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CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTION

 

"We are, each one of us, our own prisoners. 

We are locked up in our own story." —Maxine Kumin

 

 

Since autobiographical writing requires self-reflection, the autobiography assignment might be a gateway for educators to learn more about how adolescents perceive themselves.  In the past, the teacher's interest, even when assigning the autobiography assignment, has been solely on students' writing abilities.  When assigning essays that specifically request student self-reflection, it seems obvious that we should also be interested in what students uncover about themselves.  Afterall, the better we know students, the better we can educate them. 

Problem Statement

Choosing not to know students by ignoring their uniqueness and diversity has consequences that might be connected to the anger and aggression that some adolescents have shown.  During adolescence, the desire to be unique and to be someone special is important.  It follows that by ignoring an adolescent's uniqueness, we are damaging that individual's identity, and when damage has been done to the individual's identity, it is natural for that individual to feel anger and even aggression.  Students who have had an insufficient support system, in terms of identity development, might react violently to those around them—putting at risk society, family, teachers, and other students—because their identities have not been validated. As educators, how can we help students establish a healthy sense of identity?

The teaching implication that follows from this scenario is to create a classroom environment that welcomes and encourages the expression of uniqueness even in an environment that is not typically thought of as diverse: southern Minnesota.  The autobiography assignment, which requires self-reflection, has the potential to encourage the expression of student uniqueness.

The purpose of this study is to read adolescent autobiographies and examine how students see themselves.  The following are the specific research questions posed by this study:

1.  What themes and topics do adolescents choose to reflect on when asked to write their autobiographies? 

2.  How do adolescents describe themselves when asked to write about their lives? 

Importance of the Study

This study should lead to a better understanding of adolescent self-perceptions at the middle school level.  The information gathered in this study will be of value to professionals interested in identity formation of adolescents and should help in teaching and understanding adolescents.

Definition of Terms

Autobiography.  Autobiography is a writing genre that typically focuses on the individual (the author).  A further distinction indicates that autobiography implies a more historical and comprehensive account of one's life.

Memoir.  Memoir writing is a subset of autobiography.  Extending its focus to include not only the individual but others associated with that individual as well, memoir is a writing form that focuses more on significant events and people in one's life.  Memoir examines smaller segments of one's life, and the sum of these segments does not necessarily equal a complete account of that life. 

Self-Reflective Writing. Self-reflective writing includes any type of writing that reflects on the self of the author or reflects on the author’s life.  Both autobiography and memoir are types of self-reflective writing.

Identity. Identity is the unified integration of all aspects of the self—both the conscious and unconscious.  One’s identity seems to be a definition of the self or a shell for the self but not the self.   When research looks at an individual’s identity, that research is not necessarily looking at the self, but rather, that research is looking at perceptions of the self.  The definition of identity could be simplified to the following question: “Who am I?”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER II

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

            This chapter contains a review of the literature related to adolescent autobiographies and identity.  Autobiographical writing, adolescence, self-reflection, identity development, autobiographical writing in the classroom, and empirical research related to themes and topics found in adolescent self-reflections are described below.

Autobiographical Writing

Is It Memoir or Autobiography?

The terms memoir and autobiography are often used interchangeably and, perhaps, incorrectly.  Memoir is a subset of autobiography (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 1997).  The difference between the two is that in its written content autobiography typically focuses on the individual (the author), while memoir extends its focus to include not only the individual but also others associated with that individual.  Memoir focuses more than autobiography does on significant events and people in one's life (Gerard, 1996).  A further distinction indicates that autobiography implies a more historical and comprehensive account of one's life, whereas memoir examines smaller segments of one's life, and the sum of which does not necessarily equal a complete account of that life. 

For the purposes of this study, however, the term autobiography will be used to include both autobiographical writing and memoir writing for three main reasons.  First, because memoir is a subset of autobiography, the term autobiography technically encompasses both terms.  Second, researchers and educators often use the term autobiography to mean (more specifically) memoir.  And third, they are both types of self-reflective writing, so the distinction between memoir and autobiography is not important to this review of the literature.  What is important is that both are types of self-reflective writing.

Autobiographical Writing and Self-Reflection

            Autobiographical writing requires self-reflection since the author writes about the author’s own life (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 1997).  Written in the first person singular, autobiographical writing is a reflection on the author’s life and experiences, but that life encounters others.  Reflecting on the self in relation to others is just, if not more, insightful as focusing entirely on the self in exclusion of others (Katz, 1993).  Self-reflection is taking place both when the author focuses on the author’s self and when the author extends reflection to the author’s experiences with others.

Adolescence

Adolescence, a transitional stage of development between childhood and adulthood, begins with the onset of puberty around the age of 10 and culminates around age 19 (Walker & Townsend, 1998).  It is marked by feelings of confusion, bravado, and restlessness and a preoccupation with peer groups (Atwell, 1998).  Adolescents are often volatile and social beings who are drawn to question authority because they are trying to figure out the adult world, and this combination makes for a challenging student body to teach.  During adolescence, however, there is also a great opportunity for students to channel their energy and social needs into learning possibilities if the teacher listens to their interests and plans curriculum around their interests. 

Adolescent Stage: Cognitive

Adolescents are in the formal operations stage of Piaget’s (1959) cognitive development structure (Ormrod, 1998).  During this stage, they can reason about abstract, hypothetical and contrary-to-fact ideas; formulate and test multiple hypotheses; separate and control variables; understand proportions and use them in mathematical problem solving; and combine thoughts.  Although some researchers (Karplus et al., 1983; Neimark, 1979; Siegler & Richards, 1982) think formal operational thought appears much later than Piaget (1959) proposed, adolescents are capable of thinking deeply about ideas (Atwell, 1998).  They are capable of seeing patterns, metaphors, hidden meanings, and layered meanings.

The hidden meaning and layers of meaning that they are now able to see open-up many options for humor (Atwell, 1998; Mee, 1997).  Adolescents especially enjoy and appreciate humor and the act of being witty; they understand puns, double entendres, and parodies.

Adolescent Stage: Physical

Adolescents experience puberty and are typically uncomfortable with their body changes during young adolescence, but their confidence about their body image increases in later adolescence (Ormrod, 1998).  Possibly because of their extreme growth spurts, adolescents recognize that they need sleep and sometimes choose to sleep during their free time (Mee, 1997).  At the same time, adolescents often find it nearly impossible to sit still and need physical movement (Atwell, 1998).

Adolescent Stage: Emotional

Mood shifts and extreme emotions are common during the adolescent years (Atwell, 1998).  When adolescents disagree with other people about ideals, they can be cruel with their criticisms and judgements because their newly found ability to think critically and their extreme emotions can make their loving and hating of others much more severe and brutal than it was in their earlier years.

Adolescent Stage: Socialization

Although adolescents have strong beliefs and ideals, they are constantly trying to fit in, so their belief systems might shift (Atwell, 1998).  Peers offer adolescents a sense of community and belonging (Knapp & Woolverton, 1995) and are a great resource for emotional support when they are experiencing problems (Asher & Parker, 1989; Buhrmester, 1992; Seltzer, 1982). 

Friendships are important to them, but they also need time to themselves and a space of their own (Atwell, 1998; Mee, 1997) to escape from others because they constantly feel on-stage (Elkind, 1981).  Adolescents experience an imaginary audience where they think everyone’s attention is focused directly on them.  They place so much attention on their image because they imagine that others will be overly observant and critical of them, just as they are of themselves. 

Adolescents also believe the personal fable that no one else is like them (Elkind, 1981) that they are just as alone in the world as Grendel, the ostracized monster. When adolescents actually do fit into a peer group, the personal fable becomes less believable because they see that they are like their peers in some ways.     

Identity Development

This section examines the identity development of adolescents. 

What Is Identity?  Identity, like the self, has a somewhat slippery definition, and like the self it remains an “enigma” despite the attempt to pin it down (Mahoney, 1997).  Identity can be thought of as a “sense of self” (Kehily, 1995, p. 23).  More simply put, identity answers the question, “Who am I?” (Mahoney, 1997, p. 222) and since identities change, the follow-up question might be, “Where are you headed?” (Erikson, 1968).

Changing identities.  Adolescence is a time when identities are changing (Atwell, 1998).  “They never know—and I never know—what they’ll be when” (p. 56). Young adolescents want to differentiate themselves from younger children and to prove that they have changed, transformed from the younger child they were a year ago (Esser, 1998).  Their identities are in a state of flux as they transition from thinking "I am what I do" to "I am what I am" (Mee, 1997). 

Identity versus role confusion.  Erikson (1963, 1968) thought this stage in human development dealt primarily with the conflict between identity versus role confusion (Ormrod, 1998).  Adolescents are beginning to wonder who they are and who they will be and often establish temporary identities that give them an opportunity to try on an image.  Some temporary identities include the “skater” image, the “punk” image, the “metal-head” image, and the “hippie” image.  Although Erikson believed that identity formation was established by the end of adolescence (normally), more recently it has been suggested that students at the high school level still have not, for the most part, developed their life-long goals or thought much about the role they will play in society (Archer, 1982; Durkin, 1995; Marcia, 1980). 

Identity and Gender

The greatest difference in self-perceived identities is based on gender rather than socioeconomic status or race (Mee, 1997; Kehily, 1995).  The responses of girls were more pronounced in three distinct ways:

v     Girls focused more on others. 

v     Girls silenced themselves. 

3.  Girls communicated differently than boys, and their message was often not what researchers and educators were expecting to hear.

Girls focusing on others.  Girls experienced a conflict between breaking free from others and finding oneself yet feeling a commitment to others (Mee, 1997).  Girls most often wrote about friendships with girls and relationships with boys (Barbieri, 1996).  Boys in England wrote mostly about action and adventure and girls wrote mostly about family and domestic themes (Macey, as cited in Blair, 1998).  Boys were also more likely than girls to write about philosophical issues that questioned societal traditions and institutions and girls were more likely to focus on personal relationships and experiences (Hunt, as cited in Blair, 1998).  Girls tended to focus on others when they wrote about themselves, while boys were more individualistic in their responses and had more varied responses.

Girls silencing themselves.  At Dickinson School, an alternative single-sex school for girls in grades six through eight, girls tended to de-value their accomplishments and silence themselves (Spalding & Ziff, 1997). The researchers were looking at writing portfolios of adolescent girls.  Pipher (1994) and Sadker & Sadker (1994) agreed with Spalding & Ziff that girls "retreat into silence; they overstate their weaknesses and underestimate their strengths" (as cited in Spalding & Ziff, p. 58).  One student, Amy remarked, "I don't say what I think because I am afraid my friends won't like it, and if I do this a lot, pretty soon I forget what I really think" (Barbieri, 1996, p. 34).  Girls appeared to be uncertain about what they thought (Barbieri, 1996).

Girls communicating differently.  But some research suggested that girls are speaking; we just need to learn how to hear their voices.  Girls were able to express their emotion, imagination, and intuition through their use of poetry (Barbieri,1996).  Barbieri's work supported Gilligan's (1982) findings that the voices of care, compassion, intimacy, connection, justice, separation, and autonomy were present in the writing of girls.  Blair's (1998) subjects (eighth grade girls) began to see their written experiences as knowledge, to see their own voices in their writing, and to see that their written texts were unique to them.


Self-Reflection and Identity Development

If identity answers the question, “Who am I?” then identity development must involve working toward answering that question (Erikson, 1968).  Identity development directs its attention toward knowing the self, aiming at a knowledge of the self and the role that self might play in the adult world. 

Self-reflection, the act of reflecting on one’s self, encourages identity development and moves the individual closer to the aim of knowing one’s self and being able to answer the question, “Who am I?” (Afolayan, 1995; Baker, 1996; Chadler, 1999; Delisle & Schultz, 1997; Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995; Greene, 1996; Katz, 1993; Roe, Suellen, & Smith, 1998; Wanner, 1994).  Furthermore, writing curriculum that implements personal reflections on the self in regard to assigned texts and writing curriculum that asks students to write about their experiences fosters identity development.

What Does Self-Reflection Look Like in the English Classroom?

            Self-reflection is present in the classroom when teachers assign writing assignments that ask students to consider their lives through different perspectives in time (Ormrod, 1998).  For example, the autobiographical writing assignment asks students to write about their past life experiences (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 1997; Ormrod, 1998).  Through the act of writing, students remember their past and consider what that past says about who they are today, bringing the past into the present.  Teachers also choose writing assignments that ask students to consider their futures (Ormrod, 1998).  Teachers might ask students to think about what kind of occupation they want to do or what kind of life-style they want to live.  Or teachers could ask students questions that focus on who they are today.  What do they like most about their friends, or what do they value most in life?

Teachers could also ask questions that allow students to think about themselves in regard to the characters in the books they read, or the people and the controversial issues in the world they live (Katz, 1993).  In this model, reflection is not only focused inward, but students are also challenged to consider what their own views on issues and people outside of themselves say about who they are.

In the English classroom, self-reflective writing prompts are assigned in two main ways: (a) Teachers can assign less stressful writing forms such as free-writing and journal writing assignments, which are typically not proofread and are more stream-of-consciousness (Jones, 1995), and (b) teachers can also assign more formal writing assignments, such as the autobiography or essay.   When the teacher assigns writing that is less stressful and more stream-of-consciousness, students should be encouraged to re-read their journal entries and free-writes to promote self-discovery. Students who reflect on what they have written about themselves, after some time has passed, will open-up new visions and perspectives through which the self can be discovered. 

Why Use Self-Reflection in the Classroom?

Reflective learning results in an increase in self-awareness and self-esteem (Baker, 1996). Also, asking students to reflect on their own lives and the class subject matter is one way of working on identity development (Katz, 1993; Wanner, 1994).  Through the act of self-reflection, students develop a healthier sense of who they are (Baker, 1996).

Finally, students will remember more of what they read if they are able to reflect on themselves and their own lives and experiences in relation to what they are reading for class (Katz, 1993; Wanner, 1994).  Self-reflection helps students process information more effectively, and in turn, the act of self-reflection yields a more productive learning experience. 

Autobiographical Writing in the Classroom

Autobiography assignments designed for adolescents are typically large units that take several weeks to complete.  Their assignment often asks for statistical information about the student such as, place and date of birth, current address, and birth statistics (length, weight), family tree information, future plans and goals, as well as, student photos of important people and events.  Presented here are three ideas for autobiography chapters and an alternative to the traditional autobiography assignment, benefits and hazards to using autobiography in the classroom, and examples of writing curriculum that emphasizes self-reflection.

