Autobiographies — the stories individuals tell about their own lives — can be powerful teaching tools, and September is the perfect time to read and write them! Children's autobiographies are a wonderful way to introduce new classmates to one another and to give each child a sense of belonging. In this month's Writing Workshop, you'll find fresh twists on writing autobiographies with students, a pre-writing reproducible, and more.

Word Parts Lesson

As you begin to work on autobiographies, take a moment for a word parts lesson. Explain the etymology (auto: "self"; bio: "life"; graph: "write") and discuss how knowing prefixes can help you figure out the meaning of new words. Then invite students to come up with more words that start with auto- (like automobile) and bio- (like biology). Together, make a list of prefixes you know. Challenge students to work in groups to quickly brainstorm words that begin with that prefix.

Writing Workshop: Autobiographies

1. Starting the Writing Process: Modeling

When you start a new writing workshop with your students, the first person to write should be you! It's important for students to see you modeling the writing process. Start your own autobiography (using the overhead projector) and let the kids help you. The first draft should be general ("I was born in 1955 in Texas. I grew up, moved away, and now I am a teacher.") so that the class can help you improve it. Ask the children what kind of details are needed in an autobiographical story. How can you make it interesting for the reader? How do you make your story unique and special?

2. Reading Autobiographies

Reading several examples of first-person writing, such as Tomie dePaola's 26 Fairmount Avenue or Roald Dahl's Boy, will help your writers better understand the genre and will enrich their writing. Encourage children to make personal connections to autobiographies they read by having them keep response journals. Offer writing-response prompts to help them develop this reading skill:

  • How is the character like you? How is he or she different?
  • What difficulties did the person have to overcome, and how?
  • What are some surprising things about the person's life? Why?
  • Are there things you wonder about that weren't included in the story?
  • Can you think of something that you learned about yourself from reading this book?

3. Brainstorming Writing Ideas

Writing autobiographical stories can be overwhelming because the writers have so much material. Help your students focus in on the stories they want to tell with prewriting activities:

  1. Begin by brainstorming categories of real-life stories together. For example: you can write about your school adventures or your vacation, your siblings or your friends, about summer camps, after-school activities, scary moments, or places you've lived. Make a list of ten topics.
  2. Have students work in pairs to brainstorm ideas and record them. Choose one topic at a time and set a timer for one minute. In that minute, one partner will share thoughts and memories, while the other takes notes. When the minute is up, set the timer again and have the partners switch places and keep going.
  3. Repeat the activity for each topic on the list. By the end of this exercise, each child should have a list of stories to tell. Wrap up by having partners tell each other which stories they want to hear more about. Have children place a star next to possible things to include in their writing.

4. Freewriting the First Draft

Encourage your writers to focus in on the story they want to tell most rather than trying to write about their whole lives. Choosing a temporary title (such as "My Favorite Birthday Ever" or "The Day We Got Our Dog") can often help writers get started. When you work on drafts in class, help your students settle down to work with some quiet time or soft music. Remind them this is an "anything goes" draft and they shouldn't worry about spelling errors or getting everything right. Allow them to move around the room to find a place to write.

5. Editing and Revising: Making It Even Better

Before entering the editing stage, ask your writers to type or rewrite their drafts, making any changes they want. Give each child a copy of the Editing Checklist Reproducible, on page 70 (and below), to use as a guide through the stages of the editing process, from rereading their drafts to checking punctuation. It also calls on children to assess their thoughts about their own writing process. The Editing Checklist can be used for many different kinds of writing projects.

When your students have finished the checklist and made their changes, ask each child to make a five-minute writing conference appointment with you. You may want to have your young writers do a buddy-read — exchange stories with another student — before or instead of meeting with you. (It isn't possible or even necessary to do every stage of a writing workshop with each piece of writing.) Student writing and students themselves benefit so much from one-on-one time with a teacher. In the mini-conference, try to let the student lead. Ask how he or she thinks the writing is going. What problems has the writer identified? What are his or her favorite sentences? Try to focus on no more than one or two writing issues, so as not to overwhelm the student with too many concerns.

6. Publishing Our Stories

Getting a piece of writing ready for an audience builds important editing and presentation skills. As children are writing, invite them to plan ahead for publishing by gathering photos of their family or drawing illustrations. Review the front matter of a book so that students can add title pages, dedications, and publishing information. You may even want to brainstorm a great name and logo together for your classroom publishing company!

5 Great Memoirs for Kids

  • Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl (Puffin, 1986)
  • 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola (Putnam, 1999)
  • Knots in My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli (Knopf, 1998)
  • Celia's Island Journal by Celia Thaxter, edited by Loretta Krupinsky (Little, Brown, 1992)
  • Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2001)

Self-Portraits Art Extension

Bring art into your workshop with fun self-portraits. A portrait is another way to tell a story about oneself. Gather together construction paper in all shades of skin color, as well as different colors of yarn and twine. Then let your artists go to work. Encourage them to think about facial expressions. What faces do they make when they're laughing, thinking, or playing? For a gallery of self-portraits, give the students an oval template for the head shape.

From Art Projects That Dazzle and Delight, Scholastic, 2001.


Instructor Magazine Reproducible

My Editing Checklist

Name: ________________________________________
Date: ____________
Title of My Writing: ________________________________________

  1. I read my writing myself to see if it made sense. __________
  2. My writing is focused on one important idea or topic. __________
  3. My introduction attracts a reader's attention. __________
  4. The title fits the piece and gets a reader interested. __________
  5. I replaced weak words (went, nice) with specific words. __________
  6. I deleted unnecessary words by combining short sentences. __________
  7. I deleted over used words (then, and, so). __________
  8. I checked for correct punctuation. (. ? ! , " " ') __________
  9. I checked for correct capitalization. __________
  10. I indented or used a paragraph symbol (¶) to begin a new paragraph. __________

Writing this piece was: hard work______ not so hard______ easy ______
Editing this piece was: hard work______ not so hard______ easy ______

Next time I would change __________________________________________________.