I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Teaching Approaches
by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings book cover
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Teaching Approaches

Studying Angelou’s Style: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is both a bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story—and a künstlerroman—an artist’s origin story. Over the course of the memoir, readers see the laying of Anglou’s literary foundation. As a result, the book is both a document of Angelou’s artistic journey as well as a stage for her artistry. Much of the critical discussion around I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has addressed Angelou’s style. To many, Angelou breathes life into the memoir form, bringing a poetic and literary flourish to real-life events. To others, Angelou’s style is a hindrance to the story, with mixed metaphors and cumbersome syntax. As a class, analyze, evaluate, and discuss the stylistic qualities of Angelou’s writing, all the while considering how these qualities inform your reading of the text as a whole.

  • For discussion: How would you characterize Angelou’s style? Which devices does she use most prominently? Are there any qualities that set Angelou’s style apart from other novels or memoirs you’ve read? If so, what are they?
  • For discussion: Select a passage from the text, ideally one page in length. As a class, read the passage out loud. Drawing upon the passage, analyze Angelou’s employment of imagery, metaphor and simile, sentence structure, rhyme, and any other relevant stylistic elements. Which elements are effective, and why? Which elements are less effective, and why?
  • For discussion: How does Angelou’s vocation as a poet and writer inform your reading of her prose style? How does her prose style inform your reading of her journey as an artist?

Community and Displacement: Community and displacement are important forces in Angelou’s autobiography. As described in the opening lines of the first chapter, Maya and Bailey are sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, via train, with identification tags attached to their clothing as if they were luggage. They move several more times, joining their mother, Vivian, in St. Louis and then returning to Stamps. As adolescents, Maya and Bailey move to California, where Maya lives with her mother and father and for a time is homeless and lives in a junkyard. With little familial stability and an ever-changing definition of what or where “home” is, Maya struggles to find a place where she feels she belongs. 

  • For discussion: What communities nurture Maya during her childhood? Which communities are less supportive? For the communities that nurtured Maya, what about them do you think helped her, and why?
  • For discussion: From experiencing constant home displacement as a child to witnessing the effects of segregation in Stamps, what role does displacement play in the book? What role does environment play in human development?
  • For discussion: Maya undergoes severe displacement when she is homeless. What does Maya seem to learn from this experience? How does this displacement help her grow as a person? How does she view humanity and her relationships with others after this experience? 
  • For discussion: Describe Maya’s evolving feelings about San Francisco. What does Maya learn about racism and life while living there? What is it about the city that shows her this? How does World War II affect the city and, consequently, her view of race and community?

Theme of the Power of Literature: Growing up, Maya is passionate about literature. She especially loves the works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and William Shakespeare, and she reads children’s novels with her brother. In the wake of Maya’s rape and Mr. Freeman’s trial, Maya stops speaking. Her silence is broken five years later when Mrs. Flowers—a woman whom Maya admires for her beauty, disposition, and intelligenceinsists that Maya read poetry aloud. At this request Maya begins to speak again. Mrs. Flowers inspires Maya through literature, which remains a central force in Maya’s life throughout the book. 

  • For discussion: What does...

(The entire section is 1,306 words.)