Chapter Idea: Defining Yourself Through Another and Yourself

            Several chapters in an autobiography might respond to how others view the author of the autobiography and how the author views the author (Esser, 1998).  In defining the author through their grandparents’ eyes, their parents’ eyes, teachers’ eyes, or their best friend’s eyes, students might notice differences and similarities between the distinct visions of the author. 

Chapter Idea: Addressing Big Issues

            In addressing big issues, students are asked to consider what they think and what they have experienced related to concepts like injustice, freedom, or safety or other debatable questions that affect society (Craig, 1994).  Students could write a 3-4 page personal story (or a chapter in their autobiography) regarding an experience they have had or have experienced others having that related to the issue of social injustice.  The definition of social injustice is left wide open for interpretation.

Chapter Idea: Exercising Critical Imagination

            Critical imagination is the ability to envision other options besides the typical dichotomous responses (binary thoughts) that often contradict one another (Golden, 1996).  There are other options besides yes and no, black or white, or male or female.  Critical imagination opens the mind to numerous possibilities.  Through critical imagination, binary thinking can be broken, and students are capable of constructing their own stories that allow for a dialogue with challenging images of gender and self.  Students might consider if they step into multiple gender roles.  This could be a chapter in an autobiography.  Since the student is in control of writing his or her own autobiography, the student determines the identity that emerges from the autobiography and has the power to disturb gender stereotypes and other binary ways of thinking about identity.

An Alternative: A Language Autobiography

            Students who have multilinguistic backgrounds should be encouraged to use their additional knowledge of language in their writing as a strength (Meyers, 1996).  This technique has been especially useful in multiethnic classrooms to encourage self-esteem and acknowledge accomplishments and challenges.  Teachers could assign a language autobiography, where students document their accomplishments and challenges with language.

Benefits

          The four main benefits to using the autobiography unit in a classroom are as follows: (a) a reduction in stress associated with the act of writing; (b) an opportunity for the writer to exercise analysis, argumentation, and critical thinking skills; (c) an opportunity for teachers to hear students and listen to their life stories; and (d) an increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy of students.

Benefit #1: Reduced stress associated with writing. Because students do not need to know how to analyze outside sources to write their autobiographies, some of the stress that is often associated with writing is displaced (Nicolini, 1994).  The knowledge students need to write using this form is readily available, and they are usually comfortable writing about themselves and enjoy reflecting on their own lives.

Benefit #2: Preparation for analysis, argumentation, and critical thinking skills.  Autobiography can be used successfully as a link between the "hard" (exposition, analysis, and argumentation essays) and the "soft" (memory essay) forms of writing (Nicolini, 1994).  Although autobiography is not typically thought of as persuasive, there is always a message that the author is attempting to convey, so the author of an autobiography and the author of an argumentative essay must have some similar concerns.  Autobiographical writing is honest, engaging, descriptive and requires focus, clarity, and reflection.  All of these are characteristics of exposition, analysis, and argumentation essays as well.  But autobiographical narratives actually exercise analysis, argumentation, and critical thinking skills in a more student-friendly form, so autobiographical narratives can be used as a stepping stone to the “hard” forms of writing. 

Benefit #3: An opportunity to hear students.  Students inevitably write about the issues in their lives that are most disconcerting (Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995).  They do this as a way of dealing with pain, grief, trouble, or confusion that is being experienced or has been experienced in the past.  The autobiography unit can be used to help teachers become more aware of student problems. 

At the same time, many teachers are uncomfortable with the role of therapist when they assign personal narratives and do not really want to be responsible for their students in the way that a therapist would be responsible (Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995).  This “life-line” scares some teachers from using the autobiography unit.  But teachers are qualified to act as readers and responders to student problems and can help students if they commit to being good listeners (Nicolini, 1994).

Benefit #4: An increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy.  Students who were given the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own language with positive feedback and a safe audience experienced an increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy (Chadler, 1999).  In Chadler’s study, 11 low-income, at-risk, minority youth received positive feedback from both the teacher and their peers when they wrote personal free-writes on their own lives.  Free-writing, a writing technique that is completely accepting of any attempt at writing, was used in this study.  The class and the teacher were prompted to comment on what they liked and what they remembered about the student’s free-write.  This positive feedback probably played a large role in the increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy of the students in the study.  However, having a venue for telling one’s story—knowing that at least one other person wanted to hear it since the teacher did assign the self-reflection—also seemed important in improving self-esteem and working on identity construction.

Hazards

Three precautions are worth a teacher's consideration before assigning an autobiography: (a) students should include others in their autobiographies to avoid self-absorption; (b) students should be warned that if they choose to address painful parts of their lives in their autobiographies, they might just be opening old wounds, if they do not process the pain in some way; and (c) teachers will have to deal with grading and offering negative feedback to student writing.

Precaution #1: Include others.  To avoid self-absorption, students should include others in their autobiographies (Katz, 1993). Some of the educational practices that are used to support and improve a student’s self-esteem might be developing a narcissism because of the excessive preoccupation with oneself (Katz, 1993).  Teachers should encourage students to also be interested in the other and reduce the emphasis on consumerism in the prompts that are asked.  Rather, students should be directed to reflect on themselves in reference to other texts and other people who are in their social microcosms and macrocosms.

Precaution #2: The danger of opening old wounds.  If students address pain or trauma, teachers should remind them that unless the experience is processed, writing about the experience might only make that pain experienced once again (Rainer, 1997).  If students want to write about a time that was painful, they should also remember the joy and human warmth that was experienced during that time.

Precaution #3: Develop strategies for assessing personal writing. If students do poorly on an autobiography assignment, they could take it personally and think that their lives are lacking in some way (Nicolini, 1994).  Students might not understand that their grade directly refers to their writing ability—not their life experiences.  As a result, teachers have difficulty giving low grades or negatively assessing personal writing because they fear they will hurt the student’s feelings.  There are three strategies that help to avoid this problem.  First, teachers could separate the grade for the autobiography into two categories: mechanics and contents.  Then if students do poorly on mechanics, they do not associate that grade with the story of their life.  Content should not be an issue unless the student did not make an effort.  Second, a portfolio system can be used in the class to avoid giving a single grade to the autobiography assignment.  And third, teachers could give students the opportunity to do a rewrite of their autobiography with the mechanical corrections made, which would improve the paper and guarantee a better grade. 

Writing Curriculum with an Emphasis on Self-Reflection

Writing curriculum that uses other authors as inspiration for self-reflection can be used in an English classroom.  Another alternative to the typical writing unit is suggested in Dillard ‘s (1996) description of creative autobiographies.  And techniques for making self-reflective writing more distanced are suggested, along with a suggestion for making self-reflective writing public. 

Using other authors as inspiration.  Good poetry and fiction can be used to lead middle school children to define themselves (Esser, 1998).  Teachers can include such works as “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” by N. Scott Momaday, The House on Mango Street  by Sandra Cisneros, and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to their curriculum to elicit student reflections on the self. 

            Students could consider how the writer could be like any of the things listed in Momaday’s poem and write their own “Delight Song,” using Momaday’s as a model.  Students should begin each line with “I am.”  The teacher could also ask students to choose one thing in the list that describes them.  Students could choose one of their favorite lines from the poem.  Then go around the room quickly, reading the line aloud, so that the lines are heard one after the other without pause to make the reading sound like a new poem created by the class that defines the class, the class’ “Delight Song.”  During revision, students could rearrange lines in the poem to emphasize contrast or paradox. 

Teachers could also use the vignette, “My Name,” from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros to get students thinking about their own names and labels (Esser, 1998).  Then students could reflect and write about how they got their names.  Students could also consider what name they would choose for themselves, if they could choose a new name that would fit them better.  They could then describe that name and explain why it would be more fitting for them. 

An alternative: Creative autobiography.  Creative autobiography is an artistic or creative presentation of one's life story, presented within a class setting (Dillard, 1996).  Dillard’s creative autobiographies were 10-15 minute videotaped presentations responding to the questions, "Who am I?  What important or significant people, places, events, or experiences have shaped the person I am?" and made-up of any language "art" except expository writing. Students used quilts, quotations from other writers with personal interjections, visual art, drama, music, poetry, and choral reading to create their autobiographies. Although Dillard’s creative autobiography projects did not require writing, one could require a written reflection of the creative autobiography experience, where the student responds to the question, “What did you learn about yourself through doing a creative autobiography?”

An objective eye: writing with some distance.  Young (1997) described a composition curriculum that not only developed students' writing skills but also required that students reflect on their own identity by narrating the discovery of the self or by defining the community that means the most to the individual writer. Students were told that their audience was unfamiliar so an objective eye would also be reading their writing.  This encouraged students to search for further insight and depth in their self-discovery.  Students could also write an autobiographical story in the third person, in which they were one of the characters, to teach them how to distance themselves from their writing subject matter (Wanner, 1994). 

Making it public.  Sometimes it is difficult to make student writing public because they write about very personal topics, and some topics should not be made public whether a name is attached to it or not (Hudson, 1995).  But in general, students enjoy being heard and hearing others.  So making their writing public motivates students to tell their stories well.  Creating collages of student writing is a way to publish their writing.  Because no names are attached to the collage entries, students have a safe way to share their stories. 

Related Research

A limited number of studies examined how adolescents described and defined themselves when writing their autobiographies.  This reflects a need for further research in this area.  The studies that were located indicated that adolescents chose to consider a wide variety of themes when they were asked to reflect on their lives.  Some of the themes and topics found in adolescent self-reflections include the following: confusions, commitments, beliefs, preferences, and past experiences; weighty topics such as anger and aggression; and values such as freedom, trust, honesty, and caring.  Adolescents also valued their pets and their families, but adolescents often felt unvalued by adults in their lives. Intellectually gifted students felt unvalued by their age-peers. 

Fideler, Riordan, & Soble Study

Fideler, Riordan, & Soble (1995) attempted to answer what happens when autobiography is used in classrooms and why autobiography is used.  The classroom teacher assigned spiritual autobiographies to a “Reading and Writing on Human Values” class of adolescent students.  Students were asked to respond to values and beliefs found in the lives of literary characters and their authors.  The counselor asked an advanced writing seminar class to write a story that they remember being told when they were younger. After analyzing the stories, the counselor noticed that personal narratives always deal with real persons and enduring human issues and push students to express their own values to a classroom audience.  The classroom teacher found that the autobiography assignment contributed to community building when student writing was shared with class members.  The classroom teacher also found that adolescent autobiographies contained topics related to their confusions, commitments, beliefs, preferences, and past experiences and surmised that students actually located their “authentic selves” (identity development) when they wrote their autobiographies.

Dow Study

Dow (1996) was interested in the effects of implementing a high school autobiography class.  Dow’s autobiography course was broken down as follows: two classes each week were spent on reading and discussing autobiographies, one class on a journal entry inspired by a reading assignment, and two classes on writing a new autobiographical piece and the other on revising autobiographical writing.   There was no autobiography mold that students were instructed to follow, so they were free to be creative in their choice of topics.  Dow’s students were warned not to share anything that they were uncomfortable sharing, but many of them wanted to write about those events that were most meaningful to them, and many of those events were sensitive and difficult stories to tell.  After analyzing the autobiographies, Dow found that students used the autobiography unit to address heavy topics and in this way resembled therapy in their processing of these weighty topics.  When students shared their autobiographies, they noticed that their classmates had rich experiences; as a result of this realization, Dow speculated that the class developed a sense of community.

Hudson Study

The purpose of Hudson’s (1995) study was to report the degree of violence present in student journal writing.  The participants in the study were high school freshmen in a rural community in southwest Michigan.  They were assigned “no rules” journals, which meant that there were no predetermined journal topics or topics that were off-limits and students did not have to worry about spelling, grammar, or proper usage. Hudson catalogued student writing themes and reported written teacher responses to student journal writing and found that every one of the students wrote about their own anger and violence. From this class, Hudson focused on two students who had particularly moving responses.  After Hudson responded in writing to student journals, Hudson noticed that they began to introspect and recognize the violence in their lives, which is the beginning of transforming their lives. 

Mee Study 

Mee (1997) looked extensively at how adolescents view themselves by asking 2,000 students between the ages of 10-15 in 15 schools in 6 states in almost 100 classes an exhaustive list of questions, during interviews, that were designed to speak to the question of self-definition.  Mee also observed students in their school environment but did not see them in their homes or hang-out environments.  Nonetheless, this study had an abundance of findings, which will be discussed below.

Mee (1997) found that adolescents valued trust, honesty, caring, freedom and their families and pets.  In regard to freedom, seventh and eighth graders felt they had more restrictions and more responsibilities and looked forward to having more privileges as they became older. Fifth and sixth graders, however, felt that they had more freedom than they previously had. Adolescents wanted to be trusted, and they wanted to be more honest with teachers, parents, and friends.  They really appreciated other people caring about them, and they thought it was important to care about others.  Adolescents valued ideals, people, and animals in their lives, but seventh and eighth graders did not feel that they were valued.  They were more pessimistic about being adolescents than fifth and sixth graders, and some of the seventh and eighth graders noted the worst thing about being their age was that people did not take them seriously enough, and they did not think that they were liked by adults.  According to Mee, educators ought to give adolescents an opportunity to develop their family stories and be heard.

Gross Study

Gross (1998) conducted a study to see if Intellectually gifted students hid their gifted identities in order to be accepted by their peer group.  The participants in this study were 53 Australian middle school students whose IQ’s were 160 and above.  They were asked to write about their own identity development in diary entries and poetry.  These were analyzed, and it was found that intellectually gifted students tend to mask their identities.  Gross speculated that this was due to the lack of freedom and acceptance to be themselves in their social environments.

Summary of the Literature

            This review of the literature focuses on adolescent autobiographies and identity and found that 

1.  Autobiography is a writing genre that requires self-reflection (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 1997). 

2.  Adolescents are battling the dilemma of identity versus role confusion (Erikson, 1963, 1968).

3.  Students develop a healthier sense of who they are when they are asked to self-reflect (Baker, 1996). 

4.  Autobiography assignments that utilize self-reflective writing skills might help adolescent students establish a healthy sense of identity (Afolayan, 1995; Baker, 1996; Chadler, 1999; Delisle & Schultz, 1997; Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995; Greene, 1996; Katz, 1993; Roe, Suellen, & Smith, 1998; Wanner, 1994). 

