The Coming-of-Age Story: Discussion Questions and Activities
Connecting The Road from Coorain to Your Curriculum
What follows is a list of themes through which to explore the coming-of-age story. Each category includes questions and activities that can be applied to any story of this kind -- film, memoir, novel, play, or biography. Use them to study The Road from Coorain alongside one or many other works. Although the categories are presented in a sequence which loosely parallels the "arc" of many coming-of-age stories, they do not need to be followed in any particular order.
Each category also includes suggestions for personal writing. These, too, might be assigned in any order. They can be used to go into greater depth on one or more of the topics, or can be assigned by themselves -- for example, to prepare students for writing their college entrance essays.
Finally, you will find a grid, The Coming-of-Age Comparison Chart, that will help you organize a multiwork study of the coming-of-age story. The grid is accompanied by several questions and activities to help you use it.
Note: Though these exercises can be adapted to fit the length and scope of any curriculum, it may be best to limit your coming-of-age study to between three and five works. Because the study of several full-length novels or films can take a great deal of time, consider also including excerpts from longer works and/or films, as well as short stories.
In these exercises, "story" refers to the particular coming-of-age story you are currently studying.
The opening of a story must do more than get our attention; it should also present key ideas and themes that will be echoed in some way throughout the story, as it does in The Road from Coorain. Read or watch the opening of this story again after you have finished it. What did the opening set up about the story to come?
Personal Writing: If the story of your life was made into a film, what scene would it open with? What music might be playing in the background? Explain your choices.
Voice and Point of View
From whose point of view is this story told? How would you describe the narrative voice of the story? Are you sympathetic to this voice, or not? How does this point of view influence or affect the story?
Personal Writing: Try writing a short memory from your own point of view. Then ask yourself, "who else could tell this story?" and try writing it again from the point of view and in the voice of another person. Which version do you think is "truer"?
Turning Points and Major Themes
What were the most significant events in the protagonist's early life -- those that truly changed who he or she became? How does the story show the importance of those events? What recurring themes and motifs are there in this person's story? Choose one and explore how it is echoed throughout the story.
Personal Writing: Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Now give yourself twenty minutes to write down as many memories from a five- to ten-year period of your early life as you can. Try to place the memories chronologically on the timeline, though they might come to your memory in any order. Circle those events that, in retrospect, seem to have been turning points for you. When you have finished, look for themes or patterns that emerge. Write about one of these themes, patterns, or turning points and how it has defined you.
Who Am I?
In some way, all coming-of-age stories address the quest to define oneself. Writing in the voice of the main character in the story you are studying, try to answer as that person would if the question "Who am I?" was posed to him or her.
Personal Writing: Many college application essays ask you, in essence, to answer the "Who am I?" question, though it may be phrased differently. Pretend that instead of "selling yourself" as you would on an application, you could answer this question absolutely truthfully. Free-write your answer without thinking about it beforehand. Did you surprise yourself in some way? How?
Relationship with Parents/Guardians
Does the main character have "good" parents by your definition? How do they influence him or her?
Personal Writing: Write a dialogue that is typical of one you might have with one or both of your parents or guardians. (You can make this dialogue up, or write it from memory.) Have a partner read it and give you his or her impressions of what kind of relationship the speakers have.
What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change? What code or set of beliefs does the family seem to live by? What expectations does the family have for this person? Does he or she meet them? How does the character try to separate from his or her family? To what extent is he or she successful?
Personal Writing: Draw a graphic representation, or "mental map," of how you currently see yourself in relationship to your family. (This graphic might simply be names written on the page in a way that shows their relationships to each other or could include drawings.) Would you have created a different representation several years ago? Write about this change.
Jill Ker Conway says that one of the reasons for writing The Road from Coorain was to counter "the archetypal plot for women in Western society" of marriage and family. How many stories can you think of that portray men and women in stereotyped gender roles? Now examine the story you are studying: to what extent are the roles of men and women stereotypical?
Personal Writing: In what ways has your life been determined by traditional gender roles? How might your life have been different if you were the opposite sex? Compare your life in these terms with the life of someone in your family from the same sex who was born a generation earlier.
For many young people, their peer group becomes more influential than their family. How do friendships change this character? In what ways are these friendships a substitute or continuation of his or her family?
Personal Writing: Make a list of the people outside of your family who have been important in your life. Next, classify them in some way that makes sense to you -- by era in your life, by what they taught you, by their role in your life, or by contributions to who you are today. Finally, choose one person and write or draw a portrait of that person, with a description or a caption of your relationship with him or her.
In what ways does the character rebel, and what does he or she rebel against? How does the character rebel -- outwardly or inwardly? Does rebelling accomplish something important?
Personal Writing: Write about a time you openly rebelled against something, then write about a time when you secretly rebelled. How did you feel afterward? What were the differences?
Where Is Home?
How does the main character in the story you are studying define "home"? Is it the place the character comes from, or somewhere of his or her own making? What about this character's "home" seems to stay with the person wherever he or she goes?
