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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Ernest J. Gaines

Theme: The Civil Rights Struggle
Grades: Grades 9-10

In this novel written as an autobiography, a 110-year-old woman tells the story of her life, from her childhood as a slave in Louisiana to the civil rights era of the 1960s. Independent, loving, and courageous, she faces obstacles head-on, enduring tragedy and loss but never losing hope. Respected by both whites and blacks, she becomes a source of wisdom, strength, and solace in the midst of crisis.

  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Time Line.
    Guide students in creating a time line listing major historical events of the years covered by the novel, roughly 1860-1960. If necessary, prompt them with suggestions. Encourage students to add to the time line as they read, filling in other historical events mentioned in the novel as well as major events in Miss Jane's life.
  1. Linking to Today.
    On the chalkboard, list three or four concepts central to the novel, such as freedom, self-respect, courage, and responsibility. Invite students to define each concept, and then elicit their views on questions such as the following:

    • Do you think it is worth risking one's life for freedom? For self-respect?
    • How do people you know achieve self-respect?
    • What are the most courageous actions you have seen?
    • What do you consider your responsibilities to your family? To friends? To your community?

    Suggest that students compare their views with Miss Jane's as they read the novel.
  1. Worth 3,000 Words.
    Have students create a triptych—a three—panel work of art-illustrating three memorable incidents, large or small, from Miss Jane's life. Their artwork might be drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, or mixed media. Suggest that they accompany the triptych with notes explaining why they chose the events and how they created their illustrations.

  1. Tell it Like it Was.
    In all her many years, Miss Jane never experiences racial or gender equality. For this project, students will interview older people they know, asking about advances in racial and gender equality in their subjects' lifetimes. They will present the interviews as oral histories. This project will deepen students' apprecialtion of community elders and will add to students' understanding of the struggle for equal rights.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Invite students to discuss the strengths and experiences of older people they know well and respect. Ask students what they know about these elders' views and experiences of the equal rights struggle. Introduce the idea of oral histories, and ask students to list older people they might interview for an oral history anthology on advances in racial and gender equality over the past 50 years.
  • Once students have selected possible interview subjects, guide them in writing questions to ask. You might suggest that they begin by asking about race or gender bias that their subjects recall from childhood. Advise students about basic interviewing techniques, and direct them to set up and conduct their interviews. If possible, make tape recorders, cameras, and/or video cameras available to them.
  • Guide students in transcribing their interviews and adding a brief introduction to each. You might have them edit their material as lightly as possible; remind them that speech idiosyncrasies are part of their subjects' uniqueness and will lend flavor to the final anthology.
  • Let students share their oral histories with each other. Then have them work in groups to compile the interviews in an anthology.
  1. Breaking the Color Barrier.
    Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, athletes who broke the color barrier in their respective sports, are two of Miss Jane's heroes. Instruct students to choose one of these extraordinary athletes and research his life and career. Have them write a report and share their findings with the class.

  2. A Long Struggle.
    The novel refers to many incidents in the long struggle for racial equality in the United States. Have students research one incident that is referred to in the novel. In a report, have them share their findings: what happened, why it happened, who was involved, and what effects it had.