              5.  Student autobiographies might help educators and researchers can learn more about adolescents (Barbieri, 1996; Blair, 1998; Dow, 1996; Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995; Fishman, 1996; Gilligan, 1982; Gross, 1998; Hudson, 1995; Hunt, as cited in Blair, 1998; Kehily, 1995; Macey, as cited in Blair, 1998; Mee, 1997; Pipher, 1994 and Sadker & Sadker, 1994, as cited in Spalding & Ziff, 1997; Spalding & Ziff, 1997).

              6.  Some of the themes and topics found in adolescent self-reflections include their anger and aggression (Hudson, 1995), confusions, commitments, beliefs, preferences, past experiences, (Fideler, Riordan, & Soble, 1995), and values (freedom, trust, honesty, caring, pets, and families) (Mee, 1997).  Adolescents often felt unvalued by adults in their lives (Mee, 1997), and intellectually gifted students felt unvalued by their age-peers (Gross, 1998).


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III

METHODOLOGY

Since this study was performed with a co-researcher, Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, chapter III was co-written with him.  This chapter describes the methodology used in this study.  The purpose of this study was to answer these two questions:

1.  What themes and topics do adolescents choose to reflect on when asked to write their autobiographies? 

2.  How do adolescents describe themselves when asked to write about their lives? 

Participants

            This study took place in an eighth-grade classroom at a middle school (referred to hereafter as Central Middle School) in a small southern Minnesota city.  The classroom teacher has been teaching for four years.  My co-researcher and I are both graduate students at Minnesota State University, Mankato.  Although he was looking to answer different questions, we both used the same data source.  There were 21 students in the study; 9 were male and 12 were female. The students in the class were above average in intelligence and ability, according to the teacher.  This was a nonrandom sample of students.

Conditions

The classroom teacher knew her students well since the study took place during the second half of the school year.  Jeremy Corey-Gruenes and I had met some of the students during the previous school year when we worked with another teacher at Central Middle School.  Some of the students recognized us as the "onomatopoeia people" because of our poetry mini-lessons in that class.

The classroom teacher planned to cover autobiography in a four-week unit prior to our request to do autobiographical research in her classroom.  The autobiography unit was a tradition at Central Middle School, so students anticipated the expectations of the assignment because many of them had siblings or knew students who have done the assignment in years past.

Procedures

Students were asked to write their autobiographies. A month passed between the first two weeks and the second two weeks of the autobiography unit, which was team-taught by the classroom teacher and the researchers.

After the classroom teacher explained the autobiography assignment specifications (see Appendix A for Assignment Specifications), Jeremy Corey-Gruenes and I described our research proposal to the class and explained that they had a choice to participate or decline participation in the study. (See Appendix B for Student Assent Form and Appendix C for Parental Consent Form.)  Whether they participated in the study or not, their role in the class would be the same.  The only difference between participants and non-participants would be that either the researchers would have access to what students wrote as data for the study or their writing samples would not be used in the study.  If they participated, their identities would be concealed.

During the first three days of the autobiography unit, the researchers introduced students to several samples of memoir writing. Doing this took approximately 10 to 15 minutes each day. On day one, I read a memoir that demonstrated how to include others while writing about one’s self.  (See Appendix D for "Salt in the Soup" memoir.)  On day two, Jeremy Corey-Gruenes shared a memoir that reflected on a peer group conflict  (See Appendix E for “An Elementary Lesson" memoir.) On day three of the study, I shared a free-write that I had written on my formal first name, Jeanette.  I wrote about how the name made me feel and some of the memories that accompanied that name (See Appendix F for Free-write on My Name.) On days four through twenty, students began writing or conferencing at the beginning of class and continued working until the class ended.

Writing Conferences and Writing Workshop

Each class period consisted of writing conferences and student writing workshops.  The researchers and teacher met with students one-on-one (1-6 students per day, per researcher/teacher) to discuss their writing and offer feedback on their chapters. The researchers and teacher floated among the students, looking at drafts and helping them troubleshoot problems with composition and technology.

Free-Writing/Three-Minute World Exercise

During the first half of the class, students were assigned 10 minutes of free-writing homework.  They were given question prompts to help them explore possible topics for their autobiography chapters.  Their prompts encouraged students to write about difficult decisions, conflict, and issues of identity in their lives. (See Appendix G for Question Prompts.)

Students did a three-minute world exercise during the second half.  During this exercise, students free-wrote for 3-5 minutes about whatever was on their minds at that moment.  We reminded them that if they wanted to work out some ideas for chapters, the "three-minute world" would be appropriate for that as well.  Although students were still engaged in free-writing, we no longer referred to it as "free-writing.”

Data Collection

The following data were collected:

Daily free-writes/three-minute world exercises.  Students submitted their free-writes and three-minute world exercises at the end of each class period, unless there were printing problems.  A total of 17 free-writes was collected from each student.

Completed autobiography.  Students’ revised autobiographies were collected on the last day of the research. 

Field notes.  The researchers’ feelings and observations were recorded in field notes during and after each class session.

Exit survey.  On the last day of the study, students filled out the exit survey, and the survey was collected that day. (See Appendix H for the Exit Survey.)  This survey was designed to elicit reflection on themselves and on the process and product of the autobiography unit.

Design and Analysis

This study followed a qualitative case study design that implemented inductive analysis, similar to analytic induction as described by Flick (1998) and Taylor and Bogdan (1984), in the following way: (a) reoccurring patterns and groups were noticed, (b) initial groups were formed, and (c) initial groups were revised and verified (Flick, 1998).

The free-write responses (including three-minute world writes), autobiographies, field notes, and exit surveys were collected and analyzed using analytic induction to discover reoccurring patterns and groups in regard to identity or self-reflection.  The exit survey also contained Likert scales, so the numbers in the Likert scales were averaged.

Materials

          The following materials were used to implement this study.

Assignment specifications. The autobiography assignment was very structured, but there was room for students to be creative and unique in the chapters that they chose to write about. (See Appendix A for Assignment Specifications.)  They were asked to think about who they were, what they had experienced and others who had played a significant part in their lives, but they ultimately were in control of their chapter topics. They had to include a title page, dedication page, introduction, a family tree, a minimum of five chapters, and a closing. They could also include flat memorabilia and photos but were not required to do so.  The minimum word count was 2,000.  The assignment specifications were largely developed by another 8th grade teacher in the school, and the classroom teacher made slight adjustments to the assignment.

            Student assent form and parental consent form.  Students were given the student assent and parental consent forms to fill out and return after they had time to consider the study. They were informed that they could choose to participate in the study or decline from participation and would not be penalized, and their workloads in the class would not differ from those who had chosen to participate. (See Appendix B for Student Assent Form and Appendix C for Parental Consent Form.)

Memoir writing samples. The researchers shared their own writing samples with the class in order to establish trust in the classroom and to give students examples of memoir writing.  One memoir demonstrated how other people might be included in their stories when they write about their own lives.  It was written by an ESL student and might have been difficult for an 8th grader to read aloud without first reading it silently. (See Appendix D for "Salt in the Soup" memoir.)  Jeremy Corey-Gruenes also shared a memoir that he had written about an experience with a bully that took place when he was in elementary school.  This story addressed the negative consequences of standing up to peers on an issue of justice.  (See Appendix E for “An Elementary Lesson" memoir.)  A free-write that I wrote on my name showed how reflecting on one’s name can say something about one’s identity. (See Appendix F for Free-write on My Name.)

            Question prompts. The question prompts that students were given on the days noted in Appendix G, were merely suggested topics for their free-write assignments and autobiography chapters.  They were repeatedly instructed that they did not have to write on the question prompts in their autobiographies or in their free-writes.

Exit survey.  The exit survey not only gave the research and autobiography unit a sense of closure, it also offered students an opportunity to reflect more on themselves and their autobiographies. (See Appendix H for Exit Survey.)  Of the eleven questions asked in the survey, nine were open-ended, and two were based on Likert scales.  One of the Likert scales ranged from 1 to 4, and the other ranged from 1 to 5. 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER IV

FINDINGS

This chapter contains the findings of this study.  Below are described the reoccurring patterns and groups found in the field notes, free-writes, autobiographies, and exit surveys in regard to identity or self-reflection and the averages from the exit survey Likert scales.  Student responses to the autobiography unit were included for the benefit of future teaching and researching in this area.

Field Notes

The field notes did not directly answer many of the questions related to identity.  They were, however, useful as I noticed themes in student writing, which will be specified in the autobiography and free-writing below, and as I processed recommendations for Central Middle School, which will be noted in Chapter V.  Field notes were also used to note student interactions in the classroom environment and my reactions to the students, which will be described below.

Students’ Interactions with Others

          The interactions that students had with others indicated their need to be heard and their need to be taken seriously.  They also had a sense of humor and sense of voice.

A sense of voice. While I met with students to conference their writing, I pointed out lines that were unclear to me as a reader.  Then there was the uncomfortable silence, before they often asked me, "Well how could I say it better?"  I worked with them to think of ways to restate what I thought they wanted to say, but unless it came out of their mouths, they often replied, "That doesn't sound like me," or they would look at me (with a little discomfort clearly showing on their faces) and I would ask, "That doesn't sound like you does it?"  So we would continue to work until it did sound like their voices.  Their voices were found in the topics that they chose, but their voices were missing when I attempted to rewrite unclear lines.  They ultimately had to do it, and they claimed that right.   

Their own sense of identity was apparent in their struggle to communicate using their own voices.  They recognized the difference between my voice and that of their own and weren't comfortable with my voice entering their autobiographies because their identities were closely tied to how they communicated their message: what words they chose and in what order they presented them.

A need to be taken seriously. Along with a need to express themselves using their own voices, students also shared a need to be taken seriously.  A group of boys who were in the advanced math section referred to each other as colleagues.  This implied that they shared a professionalism or thought of themselves as being a part of something special, part of a group of workers who had common goals.  This was also a group in which the members felt safe and secure. 

The members shared similar interests and values, and they were able to shine in an activity that wasn't commonly recognized in the same way athletics are often valued.  Referring to each other as colleagues, which was usually accompanied with a slight smirk, also suggested a somewhat sophisticated sense of humor and vocabulary.  Their identities were formed in part by belonging to this group that accepted and appreciated their math talents.  The group identity emerged with a shared appreciation of humor and hard work.

            A sense of humor. Although the students wanted to be taken seriously, I recognized the limitations to this because they also valued humor.  A rather funny moment with Todd occurred when Jack asked him what the title of his autobiography was.  Todd responded in a monotone, deadpan sort of way, "My title is Wow, I'm only fourteen years old, and I've already written an autobiography."  Todd was self-aware enough to know that he was too young and simply hadn't lived long enough to write an impressive autobiography.  He used sarcasm to mock the assignment and the delusion of grandeur that the assignment begged him to partake in. 

On “movie star” dress-up day, Amy also used humor to make fun of herself.  That day, she wore a feather boa and movie star-like sunglasses perched on the top of her head.  She looked like she enjoyed wearing the outfit and pretending to be more important and prestigious than she normally found herself to be.  When the classroom teacher asked her what movie star she was supposed to be, she replied, “I’m pretty much ANY movie star,” as she deftly dropped her sunglasses from the top of her head down over her eyes.   Amy remained in character as she mocked herself for playing a part that didn't even specify a particular movie star. 

She realized how ridiculous and funny she was being, but at the same time, genuinely enjoyed playing the part of movie star.  Being playful, funny, and self-mocking are part of Amy's identity—part of who she is.

A need to be heard.  Since students wanted to be heard, they must have had something to say and they must have found value in their message.  A group of boys produced an on-line underground newspaper, the UnderOne, where the student writers used their own voices but hid behind a mask of relative anonymity.  It was relative anonymity because although all the writers used fictitious names, their voices were so present in their writing that many of their readers knew the name to whom the code name corresponded.  In their writing, they addressed problems they saw with Central Middle School and the world.  At the same time, they wrote about trivial issues for the purpose of poking fun at a concept that was well known by students, such as reaching for excellence or going “above and beyond,” which were motivational phrases that the physical education teacher frequently used to inspire students.  On the next page, they asked their readers to be open-minded and accepting of all people everywhere.  I noted my immediate responses to their underground newspaper in my field notes, "funny, relatively professional and impressive, important, and controversial."

But what did this say about their identity?  It told us that they were critical of others in authority positions.  In doing this, they recognized that addressing problems was somewhat dangerous, so they felt the need to hide behind a mask that would protect them.  They also believed in the ideal that everyone ought to be understanding and accepting of others, yet they enjoyed poking fun at the physical education teacher's "motivational" phrase "above and beyond."  Since their message was put into a public format, open to anyone who wanted to read it, they wanted their message to be heard, and they believed that their message had value. 

Two of the boys who participated in the underground newspaper also used their clothing to comment on the lack of freedom they have experienced in their school.  From my field notes on March 16, 2000 I learned,

Todd and David were wearing t-shirts that they had made special for them.  The t-shirts were white with black lettering that said, "Big Brother is Watching."  Todd mentioned in his 3-minute world exercise that he was disappointed that his classmates didn’t understand the T-shirt, but older people and teachers understood the reference.  It surprised me that he gave teachers that much credit.  He can be very hard on people.

 

Todd and David used their clothing as a billboard to announce their message.  Although their message was clearly received by older people and teachers, their peers did not understand their message.  It bothered Todd that his peers didn't understand his message. 

Another boy in the class constructed a web page entitled “My Message: A Gift With Words and My Inspiration” to announce his message.  Jack was passionate about his voice being heard because he had a message he wanted to share and wrote about it in his poetry.  He specifically asked his readers to "Hear me!"  He wanted to be listened to.  Jack asked his readers to "Take all of this and reflect on yourself before you go to bed tonight or right now.  Hear me!"  He believed that his message could enlighten others if they would only take him seriously.  In Jack's song "Resist," he wrote,

Yeah we have freedom of speech

But no one listens

They have freedom of speech

Hold us down, yell in our ear

 

We're forced to hear them

And can't do a damn thing

No one listens to us

It's unfair . . .

