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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Book Club for Middle School discusses I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings within a themed multi-book unit along with three other stories: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

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Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

A Synopsis

Set in the 1930s and early 1940s, this first book in her series of autobiographies traces Maya Angelou’s life from childhood to young adulthood. Until the age of eight, Angelou and her older brother Bailey live with their grandmother in the rural, segregated community of Stamps, Arkansas. When the children move to St. Louis to live with their mother, Angelou is sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman is murdered the day he is convicted of the crime, and young Angelou blames herself. She stops speaking to everyone but Bailey, and the children eventually return to Stamps to live with their grandmother. They remain in Stamps until Angelou is thirteen years old. As a teenager, Angelou moves to San Francisco to live with her mother, spends time with a group of homeless teenagers in a junkyard, fights against racist hiring policies in wartime San Francisco, succeeds in graduating from high school, and becomes a mother.

Further Reading and Links

The following sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

About the Author and the Book

Explore the Setting of the Novel

  • Stamps, Arkansas — This page provides current demographic and economic information about Stamps, as well as several maps.
  • Segregation and Desegregation — This article in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas gives an overview of the history of segregation and desegregation in the state, from 1868 through the 1960s.
  • Maps of San Francisco, California — This site offers multiple maps of San Francisco, including maps of neighborhoods and the public transportation system.
  • San Francisco’s Cable Cars — This site provides maps of cable car routes, as well as a history and a rider’s guide. Other sites with historical information include the SFMTA and the Cable Car Museum.

Related Topics and Media

  • Abuse — When Maya Angelou was seven, she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This TeensHealth article explains the different types of abuse, how to recognize it, and what to do.
  • Poem: "Caged Bird" — This poem by Maya Angelou explores similar themes as in her autobiography.
  • Movie: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — A TV movie based on the book and Maya Angelou’s life was released in 1979, starring Diahann Carroll, Esther Rolle, and Ruby Dee.
  • Banned Books Awareness: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" — Despite Angelou’s acclaim as a writer, her autobiography is one of the most frequently banned books in the United States. This article explains why and gives some historical background.

Big Theme Questions

What is the meaning of civil rights?

How and why do prejudices against groups of people develop?

In what ways are people affected by prejudice and racism?

How do people begin to overcome their prejudices?

What was the American civil rights movement? What were the goals and methods of people involved in the movement?

Outline of Lesson Plan | Discussion Topics | Writing Prompts

The following section can be used to get discussions started in your classroom. It is based on the themed multi-book Lesson Plan within Book Club for Middle School. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for students that support the writing prompts. The writing prompts provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will certainly have ideas and questions that go beyond the prompts. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.

Chapters 1–4 | Literary Elements: Setting

  • What do you learn about setting (the time and place in which events occur) in this first reading assignment?
  • Predict how the setting might relate to the theme of civil rights. (Think about how the lives of African Americans are portrayed.)

Chapters 5–6 | Response to Literature: Characterization

  • Describe an important character you’ve encountered in the reading so far. Explain how the author reveals this character’s traits (provide details, sample dialogue, description, etc.).
  • So far, which characters do you like, dislike, have trouble understanding, or relate to easily?
  • How does setting seem to affect individual characters in the book?

Chapters 7–9 | Literary Elements: Point of View and Voice

  • Describe the unique point of view and voice of the narrator in the book. Support your response with details, words, and phrases.
  • In today’s reading assignment, what struggle or problem does the narrator face? How does he or she react to the situation?
  • How would the events be different if they were told from another character’s point of view? Choose one other character and describe a scene in the book from this character’s point of view.

Chapters 10–12 | Comprehension: Plot and Sequencing

  • Describe an incident or event that has a strong effect on the narrator.
  • What questions are raised in your mind by events in the book so far?
  • What statements can you make about the world in which the narrator lives?

Chapters 13–15 | Literary Elements: External and Internal Conflict

  • Describe one external conflict and one internal conflict.
  • What conflict seems to drive forward the events of the book?
  • What do pride and self-respect mean to the characters?
  • Return to the theme of civil rights. What inequities do characters live with on a daily basis?

Chapters 16–18 | Literary Elements: Symbolism

  • Identify and write about an example of symbolism in the book.
  • Write about the poem “A Black Man Talks of Reaping.” Connect it to the unit theme or to a specific incident or event in the novel.
  • How do the characters in the novel describe prejudice? Collect quotations from the book.
  • What is the most memorable or disturbing example of prejudice so far?

Chapters 19–21 | Response to Literature: Confronting Problems

  • The characters face a variety of problems and struggle to find solutions. Create a problem/solution chart in which you can keep track of the ways in which different characters respond to problems in their lives.
  • Continue charting important events in the plot of the book.
  • Write about a time when you were forced to confront a problem or a difficult situation. Compare and contrast your response to the problem with the way a character in the novel responds to a problem.

Chapters 22–24 | Literary Elements: Imagery

  • What images does the author use to help readers experience a scene in the book? Note specific words and phrases that stand out to you.
  • Explain any evidence of racism or racial tension in today’s reading assignment.
  • Connect the poem “Dream Variations” to a theme or idea in the book or to something discussed in class.

Chapters 25–29 | Composition: Personal Letter

  • Focus on your favorite or least favorite character. Write a letter to this person, explaining why you admire or disagree with him or her. Use concrete details from the text to support your ideas, and give the character advice if appropriate.
  • Review the predictions you made earlier. Have you been surprised by anything? Explain. Then make more predictions for the end of the book.

Chapters 30–32 | Response to Literature: Family Connections

  • Describe the importance of family in the novel. How are the characters’ experiences in their families both challenging and rewarding?
  • How do events bring family members closer together? How do these events strain relationships between family members?
  • Compare and contrast a relationship you have with someone in your family with a relationship between characters in the book.

Chapters 33–36 | Response to Literature: Characters Coming of Age Through Experience

  • Choose one character and explain how he or she has been affected and/or changed by events in the book.
  • What have you learned from events in the book?
  • Review the predictions you made for the final chapters of the book. Were you surprised by anything? Explain.