Fact: You guys end up doing personal narrative writing all the time. How many of you could just puke at the thought of another "What I did over my summer vacation…" essay? We thought so. The thing is, we teachers tend to ask you to write lots of memoir-esque pieces without ever really talking about purpose or intention, which means you churn out lots of summaries of events from your lives without ever getting at why those events matter. But without the why, we don't have much of a memoir. So, let's talk about it:

  • Why did Maya Angelou write Caged Bird? What do you think she really wants us to know about her life? What does she want us to understand? What's her purpose?
  • Why would you write your own memoir? 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?

Step 2: Let's transition from chit-chatting to writing. Brainstorm 10-15 vivid memories from your lives. Write down the biggies, not how you ate an entire pizza for dinner last night. Write about the time you went whitewater rafting and you fell out of the raft, washed up on shore, and had to navigate your way back to camp with only the sun and bird noises to guide you (you know, if that really happened).

Remember that in spite of our whitewater rafting example, these don't have to be earth-shattering events. A time you did something you regret is just as important memoir material (in fact, probably more important) as the time you broke your arm. Or, if you broke your arm doing something dumb, maybe these are the same experience. Once you've got a nice, long list, circle the 3-4 events that are the most interesting and influential; these will be the main events for your memoir.

Now, we're trying to learn from Angelou's writing brilliance here, so go back and look at your favorite parts of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings to get refreshed on the book's genre, style, and identify some of the literary devices that Angelou uses throughout her memoir. Main ones to focus on are imagery, symbolism, tone, setting, point-of-view, and allusion.

Step 3: Now let's get serious about the writing. Start drafting (not legal in NASCAR, but legal in CLASSROOM) your stories about the events you chose (and you'll go on to revise and edit—obviously). Remember that you are not writing full-length autobiographies (whew); you are writing short memoirs that have some stylistic similarities to Caged Bird, so think of each story as its own vignette.

Each vignette should be between one and two pages. There are two ways to transition between vignettes: You can simply have a title for each one, OR you can write transitional sentences between each vignette to lead your audience to the next riveting story. It's up to you. See what you can muster up.

Step 4: Caged Bird's title is packed with meaning (like, packed), so take a look at Shmoop's analysis of the title. How does knowing the origin of the title impact your interpretation of the book? Why are titles with meaning (rather than titles that are just a nifty phrase or an obvious label) important? How do they impact the story?

In the spirit of Dr. Angelou, we're going to stay away from boring titles (absolutely no "The Time I Broke My Arm" titles—you're better than that) and instead choose a title from either a line of poetry or a song lyric. You'll also include a brief paragraph to explain the meaning of your title and how it relates to your memoir.

Step 5: Know what you need now? An audience. After all, memoirs are made to be shared. You will read your work to the class or in small groups, then wrap things up with a few final questions:

  • What was it like to share your personal experiences with the class?
  • Now that you've written your own memoir, what do you think about the purpose of a memoir? Why are they valuable for the writer? Why are they valuable for the reader?
  • What were you trying to accomplish with your memoir? What exactly were you hoping readers would understand about you and your life?
  • What literary devices did you use to accomplish your purpose?
  • What about Maya Angelou's memoir? What was she trying to accomplish? What literary devices contributed to her purpose and how?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
back to top