 

This was one of Jack's favorite songs that he had written.  In it, I learned that he didn't think he was listened to, and he thought it was "unfair" that he has been forced to listen to others, if they don't listen to him.  Coincidentally, he has had extreme respect for the concepts of freedom and fairness. 

Sadly, students in general did not feel heard.  Toward the end of the autobiography unit, The classroom teacher passed out a questionnaire that asked students, “What are you most proud of?” and “What gave you the most difficulty?” in regard to the autobiography assignment.  I noted Jill's reaction to the questionnaire in my field notes:

March 7, 2000

Jill looked at the questionnaire and asked, “Who wants to know?”  After I told her that they were The classroom teacher's questions, she said, "Good . . . I mean it doesn't really matter whose questions they are, but who really wants to know the answers anyway?"  Sensing that she wasn't feeling listened to, I replied, "Anyone who reads what you write will be interested in what you have to say Jill."  And she said, "It's not like anything will change because of what I write."  She continued, "It's not like next year's class will be any different because of what I write on this green piece of paper."  I replied, "I don't know that that's true.  For example, some students didn't enjoy doing the free-writing, so we stopped and changed the assignment to a three-minute world write instead.  Sometimes change happens, and sometimes it doesn't."  She just walked away from me after that. 

 

But Jill’s point was important.  She did not think that her comments on the questionnaire would be heard in any meaningful way. But when I was listening to her and responding to her concerns, she just walked away from me as though my words didn't matter.  In order to feel listened to, an action needed to occur.  Something needed to change.  Action was more important and more meaningful than words, which merely amounted to lip service from Jill's perspective. 

Although many students didn't feel their voices or perspectives were heard, there were opportunities to be heard.  Their principal of Central Middle School was very open to talking with them, hearing their concerns, and answering their questions.  Although I don't know what they talked about, I do know that Jack had an ongoing e-mail exchange with the principal.  The principal also encouraged questions from the student body when there was a concern about school safety.  She was also aware that students were free-writing in class on the day that she addressed the student body about school safety concerns and asked to see student free-writes on that day so that she could hear their responses to her address.  Still many students didn't feel heard.

Free-Writes

Students were assigned a 10 minute free-write for homework during the first two weeks of the study and repeatedly told that they did not need to respond to the question prompts; they were just ideas in case students could not think of a writing topic.

By the end of the first two weeks, it was apparent that many outspoken students did not enjoy the free-write assignments and it was affecting the morale of the class.  Some of them mocked the concept of a “free-write” that they felt had subversive motives with the question prompts.  Jack argued his opinion in a free-write entitled, “Free Writing":

But really, is it FREE?  If ‘Free-Writing’ was really FREE, then we wouldn’t have to do it.  When we do actually do it, can we really write about whatever we want?  Well, we CAN, but we probably wouldn’t get a good grade for talking about how we shot drugs with a bunch of rapists on the street corner the other day, not that I did.  I would never.  Anyway, I’m trying to say that even [though] the rules on ‘Free-Writing’ are pretty lenient, it isn’t FREE.  Though I don’t really despise ‘Free Writing’ I think it could use a better title.  Peace out from the FREE man.

 

Even though everyone received points for making an attempt at the free-write and content was not assessed when points were distributed, Jack noticed constraints and a lack of freedom in his life and suspected it in this instance as well.  The boundaries placed around Jack in the past have bothered him.  Wanting absolute freedom, he has felt constrained by any rules and regulations.  At the same time, because he has experienced so many constraints, he did not realize the actual freedom that was present in the free-write assignment; he expected that freedom would be illusory. 

Although students were still engaged in free-writing, we took Jack's advice and no longer referred to it as "free-writing."  Instead they did a "three-minute world exercise," which took place during the first three to five minutes of class, which meant they no longer had the free-write as a homework assignment.

Some students appreciated the change from the free-write to the three-minute world exercise.  Even though the homework in this class was minimal, some liked the change merely because it reduced the amount of homework that they were assigned.  Other students who voiced dislike of the free-write assignments, appreciated the change because they felt listened to.  It was important to those students that they had some say in what educational tasks they were assigned.  One student wrote in her three-minute world exercise, “thanks for coming around.”

Jack recognized, however, that the three-minute world and the free-write assignment that they were doing earlier were very close to the same thing.  He wrote, “But let me tell you this, this three minute world really makes me feel a whole lot better (I hope you caught the cynical tone once again).”  Jack felt that the change from the free-write assignment to the three-minute world assignment was just a superficial name change that really did not have any meaning, and to some extent he was right.  Even though he suggested that the free-write needed a better name, he also recognized that the name change did not really change anything, and he conveyed his recognition of this fact using sarcasm to convey his message with acrid intelligence.  

Neither of these two types of free-writing exercises were very popular with students on the whole, but the benefits of free writing were apparent in both the general atmosphere of the class (more focused and productive when using the three-minute world exercise at the beginning of each class) and in the final drafts of memoir produced by students. From an instructional perspective, it was a good routine for students to anticipate at the start of each class, helping them focus on the task of writing right away when the class began. 

Themes found in the free-write prompts that were later developed into chapters in their autobiographies include chapters on justice/injustice issues, bully experiences, and reflections on naming. The free-writes, although overwhelmingly positive, contained more negative reflections on their lives than their autobiographies did. 

The following free-write on Opaal's name did appear in her autobiography.  Remember while reading this writing sample that it was a free-write.  The polished version was much clearer.  Also notice that there weren't many negative references to her name, but the ones that are present are set off in italics.

Name free-write.  My mother gave me my name.  She gave me my name because of my eyes and how she just kept it as a pattern.  (My other sisters have names like jewels and gems [just like I do].)  I've been called no ugly names just nicknames that I'm used to.  I usually turn red or feel hot when they (family) call me it in public.  I'm used to it so there really wasn't a problem.  I used to wanted to change my name many times but now that I think about it I really don't need to change it because it suits me just fine.  And there isn't a name that best describes me better than Opaal. Opaal with two "aa's," don't forget it's okay to be unique.

 

Opaal's negative reflections on her name were eliminated in the revision she included in her polished autobiography.  It was important to her to present a positive image of herself to her audience, who seemed to be largely made up of her family.

How students chose to reflect on their names in their free-writes as opposed to in their autobiographies was intriguing.  Free-writes written on their names were much more negative than chapters written on their names in their autobiographies.  Student reflections overall tended to be very positive reflections in their autobiographies, but they were more negative in their free-writes.  The free-write example that I wrote on my name was a negative reflection on my name, while the chapters written on student names were a celebration of their name.  Their deviation from the negative example indicates that they considered their audience when they wrote their autobiographies and preferred to write about the positive as they constructed their autobiographies.

From the following free-write response, we can see the start of a chapter in Jill's autobiography:

Being a bully.  When asking if I have ever been a bully, I would have to [say] that almost everyone has been in a small or big way.  Thinking back I can remember a certain time when I first got my glasses.  It was when we still lived in Roachester [sic] and I really wanted them.  So when the school eye tests came around I sort of faked my way through pretending that I could not see the letters clearly.  Sure enough I got the glasses I was hoping for.  Nobody really made fun of that much either.  At first my brother saw the prescription and asked if I was getting them and when I replied yes he laughed at me.  I picked out the frame I wanted and finally received them, I was so excited.  I went outside in our front yard with my new glasses,"  and I asked how he liked them.  He didn't say they looked bad but said they made me look smart.  I took that as a compliment.  Later on in the day I went down the street to play a game with most of our neighborhood friends.  I had been getting made fun of with the original names you hear like four eyes and being called geek or dork.  Finally when little Travis, a couple of years younger then [sic] me, called me four eyes and just would not leave me alone, I blew up.  I picked him up and swung him around.  The sad thing is, is while I was spinning him all of the rest of our neighborhood kids (most of who [whom] were a yerar [year] or two older) were laughing and telling me to keep doing it.  Eventually I let go of Travis and he flew hard onto the sidewalk.  He immediately started to cry.  As I ran home feeling bad about what I had done I saw Travis's dad and my dad talking in their yard.  I wanted . . .

 

This is where the free-write ends.  In this bully free-write, she recognized her power to hurt others.  She also recognized that her violent actions did not give her a feeling of justice in the end, but rather she felt bad about what she did.  Student experiences of either being a bully or meeting up with a bully and their experiences with justice and fairness showed that they were capable of seriously thinking and writing about challenging past experiences and big issues like justice and fairness.

Although the following free-write on injustice and authority was not used in Karen's autobiography, it offers insight into who she was. 

Injustice and authority.  The experiences I have had with injustice are ones that involve older "authority."  They believe their decision is final even when it's the wrong one.  That is unfair and wrong.  I learned that older people can be very closed-minded and arrogant.  Just because you are older doesn't mean you are smarter and always right when it comes to dealing with kids . . . . This is a little off the subject, but I'm sick of parents thinking kids don't know what's good for them.  Parents/adults don't live in our body, how do they know what's good for us.  They might know some things, but if they trust us, they'll let us learn from our mistakes. 

 

Karen wanted adults to trust her decision-making abilities, and she also wanted adults to have a little humility and admit that they don't know everything. Her sense of identity was dependent on adults realizing that she might have something to offer and that she might be smart enough to make good decisions on her own.  It angered her that they didn't have confidence in her ability to make good decisions. 

The following free-write on names did not reappear as a chapter in Nicole's autobiography.  Nonetheless, it addressed the impact that other people's perceptions can have on one's identity development.

Name-calling.  I have been called many names in my life before.  I either ignore the person who said it or talk to them.  One of my friends was called something and I tried to help her get through it.  I knew what she was going through so I could relate to her.  She is still trying to get over it.  Being called something isn't something that just blows over, it can stick with you for a lifetime and you might never forget it.

 

In the above free-write on names, Nicole emphasized the damage that name-calling can do.  She has felt the pain of being called a bad name and realized that people don't easily get over it.  What other people think of them matters.  Both for Nicole and her friend, their sense of self was damaged when they experienced name-calling.  They didn't believe the grade school saying, "Sticks and stones might break your bones, but words will never hurt you."  Words were  powerful, and they had the potential to hurt. 

Students might have written about bully experiences and their names for no other reason than the question prompts elicited a response from them, and they just continued to work the free-write into a chapter because they needed to write at least five chapters for their autobiography assignment.  For example, the prompt that asked them to reflect on their names might have influenced their decision to free-write on their names. 

Nonetheless, what I learned about them from these free-writes is significant.  I learned that they were aware of their own power to hurt others, and others could hurt them.  Jack wrote in one of his free-writes, "There is only one teacher that really can understand who I am, but all the others believe I have bad values and morals being in the 'punk scene.'  It really gets me down." 

What other people thought of them really mattered; at the same time, they valued their uniqueness and didn't want to be like everyone else and didn't want to conform just to fit in.  Opaal with two "aa's" wanted her name to be spelt differently because she valued her difference just as Jack valued his difference when he mentioned that he was in the punk scene.  They wanted to be valued and respected by others, that is, their peers and adults in their lives despite and because of their differences. 

Other major themes that were found in the free-writes include family, friends, pets, sports, music, humor, school, and the weather.  Students chose to write about friends, family, and pets because they valued them.  They enjoyed humor, sports, and music, and school and extracurricular took much of their time.  As high achievers, they experienced stress in their school environment and in balancing very busy extracurricular schedules.  The weather was also part of their environment that affected their level of contentment. They wanted to be seen as unique people.  They also wrote about trips that they had taken, most often with their families, again emphasizing the importance of time they had spent with their families.

Autobiographies

The reoccurring themes and patterns found in the autobiographies are summarized below.  Table 4.1 notes the reoccurring themes and the number of chapters in which they occurred.  Many chapters contained more than one theme.


Table 4.1

The Number of Chapters Written on the Following Themes

THEMES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

Memorable Adventure/Trip

20

6

26

Sports & Extracurricular

9

11

20

Friends

8

8

16

Ancestors: Extended Family

12

2

14

Accomplishments: Awards, Math, Scouts, and Sports

5

9

14

Family: Parents and Siblings

12

0

12

Music and Bands

4

7

11

Pain: Physical or Emotional (sometimes fear)

9

2

11

Pets/Animals

8

2

10

Memories of Younger Years

7

3

10

Interests

2

8

10

Significant Place and Relocating

7

3

10

Working through a Difficult Dilemma (truth vs. loyalty; feeling threatened vs. threatening another; changing; standing-up for someone else; losing a loved one)

6

2

8

Future: Goals

1

3

4

A Day in the Life (a grocery list of what they do in one day)

1

3

4

Name Reflection

2

0

2

Likes/Dislikes

2

0

2

Spirituality

2

0

2

 


            Many of the same themes that were found in the student free-writes reoccurred as themes in their autobiographies.  Again family, friends, pets, and extra curricular activities were most often written about.  Many of the memorable trips took place with family members, again emphasizing the presence and importance of family in their lives.  Overall, most of the chapters were very positive, indicating that they were very aware of their audience as they wrote their autobiographies.  Since their parents would probably read their autobiographies, they might not have written about any negative experiences with their families. 

I did not expect students to write much about negative experiences, such as chapters on physical or emotional pain and difficult dilemmas that they had experienced, because I thought they would want to focus on the positive in their life stories that documented their existence for future generations.  Although most of their chapters covered much lighter subject matter, physical or emotional pain and difficult dilemmas accounted for 18 chapters, which was a significant number of chapters.  Through these painful experiences, students became more mature and learned about themselves and the world in which they live.

Melissa wrote about the pain she felt when a group of kids teased her for standing-up for her friend who was getting picked on.  This was an important event in her life because she had never experienced the sadness of being teased, and since she experienced it at the same time that her friend experienced it, she felt empathy for his pain as well.

When we got to school everyone was playing outside.  I went with the girls and he went with the boys, just like normal.  A few minutes later, I heard tons of laughing so I went to see what it was.  It was everyone laughing at Adam's boots.  I felt so bad I didn’t know what to say.  I didn't want to get in the middle of it, but Adam was my friend so I told everyone to stop making fun of him because he was my friend.  I was kind of popular (not to be arrogant), and to hear me say that about a dork was kind of shocking.  So everyone began to laugh at me. 

I never had been made fun of before.  Adam always said that it hurt, but until that day I didn't know how bad.  For the first time I wanted to cave into myself, into a dark hole where no one could find me. 