Personal Writing: At the top of a page, write an address of a home, present or past. Now make a list of as many details of that place as you can think of. Use all your senses to describe what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell in this place. Then use Ker Conway's evocation of Coorain as a model and write an essay, story, or set of directions for a filmmaker about this place.
In her memoir Ker Conway provides detailed information about her everyday life. What films or books have you seen in this genre in which the everyday life of the characters is especially interesting or unfamiliar to you? What do you learn about different cultures from this description of everyday life?
Personal Writing: Young writers are often convinced everything they have to say is "boring" because their everyday life seems to them so routine. In order to see your own daily life with fresh eyes, think of a reader -- perhaps from some other part of the world, from a very different life, or even from another planet -- who would find your everyday life exotic. Describe who this ideal reader is, then explain your everyday life in a way that this person would find fascinating.
Romance and Sexuality
Almost no coming-of-age story is without this theme. How big a role does it play in the story you are studying? Do you wish it had played a smaller or larger role? How?
Personal Writing: What role would this theme play in your own coming-of-age story? Choose one person with whom you had a romance or on whom you had a crush and describe how those feelings affected you.
Community Beliefs, Values, and Stereotypes
Ker Conway writes disparagingly of the "Australian archetype" (created by the British and internalized by Australians) of a stoic people doing battle with harsh elements. Her memoir was, in part, an attempt to correct that perception. Where is the main character from in the story you are studying? How does it shape who he or she is? What values and beliefs of this community does the character embrace? Which does he or she reject?
Personal Writing: What is someone from your family, city, country, race, or religion "supposed" to be like? Who defines these stereotypes or expectations? To what extent do you meet them?
Like Jill Ker Conway, many artists, writers, and filmmakers first glimpsed the outside world through books, dance, or other art forms. What works of art were important in affirming or changing the main character's view of him- or herself?
Personal Writing: What books, music, movies, paintings, or any other works of art or scholarship have been important to you? In which did you see yourself mirrored? Which caused you to question yourself? Quote lines or describe scenes that moved you, then write about your reaction.
Political and Social Realities
As young children, we are sometimes unaware of issues such as gender roles, race, class, or other political realities. A common theme of many coming-of-age works is a dawning understanding of these realities. Jill Ker Conway reads Marx and begins to think about class; she studies Australian history and realizes it is written by Englishmen rather than Australians. At what point do the characters in the story you are studying begin to understand the political and social boundaries that define their lives? What incidents set off this understanding? How does it shape them?
Personal Writing: How would your life be changed if you were a different gender, race, class, religion, or from a different country? Choose a social or political category that you feel deeply defines you, and write about how it helps make you who you are.
The Outside World
In The Road from Coorain, the filmmakers show World War II as part of Ker Conway's childhood world. How does the story you are studying show how outside events change or define the characters?
Personal Writing: In the story of your life, what local, national, or world events would need to be depicted because they were important to you or your family? How and why were they important? Write a scene which shows the impact of these events in your everyday life -- for instance, the dinner scene in the film The Road from Coorain that shows the family discussing current events.
The Coming-of-Age Comparison Chart
Use the grid below, or one like it that your students draw themselves, to collect data about common themes, conflicts, characterizations, and motifs in the coming-of-age stories you are studying. As students read or watch each work, they should fill in information on each category. (You can add other categories as needed.) The information they collect could include observations, quotations, plot summaries, character descriptions, or anything else that would help them in recalling the specific details of the work. After students have completed the grid, use it to do one or several of the activities suggested in the Questions and Activities section that follows.
Questions and Activities
Memoir & Autobiography
Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown
An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
Out of Africa, Isak Dineson
Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick
The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
West with the Night, Beryl Markham
Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane
The Color of Water, James McBride
Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt
Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas
This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff
Black Boy, Richard Wright
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X
Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, Marion Dane Bauer, editor
The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
My Antonia, Willa Cather
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid
Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Native Son, Richard Wright
Note: Some of these films may not be appropriate for your class due to language, violence, and/or sexual content. Preview all films before recommending or showing these in class.
American Grafitti (PG)
An Angel at My Table (R)
Angela's Ashes (R)
Anne of Green Gables (not rated)
Anywhere But Here (PG-13)
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (PG)
Au Revoir Mes Enfants (PG)
Boyz in the Hood (R)
Brighton Beach Memoirs (PG-13)
A Bronx Tale (R)
The Dead Poet's Society (PG)
400 Blows (not rated)
The Graduate (PG)
The Last Picture Show (R)
Little Women (various versions)
Ma Vie En Rose (R)
My Brilliant Career (G)
The Outsiders (PG)
The Slums of Beverly Hills (R)
The Song of the Lark* (PG)
Stand By Me (R)
Summer of '42 (PG)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (R)
The Year My Voice Broke (PG-13)
*Part of Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection. See Shop for information on ordering this video.
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