Yes, you can enjoy teaching biography! No more boring book reports. Instead, bring biographies to life. Create an inviting learning center where students can explore short biographies. Help students select people they admire. Plan an exciting presentation for the end of the unit.
Enjoy Teaching Biography with Short and Long Texts
I like to think of this as the one-two punch. Hook them with short biographies. Then immerse them in a longer text.
The beauty of biographies is the range of levels. You should be able to find multiple texts, each written at a different reading level, for many famous people. What does that mean? Instant differentiation!
Start with Short Biographies
Kids love to learn about people from the past. Let them explore with short biographies.
One-Page Wonders – Whet their whistles with an interactive display of one-page biographies. Purchase a collective biography or two. Then – – – take a deep breath – – – cut out the pages. I stored each of mine in a plastic page protector.
Biography Picture Books – Select 30 or more books from your library. Set them upright on the table. Invite your students to read, and enjoy the excitement! (I pulled all of these from my school library in less than 10 minutes. Each has a reading level over 4.0.)
Online Biographies – Go digital! Set them loose on Duckster’s comprehensive set of biographies for kids. Mr. Nussbaum also offers nearly 200 biographies broken down into categories, such as Revolutionary War/Founding Fathers, Explorers, African Americans, Athletes, and even Pirates!
To get kids thinking about their shorter biographies, grab this handy printable.
Explore Longer Biographies
Consider honing in on a select group of people. My students study Indiana history, so we focus on famous Hoosiers. Here are a few other ideas:
- Plan your biography unit around Black History Month (February) or Women’s History Month (March).
- Connect to STEM by focusing on inventors. Get some inspiration from books like 100 Inventions That Made History.
- Study people from a certain time period. When my class studies the Revolutionary War, I love to tie in these lively biographies by Jean Fritz:
Guide students to select full-length biographies at their personal reading levels. Ask them to consider their subjects’ lives more deeply with probing questions, choice boards, and/or bio cubes.
Probing Questions – Biographies allow us to tap students’ higher order thinking skills. Pick and choose from these probing questions to get kids thinking deeply about lives of famous people.
Choice Boards – You can let kids pick their own activities with biography choice boards. This set (available on Teachers pay Teachers) comes with basic and crafty boards to support Common Core State Standards and higher order thinking. To make your own, simply set up a Bingo-type grid, and add activities you’d like your students to do.
Stage a Wax Museum
What happens at a wax museum? Kids dress as the people in their biographies. They stand still (just like figures in a wax museum). Visitors come, press their buttons, and bring them to life. Then the “wax figures” tell about their lives.
Formats can vary. I’ve held wax museums in my classroom, in the cafeteria, and even at the high school auditorium. In my classroom, children posed around the room or stood in front to present. When we use the cafeteria, the lunch tables are folded upright to become the students’ stations. At the high school auditorium, a narrated slide show played in front, and as each historical figure was introduced, he or she stood from the audience to speak.
Preparing for a wax museum takes about two weeks. Move your students through these steps:
- Step 1 – List 10-12 important events about the person. Include birth, milestones, and major contributions.
- Step 2 – Create a timeline (optional). My class uses the online timeline maker from ReadWriteThink. Check out this review of the 10 Best Interactive Timeline Makers to find the one that’s right for you.
- Step 3 – Write a monologue. In first person, create a script of the person telling about his or her life. (For greater success, keep monologue under one page and use fewer dates.)
- Step 4 – Plan a costume. Ask friends and neighbors to help with props. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, head to the thrift shop.
- Step 5 – Memorize the monologue.
- Step 6 – Practice in front of the class. (We do this with no costumes. I hold written monologues and cue students as needed. If they can’t get through it without the script, I have them practice with another student until they’re ready. Then we try again.)
- Step 7 – Make buttons.
- Step 8 – Show time!
I can’t say enough about the wax museum project. Kids love it! And it’s full of instructional power. Kids read, research, create timelines, write in first person, memorize, practice public speaking skills, and more. The excitement and confidence-building of the program are magical. I hope you’ll try it.
I post new ideas, activities, and free downloads every week. Click here for an index (and to see what’s coming soon!)
Enjoy teaching biography!