When the bell finally rang, everyone went inside.  Adam and I stayed outside for a while.  He thanked me for sticking up for him, and I told him that it was no problem.  That day I also felt real pride, not just the kind when you draw a nice picture or get a 20/20 on your spelling test.  This was the kind that meant something, the kind that you knew felt good but didn't know how good. 

 

Melissa's description of the painful feeling she felt when everyone laughed at her seemed so accurate.  She "wanted to cave into" herself.  The image she used was perfect to describe that feeling that she obviously knew well.  Although she felt pain after she stood-up for her friend, she processed the event and realized that she also experienced pride.  This pride was different than the kind of pride she had experienced when she succeeded in school; this pride was more meaningful because it was a result of her actions that affected another person for the better.

            Although the literature on student self-reflection led me to believe that students would probably write about very tragic and dramatic experiences, I was still surprised to read about Opaal's horrific experience when she witnessed a drive-by shooting as a child.  Opaal wrote,

I didn't want to think Ricky had been shot, but it was true.  His mother was crying beside him with his father and brother laying beside him.  They, too, had been shot.  I can't ever forget the sounds of the gun shots and the way his mother, Teresa, cried all night at our home. 

 

This little boy was Opaal's childhood friend.  Through this painful memory, Opaal learned a valuable lesson that Ricky taught her.  She remembered Ricky telling her that ". . . if I'm stuck to move on something to move on because I have my whole life to live."  Opaal experienced a lot of tragedy in her life.  Her father passed away when she was quite young, and she wrote another chapter in her autobiography about that experience.

The emotional pain that students wrote about often involved a feeling of fear.  Some students experienced a feeling of loss when they were forced to relocate.  Moving from one home to another and leaving friends behind was a pivotal event in their lives.  For some students this experience lead to growth and for others the reader is left with just a sense of loss because the connections with the significant place are no longer there, yet they wish they could return to that place. 

There were no entire chapters written on humor, a recognition of uniqueness, a questioning of authority, and an awareness of audience.  (See Figure 4.2.)  There were, however, a significant number of incidences were students incorporated each of these concepts into their autobiography chapters. 

Table 4.2

The Number of Incidences that the Following Patterns Were Noticed

PATTERNS

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

Humor

8

13

21

Questioning Authority

0

14

14

Uniqueness

4

4

8

Awareness of Audience Demonstrated

3

3

6

 

Although the female students also used humor in their autobiographies, the male students had more instances of humor in their autobiographies and seemed more at ease using humor.  

Humor. There were only a few students who attempted to write a humorous dedication, and two of them dedicated their autobiographies to themselves.  Todd wrote, “I dedicate this autobiography to myself.  Without my hard work and endless hours in front of the computer, this book would not have been possible.  Thank you [his name].”  Another student’s dedication to himself was “I dedicate this book to everybody who wrote it.  Were it not for Me, Myself, and I, this book never would have happened.  They really deserve thanks for this.  Thanks guys.”   In both of these cases, they are poking fun at the need for a dedication.  The other humorous dedication poked fun at the school in general when David wrote, “I dedicate this autobiography to my cousin Sara and Uncle Steve for helping me fine tune my sense of sarcasm.  I also dedicate it to this school for allowing me to make frequent use of it.”

Although most of the students wrote their dedications with sincerity, some of the students chose to use the spotlight for the purpose of demonstrating an appreciation of humor rather than an opportunity to thank others.

Questioning authority.  There were no female students who questioned authority in their autobiographies, but there were 14 instances where the males in the class chose to question authority, most often school authority.  The male students seemed much more comfortable addressing problems and noticed more problems than the female students did.

David wrote in his chapter that detailed a typical day in his life, "Finally I have English as the last class of my day.  It lasts from 2:08 to 2:55; there's really nothing more I can say about it."  Although subtly, this student questioned the authority of his English teacher.  This challenge became more obvious after considering the paragraph prior to this statement, which was about the classes that he did like and appreciate, only to be contrasted to English, which he can say "nothing more" about.

Jack devoted an entire chapter to what he has learned at his school and was very critical of his experience.  Jack wrote, "Maybe it's not the whole concept of school that frustrates me, but the particular one I attend represents the most ignorant, complacent, and futile world there is.  Quoth Jimmy, 'This school: An Exercise in Futility.'"  Jack's critical reaction to Central Middle School might have offended his teacher.  Being aware of that, he still thought it was worth saying, even in his autobiography, which would be graded.  He voiced his belief because he believed what he was saying was true and had a need to express himself and be heard. 

Audience.  Jack was actually very aware of his audience as he wrote his autobiography.  In his introduction, he wrote,

"An autobiography about Jack Meyer, this is going to be grueling."  I know that's what you're thinking, [clearly addressing the classroom teacher] but I won't lie to you.  It will be.  Try to bear with me though when you learn "Who I am," "Who's With Me,"  Who's Like Me," "What I Do,"  "What I Hear,"  "What I "Learn"," "What Happened,"  and "What Else Happened." 

 

Jack prepared his reader for his challenging views and was fully aware that his reader would probably not like what he had to say.  Still, he thought his message was so important that he risked offending his teacher.  He also suspected that his reader [teacher] didn't like him. 

David, also aware of his audience, found it necessary to give the researchers a "Special Limited Edition Version Author's Cut" of his autobiography so that he could be openly critical of his school.  He obviously did not pass on this version to the teacher.  David also believed his criticisms of the school were true and had a need to express himself, but he feared he might be punished if he offended his teacher.  The statement that he made above about his English class probably wouldn't have been in his teacher's version.  Not having seen the teacher's version, I can't compare the two, but there weren't many instances that I could imagine differences between the texts. David was the only student who developed another version of his autobiography for his different audiences, but I doubt the texts were drastically different.

Because David felt the need to create two versions of his autobiography, there was one version of himself that he felt comfortable sharing with the teacher and another version that he felt comfortable sharing with the researchers.  On the researcher’s copy of his autobiography, the title page had a picture of his face in eight different forms.  It’s the same picture, but it was manipulated in eight different ways.  It’s as though he was admitting that his image might have a different appearance depending on who his audience is.  David might have multiple versions of himself.

            I wouldn't have expected students to question authority in an autobiography because the audience for their autobiographies, namely their teacher and parents (the main authorities in their lives) would probably not be very supportive of their viewpoints.  Still many male students purposefully used their autobiographies as a forum to question authority. This could mean that some students (although David didn't) felt comfortable enough with the adults in their lives to question their authority openly in their autobiographies.  Also, it could be that they were not aware of their audience when they included sections that questioned adult authority.  This is, however, unlikely because there are examples of students directly addressing their audience in their autobiographies and students seemed aware of their audience based on my observations of them and their responses to the exit survey question that addressed this issue.  (See Appendix I, Table 4.7 for Exit Survey Results).  Or it could be that their need to express themselves was greater than the possible consequences. 

Uniqueness.  Both male and female students noticed their own uniqueness.  Karen claimed her uniqueness in general by writing, "I'm a bit different from your average kid, and I'm proud of it . . . ."  Todd was more specific about his uniqueness.  He wrote, "I have very different tastes of music, it is very unique, but I enjoy it and that is what counts."  Overall, students seemed to appreciate their differences from others.  Even if those difference might make it harder for them to fit into some groups, they celebrated their differences because those difference made them feel special. 

Self-Reflection on Identity

One would think that an autobiography would contain reflection on the self.  But there were only three students who directly reflected on their identity when they wrote their autobiographies.  Instead students wrote entire chapters about people and pets who they care about.  Instead, they wrote about personal achievements and extracurricular involvement.  But does this really say who they are?  For many of the students it is the closest thing to an answer we've got.  On the other hand, the fact that they cared enough about these people and activities to write entire chapters about them indicates that they placed a lot of importance on these people and activities and considered their own identities to be wrapped up and invested in these people and activities.   It is most likely that these people and activities played a large part in their sense of identity.

Students who attempted to directly answer the question, "Who are you?" struggled with this question but ultimately offered insightful commentary on their own sense of identity development. 

Melissa began her chapter “Who Am I?” with the typical starting point in a discussion on identity.  She wrote, “Who am I?  Only a few people know me really well.  Sometimes I even question who I really am, but the obvious is what I look like, and what I HATE and like.”  Melissa touched on several important points as she considered her own identity.  First, some people know her better than others, so there were multiple versions of her self.  This reminded me of David's autobiography cover page that included a picture of him scanned using eight different manipulations on the scanner to demonstrate his multiple versions of himself.  Second, she was not always sure who she was, so how could anyone else presume to know who she was?  Third, what she looked like said something about who she was.  And fourth, her preferences and aversions informed us of who she was.  Since she capitalized "HATE," her aversions seemed to be more important to her and say more about who she was than what she liked.  I was left with the overwhelming feeling that no one could really know who she was.

Jack seemed to be grappling with this same struggle to define himself in a poem that he wrote and included in his autobiography:

Who I Am

            You can call me lover

            You can call me dreamer

            You can call me speaker

            You can call me neither

            You can call me punker

            You can call me rocker

            You can call me stellar

            You can call me rebel

            You can call me roamer

            You can call me lippy

            You can call me vegan

            You can call me hippie

            You can call me Christian, straight edge, messenger, mad man

            But in the end

            I know who I am

            I’m a human being

            I’m a free person

The phrase “you can call me” could be read in multiple ways.  One reading might have suggested that Jack was giving his consent to being called a “lover,” “dreamer,” “speaker” and all the other descriptors that he used.  But the line, “You can call me neither” also seemed to say that he was, at the same time, none of these descriptors.  Jack commented on his poem by saying, “all the titles above describe me. I represent each and every trait.”  At the same time, he recognized that he "also wanted to tell everyone that I shouldn’t be stereotyped at all; I’m a person.”  He was also a "free person" who could not be easily and accurately labeled.

Jack went on to realize,

 

Recently, I’ve had a change of heart though. I’ve realized that I am not punk, I am not a vegan, I am not a rebel or anything else on the list. I listen to punk music, I don’t eat meat or dairy, and I don’t do exactly what someone tells me. That’s not who I am. I am a person. I simply practice these things. Who am I? I am Jack “El” Meyer. I’ve come to the conclusion that my autobiography isn’t solely about who I am and how I’ve become that, but what I do. 

 

He concluded this chapter by saying, “although some may always see me as the little wanna-be rebel, I feel a whole lot better being a, ‘doer.’” Being a person who acts and doesn't just talk about what he should be doing was important to Jack because he respected the act of doing more than speaking.

Part of Jack's message was to give the world a better idea of who he was.  He needed to express his identity.  He described himself, "If you must stereotype me, I am a punk rocker.  But I think I am a PERSON and I go a lot deeper than that."  He most closely associated himself with the "punk culture," yet he realized that people were more important than any concept or thing or image.

            Karen summed-up her identity with a quick list of roles accompanied by descriptors, “Now, I’m an Aerosmith addict, animal rights activist, above average achiever, curly-haired kid.  I’m also a daydreamer, picky-perfectionist, and an adolescent artist.”  She had a very strong interest in Aerosmith.  She valued animals and wanted them to be safe and cared for.  She gave us a physical description of what she looked like.  She told us some of her idiosyncrasies that made her unique: she was a "picky-perfectionist" and an "over-achiever."  She was also a daydreamer and an artist.  But in the end, the list wasn't that helpful in really understanding who she was.  Karen's list gave me an image of her, but I suspected that that image might change quite easily and that image might be dependent on her particular audience.  She might have come up with a different list to entertain a different audience. 

Karen, being one step ahead of the researcher, warned her reader that she has changed a lot in the past, and she continues to change, so this image of her might be outdated by the time anyone else read her autobiography.  This made it impossible to pin her down and say that she was any one thing.  Jack did the very same thing when he struggled to define himself as "punk."  They both recognized that they had the potential to change and to be more than what they had just described.  This also gave both of them a sense of security because they were not in that vulnerable position of being just figured out.  Neither one of them was figured out.  Their identities were more closely tied to the phenomena of "not wanting to be figured out" than to a list of personal characteristics, which would certainly be obsolete in the uncertain future. 

I have learned from Jack, Melissa, and Karen that I won't be able to walk away from this research with a definitive answer to the question, "Who are these adolescents?"  I couldn't lump them together.  How do they see themselves?   They saw themselves as unique individuals who didn't necessarily want to be figured out.  They were far too complex for that.  This alone said a lot about their identities and was an important finding.  There were, however, some patterns in their self-chosen autobiography chapters that said something about who they were.  They valued their relationships with their families, friends, and pets enough to devote entire chapters to them, and their accomplishments in extracurricular activities were also written about because they saw these successes as defining who they are.

Exit Surveys

The questions from the exit survey are followed by corresponding tables that summarize student responses. (See Appendix I.)  The exit survey, completed by 12 female and 9 male students and categorized by gender, provided further student self-reflection and feedback on the autobiography experience.  Student self-description and reflection on audience were particularly relevant to this study.

Student Self-Description

            According to student responses to survey question number three, the students most often described themselves as open-minded and friendly.  But even more than being open-minded or friendly, they found themselves to be and were unique.  Two girls self-proclaimed their uniqueness and three boys demonstrated their uniqueness with write-in responses that described themselves as "Iamtheman," "Smart-ass," and "Genius."  Giving unique responses and finding themselves to be unique seemed most important to them.  They were also using humor in their write-in responses.  I could imagine them laughing to themselves as they wrote in their responses and then sharing their answers with their friends after class, hoping for even more laughs.  A big part of their identity was found in their humorous expressions and knowledge of their own uniqueness. 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER V

DISCUSSION

 The main intention from the onset of this study was to better understand how adolescents view themselves.  I wanted to know them better after reading and analyzing their self-reflective writing samples.  The two research questions and the findings that relate to those questions are listed below.

1.  What themes and topics do adolescents choose to reflect on when asked to write their autobiographies? 

Writing Themes and Topics

Most of the students wrote about their relationships with family, friends, and pets, their accomplishments, their experiences traveling, and their experiences in extracurricular activities such as sports, orchestra, and drama club. They also wrote about physical and emotional pain that they have experienced, and they wrote about working through difficult dilemmas that required that they make a decision.  Most students wrote about these important people and events in their lives because they thought these experiences and interactions said something about who they were.

