I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Grade Levels: 10 - 12

  • Students will understand autobiography as a narrative form.
  • Students will understand the importance of role models.
  • Students will understand the interplay of poetry and prose in the book.
Marguerite Johnson, nicknamed Maya, is a product of a broken home and as a child is sent to live with her grandmother in Depression-era Arkansas. Her grandmother owns a large grocery and it is a solace for Maya to be a part of it. When she is seven, Maya and Bailey, her brother, are sent to St. Louis to live with their mother. While there, she is raped by her mother's boyfriend, and after his trial he is lynched. Her brooding is too much for the family to bear, and the two children are sent back to the grandmother in Arkansas, where Maya begins to realize how inferior blacks are considered to be. After Bailey witnesses the brutal treatment of a black corpse, their grandmother takes them to live in California. For a time Maya lives with her father in the South, then she joins her mother and Bailey in San Francisco.

One summer during their teen years, she vacations with her father in the South, and has a fight with her father's girlfriend. She runs away and lives briefly in an abandoned junkyard with homeless children, then returns to San Francisco. She gets a job as the first black conductor on the city streetcars. During her first voluntary sexual experience she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. Maya, always tall and feeling awkward, gains a sense of who she is and learns to make her way with the world instead of opposing it or shrinking from it.


  1. Discuss the importance of role models and how they can affect a child's life and future.

  2. Discuss the considerable interplay of poetry and prose in the book, recognizing Angelou's renowned poetic talent.

  3. Recount the protagonist's ugly and beautiful growing-up experiences. Discuss how a person's adult character is formed by them.

  4. Review autobiography as a narrative form, including such contexts as race relations, emotional development, and the difficulty of self-examination and exhuming painful memories.
Writing Connection:

Maya Angelou is an accomplished writer of poetry as well as prose. Her work examines many of the difficult issues of our time.

  1. For this assignment, instruct your students to write a piece on a topic of their choice. Encourage them in the use of figurative language, such as similes and metaphors, and symbolism.

  2. Completing the worksheet Writing from the Heart will help students develop their ideas.

Excerpted from English Teacher's Great Books Activities Kit.

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