Autobiographical writing for elementary students should follow the same guidelines as for older students and even professional writers, though the demands should be simplified accordingly. Elementary students should write short pieces -- no longer than two pages -- that use life events to communicate a single theme, as opposed to long-form pieces that use many events and modes of reflection to illustrate complex layers of character relationships and themes.
An autobiography, in its simplest definition, is a form of nonfiction storytelling that focuses on life events of the author. Autobiography can be used as a reflective essay or memoir -- a mode in which the author uses memory to extract emotional or intellectual significance from events. Autobiography often sticks to the facts and relies on research over memory. Regardless of the direction you choose for your students, autobiography strives for honest writing that contains at least the following narrative elements: character, conflict, plot, setting and theme.
Choose an Important Event
To ensure your students write an autobiography that meets the needs of a narrative, have them choose life events that matter -- ones in which they learned something important. Learning moments have inherent narrative elements because they contain a beginning: the time before learning; a middle: the event that caused the learning; and an end: the time after something has been learned. This framework ensures character development, conflict, setting and plot. Also, having students describe something they care about encourages them to put maximum effort into their writing.
Pick a Structure
Structuring an autobiography can be tricky, and sometimes the appropriate structure emerges only after the first draft is finished. A safe way to start is to have students tell their stories chronologically, beginning at the moment that presents conflict in their stories. Afterward, review their work and help them decide if chronological structure is best, or whether they should try something different, such as an elliptical format: Have them start the story after the lesson has been learned, so they can then go back and tell the tale of how they came to this point of understanding.
Let Scenes Do the Work
Autobiography is not an academic mode of writing, so students don't need to use an academic introduction, thesis statement and conclusion, though they can if they choose. Rather, this is storytelling, and they should write only scenes if possible, which will then allow readers to participate in the experience and extrapolate meaning for themselves. This is the premise of showing vs. telling. For instance, instead of saying that a certain person is a thief, have the student write a scene in which we see that person stealing.
Use Concrete Language and Active Verbs
Encourage students to resist the urge to dazzle readers with big words and poetic, abstract language. Instead, suggest simple sentences and words that convey exactly what they're trying to say. Concrete details -- those that can be experienced directly with the senses -- are more effective than abstract words conveying emotions. For example, instead of saying "I knew I loved him right then," say something like "at that moment my heart thumped so hard I felt it in my throat." Strong, active verbs are important, too. Notice the impact of "thumped" as opposed to "knew."
Draft, Then Edit
Some students won't want to move forward with their stories until they think their beginning is perfect. Promise them ample time to go back and revise after they've gotten everything they want to say down in a first draft. Remember, they can't edit what isn't there.
- Calremont Graduate University: Writing Center Resources: Differences Between Autobiographies and Memoirs
- YAWP Playwriting Residency Curriculum: Middle School 2012; Will Chandler and Emma Walton Hamilton
- Colorado State University: Writing @ CSU: Showing V. Telling Sentences
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Fiction Writing Basics 3 - Sample Assignments
- The Atlantic: There's No Such Thing as Good Writing: Craig Nova's Radical Revising Process; Joe Fassler
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