2. How do adolescents describe themselves when asked to write about their lives? 

Adolescent Self-Description/Self-Definition

When writing about themselves, adolescents described themselves as unique individuals, and they valued their uniqueness.  As unique individuals, they recognized that they had multiple versions of themselves, and they had the possibility to change.  Because of these multiple versions and their possibility to change, no one could really know them: they were impossible to pin down.  Although they wanted people to be interested in them, they didn't want anyone to completely figure them out.  They were far too complex for that, but there were some patterns that emerged. 

Researcher Observations

I also discovered during the course of this study that students had something to say; they had a message that they valued, and they wanted their message to be heard.  However, they often did not feel heard.  In order to feel heard, students needed something to happen (an action) as a result of being heard.  A verbal response to their message was usually not sufficient. 

I also noticed that students were very aware of audience, and what others thought of them mattered.  They had a need to be taken seriously, but they also valued humor and made frequent use of humor.  They wanted people to have trust and confidence in them and believe that they might have something to offer.  At the same time, they didn't care what others thought of them because they valued their uniqueness and didn't want to be like everyone else. 

Students also valued freedom and fairness but felt that they experienced a frequent lack of freedom.  Students often considered authority figures to be closed-minded and arrogant and questioned their right to dominate over others.  School was the most often authority that was referenced because school limited their freedom.

Forces Affecting the Study

This study took place within existing school curriculum that asked students to write their autobiographies.  Their autobiographies, attempting to capture their entire life stories, strayed somewhat off the topic of this research.  Their autobiographies were filled with required details, such as birth statistics and family tree information that really didn't further my understanding of who they were. 

Many of the students were so focused on telling their entire life stories that they didn't focus much on who they were at the time the study took place; it was as though they were being careful not to disclose anything too personal, leaving them vulnerable to their audience.  Instead they wrote about other people and outside influences on their lives and didn't focus much (if at all) on "pure" self-reflection. Some of the topics that students chose might have been chosen more out of precedence of what had been done years prior than because those chapters really spoke to who they thought they were.

Also, I was unable to distinguish between public and private versions of the self.  What I might have been seeing in the autobiographies of 8th graders, a group notorious for being insecure about what others think of them, was their public image of their self-perceptions.  Some of them might have been so conscious of their audience that they might have considered, what does the teacher want me to write about; what do the researchers want me to be; or what would please my parents to read?  It was difficult to gauge the affect that audience had on what students chose to disclose about themselves. 


Recommendations

The results of the observations here can be used as a basis for further study in adolescent identity development. The four following recommendations are designed for educators working with adolescents and should not be considered criticisms of Central Middle School.

1. Give students choices in the classroom.  Because students overwhelmingly value freedom and question authority, teachers ought to give students opportunities to make choices in the classroom.  As a result, students will feel in control of their educational experience and feel that they have an investment in what they learn.  Atwell's (1998) writing and reading workshops give students the freedom to choose which genres they want to write in and what books they want to read.  Students spend much of the class independently writing and reading.  The teacher acts as a mentor and resource to the class, works with students one-on-one, and instructs the entire class using 10-minute mini-lessons.

2. Allow all voices to be heard.  Students need to be able to express themselves.  Use student interest in an underground newspaper to start a school newspaper with an advisor that would teach students publishing ethics and responsibilities (assuming of course that the school could handle the extra responsibility).  Teachers should be interested in what students are saying and invite them to be heard within the boundaries of society.

Another way to allow for self-expression might be to encourage zines and underground newspapers. This forum would allow students to explore and express their own interests (Mee, 1997).  It would also be a good source for educators to use in learning more about adolescent culture.

3. Cultivate and encourage a sense of uniqueness.  Since adolescents value uniqueness, educators ought to teach students to see their own uniqueness.  Southern Minnesota students do not usually attribute "culture" with their own lived experience because culture is usually thought of as something ethnic and exciting.  But a student’s culture might include the memory of his or her childhood bedroom or any other memory.  Teaching students to think of culture in this way, validates individuals and their experiences as unique. 

4. Incorporate humor into existing curricula.  Since students value humor, incorporating humor into existing curricula would engage them.  In our autobiography unit, for example, we might have focused more on the role of humor in autobiography.  Humor in an autobiography might be used for the purpose of entertaining the reader, to make human vulnerability more palpable, to accept things that are difficult to accept, and to write about a process and accept embarrassing moments in a way that teaches us to laugh at ourselves.

Creating an Autobiography Unit

In planning a similar course, I would assign daily journal entries instead of the free-writes and have a fish-bowl in the room with question prompts in case anyone needs something to write about.  Students might be more receptive to the questions if they feel like they weren't being pushed to write about them.  Even though we repeatedly said that they didn't have to write on the prompt, they probably felt some pressure to respond to the prompt.  We could also ask students to contribute to the fishbowl by asking them, “If you could be asked any question, what would it be?”

Although giving students most of the class period to write, worked very well.  I would give students an opportunity to discuss their stories with their peers so that their stories are heard not only by the adults in their lives but also by their peers.  Students might read one of their favorite sections from their autobiographies aloud and briefly comment on it.  Even more informally, students could get together in small groups and share one of their favorite sections.

In student writing workshops, I would focus more on global revision than local revision.  Global revision refers to making larger, more significant changes: deleting and adding entire sentences and paragraphs and discussing content rather than grammar.  Local revision, focusing mainly on grammar and sentence structure, was focused on during the autobiography unit, but for our study, we might have gotten richer student responses had we spent more time on global revision. 

Final Thoughts

            It strikes me as especially important that we make students feel heard and valued.  Since they value the concepts of freedom and uniqueness. We should encourage them to be unique people and realize when we plan our courses that they want to be given the power to make choices.  Adolescents also value humor and are funny.  As we work with them, we would be doing them—as well as ourselves—a great disservice if we didn't take time to laugh with them (even when they're laughing at us). 

 

 

 

 

 


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Rainer, T.  (1998).  Your life as story: Discovering the "new autobiography" and writing memoir as literature.  New York: Putnam.

Roe, B., Suellen, A., & Smith, S.  (1998).  Using storytelling to help understand self and others.  In Teaching through stories: Yours, mine, and theirs (pp. 175-91).  Massachusetts: Christopher-Gordon.

Seltzer, V. C. (1982).  Adolescent social development: Dynamic functional interaction.  Lexington, MA: Heath.

Siegler, R. S., & Richards, D. D.  (1982).  The development of intelligence.  In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of human intelligence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Spalding, E. & Ziff, J.  (1997).  Mirror, mirror on the wall: Portfolios and reflections of young adolescent girls.  Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 20(4), 57-75.

Taylor, S. J. & Bogdan, R. (1984).  Introduction to qualitative research methods: The search for meanings.  (2nd ed.).  New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Wanner, S. Y.  (1994).  On with the story: Adolescents learning through narrative.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook. 

Walker, Z. & Townsend, J. (1998).  Promoting adolescent mental health in primary care: a review of the literature.  Journal of Adolescence 21, 621-4.

Young, M. W.  (1997, June).  Seeing ourselves reflected in our narratives: Studies in culture and communication.  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Montreal, Quebec.
 

 

 

 

List of Appendices

 

Appendix                                                                                                                    Page

 

A.   Assignment Specifications.............................................................................. 95

B.   Student Assent Form........................................................................................ 103

C.   Parental Permission Form............................................................................... 105

D.   Salt in the Soup................................................................................................. 107

E.   An Elementary Lesson..................................................................................... 110

F.   Free-write on My Name.................................................................................... 113

G.   Free-write Prompts........................................................................................... 114

H.   Exit Survey......................................................................................................... 117

I.   Exit Survey Results............................................................................................. 120


 

 

 

 

Appendix A

Assignment Specifications

 

The Life & Times of Sarah  Samuelson

 

Sarah Samuelson

English 8

March 20, 2000

 

YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY

            What kind of person are you?  How did you  become what you are today?  Why do you live where you live? 

 

THINK BACK.

            What childhood experiences do you remember?

            What ones made the deepest impression on you?

            What do you know about your grandparents? 

            Who was your first real friend?       

            Were you ever punished unfairly?

            When you were six years old, what did you want to be?

            What has been your greatest disappointment?

            What has been your greatest success?    

                       

When you write your autobiography, you write about what you know best...yourself.  To make your autobiography interesting, apply what you know about storytelling.  After all, you are telling a story, the story of your life.  Make you and your family, and your friends sound like REAL people.  Picture the action.  Be as lively and amusing as you can.

            Tell the truth, but never feel that you must write about something that is too private, or too painful to share.

            This is your story...you choose what to write.

Below are some ideas:

1.  My Ancestors 

2.  My Parents’ First Date

3.  The Day I Was Born

4.  My Wonderful Older Sister

5.  Likes and Dislikes

6.  Kindergarten

7.   Earning My Allowance

8.  My First Birthday

9.  My Favorite Birthday Party

10. My Family Vacation

11.  My Future Goals

12.  Summer Camp

13.  Christmas at Our House

14.  When I was Sick

15.  My Hobbies

16.  Socks, My Pet Cat

17.  The Day We Moved

18.  Making the Team

19.  What is Important to Me

20. Description of You as You are Now

           

These are just ideas to get you thinking. These are NOT your only choices.

 

YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY MUST INCLUDE:

Title Page:  A sample of this was given to you as a cover on this booklet.

It must include:

v     a title for your book

v     your first and last name

v     March 20, 2000

v     English 8

v     (You may include pictures, artwork, or other special things about yourself on the cover if you wish, but this is not required.)

 

Dedication:  This is on a separate page, right after the title page of your autobiography.  Since it is short, it would look better if you centered the writing on the page.  To do this, just hit the “Return” button to move the writing down.

 

Example:  “I dedicate this book to my parents who have given me all the          love and chocolate chip cookies a person could want.”

or:  “I dedicate this book to my grandmother. Thank you for all the information and the help you’ve given me.  Thank you for the wonderful summer days I’ve spent with you at the lake.”

 

Introduction:   Use the word “Introduction” as the title. It is before chapter one.  In it you give a brief introduction of yourself and an overview of what people will be reading about in your book (You have already written a rough draft).   This will be taking the place of a Table of Contents, so you’ll need to comment on the contents of this book.  This introduction will be about 200 to 250 words. 

 

It should include the following:

v     your full name and age              

v     your birth date

v     where and when you were born

v     birth statistics...length, weight, doctor  

v     your current address      

v     people who live with you

v     a listing of the subjects (chapters) they’ll be reading 

v     a one sentence lead-in to your autobiography  (”Lean back, relax, and enjoy the autobiography of....”)

 

A Family Tree:  

This comes before your first chapter.  You already have done the research on you family tree, now you will type this information into the computer program, Reunion.  I will show you how to use this program in class. You will need to design your own to fit the information you have.  You might, or might not, want to include wedding dates, but you should include birth dates,  death dates and  maiden names as much as you can.  For special concerns please see me to discuss this (adoption, a divorce leading to a lack of information about one side of the family)  Also you might wish to use your color coupon you received at the beginning of the year to have this printed.  Give your disk with the finalized family tree on it to a media center person.

 

The rest of the chapters:

THERE IS A MINIMUM REQUIREMENT OF FIVE CHAPTERS.  Each chapter should have at least 200 words.  The bare minimum for your whole autobiography is 2,000 WORDS, including introduction and conclusion.  That would earn you no higher than a C- grade, assuming your quality was good.  If you would like to earn an above average grade, you will need to do much more than 1,500 words.

                                                Guideline:

                                                A=  5,500 words

                                                B=   4,000 words

                                                C=   2,000 words

All this assumes that your work is of high quality. 

 

Closing: Use this as the title. As with the Introduction, this is also short... anywhere from 70 to 200 words.

In it you can include:

v     your future plans and goals

v     thank and credit people for their help (ex: your father for finding your baby pictures...your grandmother for help with your family tree)

 

WE WILL BE DOING MUCH OF THE WRITING IN CLASS OVER A PERIOD OF WEEKS.  THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE COMPOSITION ASSISTANT IN EACH CLASS.  YOU MUST FIRST HAVE A PEER READ THROUGH YOUR ROUGH DRAFT AND MAKE THOSE CORRECTIONS. THEN I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO HAVE BOTH YOUR ROUGH DRAFTS AND FINAL COPIES PROOFREAD BY US.

             

WRITING YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY:

            * YOUR WRITTEN WORK WILL ALL BE DONE ON THE COMPUTER IN CLASS.  We will be in the computer lab almost every day.  You should be writing your sloppy copies out in pencil outside of class and using the class time for the computer.

•You will need to have two disks with you, so you have a back-up of your paper.

------Do a Save As for the second disk-------

• Each chapter should be a different file on your disk , so you get the correct

word count for each chapter.

            * COMPUTER PRINTING.  This should be consistent throughout the book.  Choose an easy-to-read font and size, then stick to it.  You may vary the font and size to emphasize your text.  I suggest: Book Antiqua, Bookman, Courier, Chicago, Comic Sans, New York, Palatino, Times, or Technical for fonts and either size 12 or 14.

            * CHAPTER TITLES  When you start a chapter, type the title of the chapter  at the top--don’t hit any returns---just start on the first possible line.  Capitalize all the major words of the title. Do NOT put quotes around the title or underline it.  You should BOLD the title and center it.  You might wish to increase the size of the title to 14 or 18. For example:

                                    My First Time at Summer Camp

Hit the return twice after the title and begin to type. Indent five spaces--that means hit the tab key once--and start to write.  If you continue a chapter to a second page or more,  you do not need to repeat the title.  If you do more than this (quotes, art work or shaded boxes around titles), every chapter must be consistent in its format.  This will give it a finished and professional look.

            * FLAT MEMORABILIA WOULD BE AN EXCELLENT ADDITION TO YOUR BOOK.  Items such as old elementary class photos, family pictures, blue ribbons etc. would add interest to your book.  You may Xerox items.  In fact, if it is a “one of a kind” item, you would be smart to have the Xerox instead of the original.  I can make a Xerox for you.  Also, you can have colored xeroxes made at Kinko that are very good.

* BABY BOOKS AND OTHER SPECIAL ITEMS MAY BE KEPT IN THE ROOM RATHER THAN YOUR LOCKER.

