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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Teaching Approaches

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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 intelligence—insists 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 Maya’s decision not to memorize a scene from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice reveal about Momma’s attitudes towards race? What does it say about Maya’s awareness of race? To what extent are Maya’s literary tastes shaped by her cultural background?
  • For discussion: What is Maya’s opinion of Shakespeare? What works of his does she particularly like, and why? 
  • For discussion: Read a selected passage from a work of literature that inspires Maya in her maturation. (Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” is an ideal candidate, given its brevity and importance to Maya.) Does Caged Bird share anything in common with this other text? What similarities or differences do you see in form, style, and subject matter with Angelou’s story? Choose one literary allusion in Caged Bird and analyze its relation to this passage.

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings often depicts men as either neglectful, physically weak, ineffectual, or dangerous. What do these descriptions reveal about Maya’s anxieties towards men? What do the events of the final two chapters reveal about Maya’s views and feelings towards men?
  • Angelou wrote a poem titled “Those Who Ban Books” in response to censorship of Caged Bird. What is Angelou’s tone in the poem? What does this poem reveal about her views towards censorship?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Content Notice: This text depicts racism and instances of graphic sexual violence.

Difficult Thematic Content Related to Maya’s Rape:In chapters 11 and 12, the eight-year-old Maya is sexually assaulted and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman is tried, jailed, released, and presumably murdered shortly thereafter. For Maya, this series of events is painful and psychologically damaging. The content of these chapters will likely disturb many students.

  • What to do: As your class covers this section of the book, be aware of the varied life experiences of your students.
  • What to do: Discuss the difficulties that students may encounter while reading chapters 11 and 12. Discuss why the author decided to depict these events, their centrality to Maya’s development, and their impact on the people around her.
  • What to do: After reading this section, give students time to write reflectively what they’ve read. Grant them the choice to share or not share their responses.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the book.

Focus on poems in relation to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” (1983) and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” (1899)—which inspired the title of Angelou’s memoir—are both poems that deal with oppression, racism, and the desire for freedom. Have students read and analyze both poems in relation to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ask students why they think Angelou used a line from Dunbar’s poem for her memoir’s title, and what significance the line may have. Furthermore, ask students what they think Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” is trying to communicate. Encourage students to find a unifying theme across the two poems and the memoir.

Focus on self-awareness and maturation. Have students identify major, life-changing points in Angelou’s memoir, and describe how each point affects Maya’s outlook on the world and her actions and behaviors. Talk with students about how trauma influences Maya’s development from her youth to her teens. Ask students how Maya’s self-awareness and understanding of the world change as she grows older. Have students find examples of heightened self-awareness in the book and write about a time in which their own awareness of themselves expanded.

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