I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot By the Taliban

Use the contemporary story of the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in order to teach the power of autobiographies.

By Elijah Ammen

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai was fifteen years old when she was shot in the face by the Taliban for standing up for the right of girls to be educated. Her story, I am Malala, starts with that life-changing incident, and then goes back to explain Malala's incredible journey in the few years of her life. She grew up in a rural district in north Pakistan close to the Afghanistan border. Her father was in education and his progressive thinking helped Malala advocate for education at a very early age. After the September eleventh terrorist attacks on the US, the Taliban were pushed out of Afghanistan and began to take over the northern part of Pakistan, setting up a reign of terror that forced girls like Malala to cease their formal education.
With the increased conflict, came increased boldness from Malala and her father. They began to speak out and petition the government to stand up against the Taliban. Even after Malala was shot and the family was forced to flee Pakistan, they continued their advocacy from outside the country, ultimately starting the Malala Fund for education advocacy throughout the world. For more, check out this powerful recent interview.

Cultural Context

As with most biographies, cultural context is crucial. Because Malala's stance for education and the conflict she faced were so tied to the social, religious, and political background of her country, she spends a lot of time describing the people and culture of Pakistan, and the Middle East in general. While many highschoolers might have a basic understanding of Middle Eastern culture, there is an incredible amount of nuance between different regions and people groups that an insider like Malala is able to clarify. Because she is sixteen, her explanations, while thorough, are easy to understand. Even though she goes through struggles that the average reader will never face, she also goes through the normal problems of adolescence, which makes her story very relatable. 

When your classes read through this biography, or any other, it's important for them to study the subject's background in order to understand the perspective of the subject. 

Famous Biographies

Because Malala's story is very accessible, it makes it a great jumping point to other biographies and autobiographies. Even if you don't have the time to invest in a longer text, there are shorter texts with biographical content. Sites like Biography Online are great resources for short summaries of famous people. This is great for compare/contrast activities, or for research projects like video biographies on famous historical figures.

Autobiographies are also great for book reports. It's similar to a jigsaw discussion where each reader studies one person in-depth and as they report back to the whole class, the overall knowledge of the assigned time period or culture grows. For instance, learners could be split between autobiographies like Elie Wiesel's NightAnne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girland Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place. Each approaches the Holocaust from a different perspective, but contributes to the overall knowledge of the group. Each presenter is able to compare and contrast his/her text as they listen to the others. 

Writing Your Own Autobiography

Reading biographies elucidates how stories communicate history and culture better than a strictly historical text. Having a subjective account helps the reader understand and empathize with what's happening. It connects the reader on a personal and emotional level—not just through objective facts.

Students need to realize that they are in control of their own life stories—that writing their own stories helps them learn about themselves. Even using visual representations, like life maps, are ways of showing their growth and progress. Life maps can even be used as a beginning-of-the-year activity in order to get to know new classes.

For pre-writing, there are a number of outlines and graphic organizers to help collect ideas for personal autobiographies. You can use rubrics and peer editing for an immediate critiques, or have writers add to their autobiographies throughout the school year and analyze their growth when they review it at the end of the year. For more structured writing, they can use the Human Organization Theory to write their autobiographies. 

The experience of writing an autobiography also helps as the young writers read more biographies. They can understand and empathize with someone like Malala, because they learn how even as a young person, they have the power to affect the world around them.