* CAPTIONS UNDER PICTURES SHOULD BE DONE ON THE COMPUTER.   You need to do them on the computer. Print them all on one page, with some spaces in between so that they will be easier to cut out.  Make sure they are complete---I don’t know the names of the people in the pictures--you have to tell me: who, what’s going on, year of photo and ages, if appropriate. 

Example: “My sister Lisa, 12, and me, 3, at Valley Fair, May, 1987”

           

*  GRADING  There are a possible 250 points on this book. I will give a separate grade for meeting the deadlines for each two week writing session.

The grade will be based on:

            *  quality

            *  time and effort

            *  originality and neatness

            *  task management skills/meeting deadlines      

            *  quantity  (see guideline)

 

            *  PROTECTIVE COVER  This book will be too thick to use staples, or a sliding plastic binder to hold it together.  You will need to purchase a holder of some kind. Some suggestion are:  a binder, folder, or scrapbook,  Your autobiography must have a protective cover, and all items in it must be secure, not loose.

 

                         ORDER OF SEQUENCE:

                        *  Title Page

                        *  Dedication Page

                        *  Introduction

                        *  Family Tree

                        *  Chapter 1

                        *  Chapter 2

                        *  Chapter 3

                        *  other chapters

                        *  Closing

                                                           

DUE DATE:

March 20, 2000

DUE AT START OF CLASS

 

At this point, YOUR LAST DAY IN THE COMPUTER LAB IS March 17.

                                                                                               

 

 


 

                                                                                    Name_____________________

Checklist for the Final Autobiography

 

Turn this in with your book.

yes     no                                                                  

_____ _____ 1.  Title page is done according to the sample?

 

_____ _____ 2.  Same font and size was used throughout the book?

 

_____ _____ 3.  Book is protected by a cover?

 

_____ _____ 4.  Family tree is included?

 

_____ _____ 5.  Pictures are all labeled with who, what, year and ages?

 

_____ _____ 6.   Picture captions were done on computer and neatly added to

      page?

 

_____ _____ 7.   Memorabilia is secured in book?

 

_____ _____ 8.   Sequence is correct?                

 

                        TITLE PAGE

                        DEDICATION

                        INTRODUCTION

                        FAMILY TREE

                        CHAPTER ONE

                        CHAPTER TWO

                        REST OF CHAPTERS

                        CLOSING

                       


Is there anything I should know about this book--or be reminded of: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

How many words long is this book?  Spell-check will give you the total.

Introduction______                                       Chapter six______

Chapter one______                                     Chapter seven______

Chapter two______                                      Chapter eight______

Chapter three______                                   Chapter nine______

Chapter four______                                     Closing______

Chapter five______                                      Grand total___________

 

Please answer the following questions:

 

I am most proud of:

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

I though the most difficult part of this project was:

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The most surprising information I learned about me or my family while doing this project was:

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

If I knew at the start of the project what I know now, I would have:

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Appendix B

Student Assent Form

Dear Students: Please read the information below carefully and sign at the bottom of the page indicating whether or not you want to be a part of this study.

 

A study is scheduled to take place in your English classroom spring semester.  The co-researchers for this study are graduate students from Minnesota State University, Mankato: Jenny Corey-Gruenes and Jeremy Corey-Gruenes.  Both researchers are earning Master of Arts in Teaching (English) degrees at MSU, Mankato, and each currently teaches Freshman Composition at the University.

 

The researchers hope to learn about how students your age come to view themselves. They also hope to better understand the decision making process you go through when dealing with problems in your lives.  The researchers hope to learn this by having you write about your lives in the form of personal memoirs.  Personal memoirs are similar to autobiographies, but they are much shorter than autobiographies. 

 

Although you might feel uncomfortable sharing personal information with others, you would never have to share personal information that is embarrassing or otherwise uncomfortable for you.  Please know that you do not have to participate in this study and that if you are in the study, your identity will be protected when the researchers present any data or findings from this study.  That means that no one will know who wrote what memoir or who anyone mentioned in the memoir is.  Your grade in English will not be lowered if you choose to not participate in the study.  Classroom work will be the same for all students.  The only difference is that if you are in the study, researchers will use your writing and their observations of you as a part of their research.

 

The researchers think that you will enjoy writing about your own lives.  After all, no one knows your stories better than you, and telling your own stories can be fun.  Writing a memoir is different than writing a "report," and you have all the material you need for your personal memoirs in your memories.  Another plus with this study is that you will hopefully improve your writing skills while working on your memoirs.



Please print your name here:  _______________________________

__  YES
, I wish to participate in                  or        __  NO,  I do not wish to

       participate in this study                           participate in this study

                                                                                     

__________________________              ___________________________

Student Signature                                         Student Signature

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Appendix C

Parental Permission Form

Dear Parent or Guardian: After reading this permission form carefully, please indicate whether your child has permission to participate in this study by signing above the appropriate statement on page 2. 

 

A study is scheduled to take place in your child's English classroom spring semester.  The co-researchers for this study are graduate students from Minnesota State University, Mankato: Jenny Corey-Gruenes and Jeremy Corey-Gruenes.  Both researchers are earning Master of Arts in Teaching (English) degrees at MSU, Mankato, and each currently teaches Freshman Composition at the University.

 

The researchers wish to gain a better understanding of how adolescents come to view themselves (identity development).  They also hope to better understand the decision making process students go through when dealing with problems in their lives (personal conflict).  The researchers hope to gain this better understanding by having students write about their lives in the form of personal memoirs. 

 

Although a foreseeable risk in this type of writing is that students might feel uncomfortable sharing personal information with others, your child would never be required to share personal information that is embarrassing or otherwise uncomfortable for them.  The researchers will emphasize this fact to all students in the study. 

 

Rather than finding embarrassment or discomfort in sharing their stories, the researchers anticipate several benefits of your child's participation in this study. The researchers believe that asking students to tell their own stories is a good method of getting students interested in writing.  After all, no one knows our stories better than ourselves, and it can be fun for students to control how their stories are told.  Writing memoirs seems less "academic" to students because memoirs aren't "reports," and the students have all the material they need for their personal memoirs in their memories.  While students work on telling their own stories, they will also work on improving their writing skills through the assignments and exercises the researchers have planned.

 

Please know that your child is not required to participate in this study and that you child will not be included without your written permission.  Also know that your child's identity will be protected when presenting any data or findings from this study.  Your child may leave the study at any time if you or your child choose to do so, and there will be no negative consequences for leaving the study.  Although this study will be a part of your child's English curriculum this semester, your child's work will not be included in the researchers' data if you do not want them to be a part of the study, nor will your child's grade in English be negatively affected if they do not participate in this study.

 

If you have any questions or concerns about this study, you may contact any of the people listed below:

 

v     Andrew Johnson, Principal Investigator (507) 389-5660

v     Jenny Corey-Gruenes, Co-Researcher (507) 387-7740

v     Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Co-Researcher (507) 387-7740

v     Anthony Filipovitch, IRB Administrator (507) 389-2321

 

___________________________               ______________________________

 

Your Child's Name (Please Print)                 Parent/Guardian Name (Please Print)

 

 

__ YES, my child may participate in           or        __ NO, I do not grant

this study.                                                                  permission for my child  to participate in this study.

                                                                                     
______________________________     ______________________________

 

Parent/Guardian Signature       Date             Parent/Guardian Signature         Date

 


 

 

 

 

Appendix D

Salt in the Soup

            She was a medium sized woman in her mid-forties, stood about 5’3”, and had thin dark brown medium length hair that she always combed into a “chignon.”  She had delicate white skin, an oval face with deep brown eyes, and pink cheeks, and lips, and two rough hands always ready to work on something.

            Mother wasn’t the kind of woman who gave up easily.  My mother was the kind of person that everyone talked to when they needed someone to talk to.  Mother always talked to me about all these kinds of things: love, guys, marriage, hate, and all those things that I already knew about.  It seemed to me as if she never gave me any privacy.  She always wanted to know what happened in my life, every single day.  I felt that she was always on my case. 

            Mother and I had a lot of fun.  But there were also times when we had some misunderstandings.  I’d got her mad at me because of my inexperienced skills.  “Stop talking and keep working!” or “Watch what you’re doing!” or “Be careful with that!” are the words she said to me in the kitchen during the cooking hours.  At that time, she was always acting differently.  She treated me like a servant—just like she was to the rest of the family. 

            Being the 4th wife of my father isn’t easy.  Especially with my half brothers and my half sisters whose ages where the same as hers.  Sometimes, I think she married my father because she was a widow and had a child with her, so she thought that no one would remarry her except my father when he proposed to her.

            Mother was always busy during daytime as a licensed child care provider at home.  She worked from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and after work, she still had to cook us dinner.  I helped, but my help was never satisfying to her.  “When the meal is ready, one who does not come to the table and eat there, should not eat what is set on the table,” she said to my siblings and I one evening at dinner.  It was new to us.  But none of us dare say anything back because we knew that it was wrong to talk back to any older person.  Like a Chinese mother, mother always told us to eat more and more at lunch or at dinnertime.  And though we were full, we never dared to tell her so because it was considered an offense to her cooking.

            One night I asked her, “Why is this soup not salty?” She turned around and looked at me straight in my eyes.  “How could you be so silly?” she replied to me with the meanest look on her face I’d seen.  She walked toward me and opened the cupboard where she took the pack of salt and started to take spoons of it into the soup.  I felt bad at that time for being so stupid.  I did not think about that before asking her such a silly question.  I left the kitchen slowly like a dog would to get out of its master’s house after doing something awful.  That night, the best thing I did at dinner time was to eat the soup she made, to tell her that I was sorry and that I should have known that she just didn’t put the salt yet into the soup.

            That night, I learned to choose my words before opening my mouth.  As I grew up, mother was more into my personal life, asking me all sorts of questions about my day’s everyday.  Once in a while was OK.  But every night was like a nightmare to me.  “Why can’t you just stay out of my room and give me some privacy?” I said to her once, one night after I came back home from work.  She stood there by the door looking at me with the saddest eyes I’ve seen of hers.  Then, she slowly closed the door behind her as she left.  I felt even more awful--more than the night I criticized her soup. 

            I thought all night long, and that morning, when I woke up, I went to her and told her I was sorry.  But she just stared at the TV screen.  More than thirty minutes passed before she spoke to me.  She didn’t look at me.  “I thought that you would care to know that I care about how your day went . . . but I guess I was wrong to come into your room and ask you how your day went last night,” she said with a clear loud voice in her White Hmong.  “I thought that as your mother, I could ask you things like that like any mother would ask their daughter how their day went, but you . . . I should not have even bothered to ask you.  Maybe you would be the one coming to me and tell me about it,” she continued in broken English.

            I didn’t understand what she really meant by that when I told one of my aunts what I had done and said, she too looked at me with sad eyes and told me, “You’re very lucky to have a mother like yours.  Your mother is a very good mother.  What your mother tried to tell you is that . . . you see when she was your age, grandpa and grandma never took time to ask her how her day went.  They were always too busy to talk to her.  Your mother is trying to talk to you so you won’t feel left out like she felt.  They never gave her freedom like you have now.  She was always working in the fields, never had time to eat lunch!  Your mother never had time for herself.  ‘She’ never had privacy.  You, you do have some privacy.  You just don’t know that because you do things the American way.  It is OK to do so, but you have to know that you are also Hmong and that your parents and family are Hmong too.”

            At that point, I understood how my mother felt.  I also understood that what I did was so wrong. I learned how little things I said could hurt her so badly even though she never told me.


 

 

 

 

Appendix E

An Elementary Lesson

 

            Although the incident I describe below took place a long time ago and didn’t directly involve any other member of my family, it is the childhood memory that has appeared most often in my dreams over the years.  I think that means something.

 

*           *                                                          *

 

            The school day had expired, and I darted to my locker to double-check the contents of my duffel bag—T-shirt, extra socks, shorts, and gym shoes—and put on my jacket, hat, and mittens.  It was mid November, 1983.  I was in the fifth grade, and it was the first day of after-school basketball practice.

            School let out each day at 3:12 p.m., but practice didn’t begin until 4 o’clock; that gave us a good 30 minutes or so of “ice time” before practice.  Nearly half our school’s small playground area was flooded each winter to produce a skating rink. 

            Normally, my friends would play hockey after school, and I'd join them once or twice a week when my mom was able to drive in from the farm and pick me up before supper. Since we only had30 minutes that day, we couldn't afford the time it took to put-on and lace-up our skates, so we opted for boot hockey instead. 

            We played hard for about twenty-five minutes before someone wearing a watch announced that it was time to head-in.  I was looking for my extra puck when I heard a fight break out.

            “We scored three goals, you little dick!” Chad yelled at Travis just before slugging him hard in the nose. 

Travis, who had a propensity for acquiring bloody noses even when the air wasn’t dry and when he wasn’t being punched in the nose, fell quickly to the ice.  One hand holding his nose and the other covering his mouth, Travis tried both to hide the blood and muffle his crying. 

            Travis was a small, skinny kid who always looked twice as cold as the rest of us, despite the thick winter jacket he wore.  I suppose it had something to do with the fact that he had absolutely no body fat to help keep him warm.  He looked like a little leaf just waiting to be blown away by the smallest guest of wind.  He was a nice kid who would never have struck anybody.

Chad was tall and strong—the toughest, coolest kid in my class—and he struck anybody anytime he felt like it.  His temper was a bomb that exploded with no warning.  I’d witnessed Chad "go off" many times.  We all had.  It was an essential element of what made him Chad.  His authority was always the last heard—or felt—on the playground.  I’d watched in silence before, sometimes whispering, “that wasn’t fair,” or “he’s such a jerk,” to the victim afterward.  What else could I do?

It was well known that Chad and I were “best friends.”  And although I often cringed at some of his actions, I had welcomed his friendship.  Anyone would have.  He called the shots not only in our class, but in all the classes below us too.  Still, Travis had been kind to me since the day we met in Kindergarten, and in my heart I knew that he was more of a real friend to me than Chad had ever been.

            “Trav, are you OK?” I asked as I bent over him.  He nodded and I helped him up. The two of us walked together into the school while the others watched.  I helped Travis to the office and returned outside to get my puck, which I had left near the rink.

I found that the others had all gone back into the school, but Chad was still waiting for me outside.  He handed me my puck, and we walked to the school door together in silence.  I feared my face would give away the malaise that had entered my gut when I saw Travis bleeding.

