One of the ideas that the ELA curriculum wanted students to get in this first unit was, how author background affects their work. I did like the particular piece they chose for this, Langston Hughes’ Theme for English B. It was a work that I was not familiar with, but it works well with upper elementary (5th grade) since it is made up of statements delivered in a first person voice. The biggest problem I had was trying to get the kids to understand that it was not “auto-biographical” but “semi-autobiographical” since the author was NOT from Winston-Salem, but Missouri, etc. but having facts to point to is easier to discuss, than more abstract ideas. It’s a good way to introduce perspective in race. The line in the poem about being the only black person in the classroom seemed to resonate even among my non-black students. I found this nice video of the poem on YouTube that my students enjoyed.
At the same time I was using the Pam Allyn materials, we were reading Bridge to Terabithia, and I found a great resource for author background AND purpose. NPR did an interview with Katherine Paterson and got some of the story behind the story. It is in written form at the link (edited and in an easy to read format), but I played my kids the audio, to get them used to this format for getting information:
Interestingly, she says one shouldn’t try to discern an author’s purpose (the title of the interview is “Messages Are Poison To Fiction”), but she does talk about some of what motivated her beyond the initial tragedy that the book depicts.
Image credit: Stockwell graffiti Four on Flickr