            As we walked side-be-side down the hallway, I suddenly blurted out, “Chad, you can’t just beat up somebody because you think they’re wrong."

            “What are you talkin’ about?  That little wimp cocked-off to me,” he said.

            “Even if he did, that just wasn’t right.  And you know it too.”  I said.

            Chad abruptly picked up the pace as we entered the gym and walked toward the locker room door.  He reached the locker room well ahead of me, and that feeling of uneasiness grew stronger inside stomach.  I began to fear Chad for the first time just then, for I immediately sensed that the intentional distance between us meant something.  It could have meant any number of things, but I knew for certain that it meant I was no longer in his favor.  And that alone was scary enough.

            Not to be in Chad’s favor meant much more than just becoming some innocuous kid who hung out by himself.  It meant that you were on the other side.  You were an innocent outcast until some other putz took your place, and then maybe you would once again join the company of Chad’s partisans.  What else could you do?  Be miserable until junior high when your world became larger?  Learn the difference between solitude and isolation at a very young age?  You could simply refuse to participate in Chad’s games and hope that things would get better.

            I guess that’s what I tried to do.  And I did learn the difference between solitude and isolation.  Solitude is something chosen—a place or state that one willfully enters and that one can abandon if he so chooses.  I was in that place when I went for walks by myself as a child or when I would shut the door of my room and just spend the day alone, doing what I wanted to do, by myself.  But isolation is not chosen, at least not usually by the one who is isolated.  Your walk alone is longer than your walk in solitude; when you meet others, they either ignore you or insult you.  The door to your room is shut, and it remains shut until someone with a little more social influence than you decides to open it, allowing others to see you again.

            Being invisible in the fifth grade was tough, especially at a very small school where meeting new people was virtually impossible.  I’d like to think that I was being extraordinarily noble for such a young kid when I stuck up for Travis, but I don’t think that was the case.  That I verbalized my dissenting remarks to Chad was a surprise to both of us.  I meant what I said, but I hadn’t planned on those words escaping my lips. 

Maybe I could have gotten back into the ranks and been one of the guys again, but I never really did.  As time went on, I suppose my refusal to suck it up and be one of Chad’s docile little underlings became a decision I made as much out of stubborn pride as it was one of thought and reflection.  Nevertheless, I can’t say that I would change a thing.

__________

(1,183 words)

 


 

 

 

 

Appendix F

Free-write on My Name

 

You would think that a name like Jeanette Helen Gruenes would command respect.  The German last name and all.  But I want so much more from my name than the RESPECT that Aretha Franklin asks for.  I want my name to say something about who I am, and my name feels far too uptight and precise to completely define me.  Afterall, I'm not perfect; I slouch. 

My grandfather used to call me Nettie and that seems better to me than Jeanette.  All I can think of when I hear Jeanette is the brainy chipmunk that was a part of Alvin's gang.  I've always been brainy, an obnoxious intellectual even in Catholic grade school.  Standing underneath beautiful marble columns, I moved from pillar to pillar and described the difference between the Doric and Ionic column to classmates.  But I'm more than brainy.  The problem with my name is that it's Doric; it's plain; it has no frills; it has no curves; it seems more like a number than a name.  My name serves the purpose of summoning my attention when someone needs to locate me.  My sister Karen will yell in shopping malls, "Jeanette Helen Gruenes."  My first instinct is to duck; then I come running to avoid a second yell.  I don't want anyone to know this person with the hideous name.  My mother used to use my full name when she was angry with me.  So even today, I flinch whenever I hear the complete combination: the first, the middle, and the last.  Jeanette Helen Gruenes, when said in the correct sequence and complete combination, still makes my blood pump faster. 


 

 

 

 

Appendix G

Free-write Prompts

Day 1

v     Free-write about a picture.

Who was involved in the event?

Who were you at that time?

Why was that an important moment in your life?

 

v     Think of a story that your family has told or does tell about you when they tell funny or important stories.  Tell the story.  Is their version of the story accurate (if you can remember)? Why do you think they like to repeat the story? Why is the story important to you or your family?

 

Day 2

v     What is a bully? Have you ever been bullied or been a bully? Write about it and reflect on the experience. Use fake names if anyone might know the bully in your story.

v     Have you ever made a decision that went against your peer group? What was your motivation for this decision? What did you learn about yourself as a result of this decision?

v     Think about a particularly memorable or important argument that you have witnessed or taken part in. What was the argument about and how was it resolved? How did you feel about it afterward? What did you learn from it?

 

Day 3

v     How did you get your name? Who gave it to you? Have you ever been called a name you didn’t like? How did that feel? How did you deal with the conflict? Do you wish you would have acted differently? If you could choose a new name for yourself that reveals the real you, what would it be?

v     How do others see you? Define yourself through your mother’s eyes, your father’s eyes, your grandma’s eyes, your grandfather’s eyes, your best friend’s eyes, your teacher’s eyes, and most importantly your eyes.

v     Think of a character from literature, television, or movies that you relate to most. Compare and contrast yourself to the character. How do you see yourself in that character? Is the character how you'd like to be?

 

Day 4

v     Can you recall a time when someone else disappointed you? Were you able to get beyond the disappointment and still get along with that person? What does that say about your own values?

v     Who's the funniest person you know? Think of a situation you were in with this person that shows how funny they were. What happened? Who was involved? Is this person a significant person in your life? Why?

 

Day 5

v     What is uniqueness? How do you see yourself as being different from other people? Be specific.

v     Who has been the most influential person in your life (parents, teachers, family friends, relatives, etc.)? How has he or she influenced or helped to shape who you are today? Write about an experience with this person that shows how he or she has shaped your life.

 

Day 6

v     What is diversity?  Do you think you are a diverse person?  Why or why not?

or

v     Write about the most difficult decision you've had to make so far in your life.

 

Day 7

v     What is injustice?  Write about an experience you have had with injustice.  This could be when you've witnessed an injustice, when you've been responsible for an injustice, or when an injustice has been done to you.  What did you learn from this experience, and how has it shaped your thoughts and beliefs today?

 

v     Write about a bad decision you made.  Then write about the same situation again, but this time write it as though you had made a better decision.  Why do you think you made the bad decision?  What do you know now that enables you to see the better choice?
Day 8

v     Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karinina (1873) that "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  What did he mean?  Does your family experience support Tolstoy's statement?  Why or why not?

 

v     Tell about one time when you were in trouble at home.  What did you do, and what happened?  Why is this memory important to you?

 

Other prompts (we didn’t use)

We belong to many different groups (our families, extended families, churches, neighborhoods, peer groups, etc.).  Describe one of these groups and where you fit into the group.  Also consider either Part A or Part B.

 

v     Part A: Sometimes getting along within these groups is difficult.  Think of an incident within one of these groups in which getting along was a problem.  What caused the problem?  Who was involved?  How was the problem solved?  Or wasn't it and why?

 

v     Part B: What are some of the similarities between you and other group members, and how are you different from the group?  How do you deal with these differences?

 

 

v     What are some gender stereotypes?  Can you think of a situation when you were or were not allowed to do something simply because of your gender?  Describe the situation and your feelings regarding it.

 

v     Sometimes we associate certain activities with gender.  For example, many people associate the task of cooking with being female or associate the task of car maintenance with being male.  Think of someone who is close to you that shows himself or herself in multiple gender roles.  Describe this person and how they act in ways that do not follow gender stereotypes.  Do gender stereotypes have a purpose?  What have you learned from this person?

 

 

 

Appendix H

Exit Survey

Check one:

___ Female

___ Male

Survey

1.  While writing your autobiography, what is one thing that you learned about yourself that you think is important?

 

 

 

 

2.  If you could choose one word to describe you, what would it be? (examples: athletic, creative, friendly, funny, generous, spiritual, studious, open-minded, talented) 

 

            ________________________________

 

3.  What do you value most?  Rate each item 1 - 4.  (1 = the least valued; 4 = the most valued.)

____ Family

____ Friends

____ Personal Interests

____ School

 

Is there something that you value a lot that isn't on the above list? If yes, what is it?

 

________________________________________

 


4.  Rate the degree to which your autobiography represents who you are by circling one of the numbers below:

 

1

2

3

4

5

This isn't

really me.

Parts of this represent who I am, but much of it does not.

This "sort of" represents

who I am.

This mostly represents

who I am.

This is me.

 

5.  Did you find the "three minute worlds" valuable to you? (circle one)

 

YES                or                     NO

Why?

 

 

 

 

 

6.  Did you find the take home free writes valuable? (circle one)

 

YES                or                     NO

Why?

 

 

 

 

7.  Did any of your responses to the free write prompts lead to chapters or parts of chapters in your autobiography? (circle one)

 

YES                or                     NO

If yes, what were the chapter titles?

 

 

 

 

8.  Does your autobiography capture any conflicts you've experienced? (circle one)

           

YES                or                     NO

If yes, please list the chapter(s) below:

 

 

 

 

9.  Now that your autobiography is complete, who do you think is in your audience? (check the answers that apply)

 

__ The classroom teacher

__ Your family

__ Your friends

__ Future generations

__Yourself

__ Researchers (Mr. and Mrs. Corey-Gruenes)

__ All of the above

__ Other: _________________________________________________

 

10.  For what purpose are you telling the story of your life?  (check the answers that apply)

 

__ To use your experience to express injustices

__ To understand yourself better

__ To share your experience with others

__ To complete an "assignment" for English class

__ Other: __________________________________________________

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Appendix I

Exit Survey Results

 

The first section of questions are Likert questions and the second group of questions are open-ended.  The Likert scales use different ranges because of the nature of the questions and to increase the validity of the responses to the questions. The first question uses a one through five rating scale while the second question uses a one through four rating scale as described in Appendix I. 

Likert Questions

1.  Rate the degree to which your autobiography represents who you are by circling one of the numbers below:

 

1

2

3

4

5

This isn't

really me.

Parts of this represent who I am, but much of it does not.

This "sort of" represents

who I am.

This mostly represents

who I am.

This is me.

 

4.25 = Female Response

4. 0 = Male Response

4.13 = Total Average Response
2.  What do you value most?  Rate each item 1 - 4.  (1 = the least valued; 4 = the most valued.) Is there something that you value a lot that isn't on the above list? If yes, what is it?

Table 4.3

What Students Value Most

RESPONSES

FEMALE

1-4

MALE

1-4

TOTAL

1-4

Personal Interests

2.83

3.33

3.08

Friends

2.83

2.56

2.70

Schools

2.33

2.78

2.56

Family

2.75

2.33

2.54

 

Table 4.4

What Students Value Most: Written-In Responses

WRITTEN-IN RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

My Beliefs and Morals

4

3

7

Sports

0

2

2

Education

1

1

2

Myself

1

0

1

Pets

0

1

1

 


Open-Ended Questions

3.  If you could choose one word to describe you, what would it be?
(Examples include: athletic, creative, friendly, funny, generous, spiritual, studious, open-minded, talented.)

Table 4.5

Words That Students Think Describe Them

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

Open-minded

4

0

4

Friendly

3

1

4

Unique

2

0

2

Creative

1

1

2

Athletic

0

2

2

Talented

1

0

1

Interesting

0

1

1

Learner

1

0

1

Genius

0

1

1

Smart Ass

0

1

1

Iamtheman

0

1

1

 


4.  While writing your autobiography, what is one thing that you learned about yourself that you think is important?

Table 4.6

What Students Learned About Themselves

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

Family History and Memories

5

1

6

Writing Confidence Improved

2

4

6

Achievements

2

1

3

Personal Insights

1

2

3

Nothing

0

2

2

Future Goals Have Not Changed

1

0

1

Life Story is Important

1

0

1

 

5.  Now that your autobiography is complete, who do you think is in your audience?

Table 4.7

Students' Autobiography Audience

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

The classroom teacher

11

8

19

Myself

12

7

19

My Friends

12

7

19

My Family

11

7

18

Future Generations

9

7

16

Researchers (Mr. And Mrs. Corey-Gruenes)

8

7

15

Future Historians

0

1

1

 

6.  For what purpose are you telling the story of your life?

Table 4.8

Why Students Tell Their Life Stories

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

To share my experience with others

11

8

19

To complete an "assignment" for English class

8

8

16

To understand myself better

4

4

8

To make a collection of memories

1

4

5

To use my experience to express injustices

0

2

2

To express myself

1

1

2

To improve writing skills

0

1

1

 


7.  Did you find the "three-minute worlds" valuable to you? Why?

Table 4.9

Number of Students Who Found "Three-Minute Worlds" Valuable and Their Reasons Why

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

No

6

5

11

It didn’t help my writing.

1

1

2

It didn’t clear my mind.

1

0

1

It made me think of all my problems.

1

0

1

It was hard to think of something to write about.

1

0

1

It was a waste of time.

1

0

1

I wasn’t in the mood for it.

0

1

1

Yes

4

3

7

It helped me prepare to write during class.

2

1

3

I felt better after I wrote about my day.

1

0

1

I could write any way I wanted to.

0

1

1

Undecided

2

1

3

           


8. Did you find the take home free-writes valuable?  Why?

Table 4.10

Number of Students Who Found Take Home Free-Writes Valuable and Their Reasons Why

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

No

5

9

14

They didn’t help me.

1

4

5

They were homework

1

1

2

I didn’t like the questions.

1

1

2

Yes

7

0

7

I used them for my chapters.

1

0

1

I liked the topics.

1

0

1

I learned about myself.

1

0

1

It was fun.

1

0

1

I prefer to do them at home.

1

0

1

 


 

9.  Did any of your responses to the free-write prompts lead to chapters or parts of chapters in your autobiography? If yes, what were the chapter titles?

Table 4.11

Number of Students Who Wrote Chapters Inspired by Free-Write Prompts

RESPONSES

FEMALE

N = 12

MALE

N = 9

TOTAL

N = 21

No

6

7

13

Yes

6

2

8

 

 

Table 4.12

 

Chapters Inspired by Free-Write Prompts

 

FEMALE CHAPTER TITLES

MALE CHAPTER TITLES

"Addicted to Aerosmith"

"Who I am"

"Peanut and Queenie, My Pet Dogs

"Who's With Me"

"Brother and Sisters"

"Who's Like Me"

"Mom and Dad"

"What I do"

"Ancestors"

"What I Hear"

"Golf"

"What I 'Learn'"

 

"Clover"

 

"Memories”