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. Ask them to use choice boards to respond. Finally, plan an exciting presentation for the end of the unit.
Teaching Biography with Short and Long Texts
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, was working with her student teacher, Mr. Grow. “It’s time for teaching biographies. 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
Ms. Sneed continued, “Kids love to learn about people from the past. Let them explore with short biographies.
“To whet their whistles, we’ll set up an interactive display of one-page biographies.” Ms. Sneed now pulled out a folder full of colorful texts. “Here’s a little trick some other teachers taught me. I simply purchased two collective biographies: Amelia to Zora and Akira to Zoltan. Then I took a deep breath and cut out all the pages. Some years I hang them up and let kids read the wall; other years I scatter them on a table. To preserve them, each is stored in its own page protector.
“We’ll set these up now. When the kids come in tomorrow, we’ll set them loose. At first, they can just explore. It will give them a fun introduction to the genre.”
Next, Ms. Sneed wandered over to her desk. Mr. Grow noticed a huge stack of picture books. “The second step is to select 30 or more books from the school library. I pulled these myself, but you can also ask the librarian to do it for you. These books may be short, but each has a reading level of 4.0 or higher. After all, we want to keep our readers challenged.”
She picked up a book and set it upright on the table. “We’ll arrange them like. Then we’ll invite our students to choose biographies and enjoy the excitement! This time, though, we’ll ask them to complete this handy printable.”
“Do you ever use the Chromebooks for this?” asked Mr. Grow.
“Sure! If you’d rather go digital, Duckster’s has a comprehensive set of biographies for kids. Mr. Nussbaum also offers over 250 biographies broken down into categories, such as Revolutionary War/Founding Fathers, Explorers, African Americans, Athletes, and even Pirates!”
Ms. Sneed dug into her biography file one more time. “Why don’t you take a look at these fun crafts? When kids work with their hands, they become more engaged in their biographies.”
Continue Teaching Biography with Longer Texts
Ms. Sneed paused for a sip of coffee. “I also like my students to read longer biographies. Some years we focus on a specific group of people and prepare a living history project. Other years, I ask the students to pick and choose Common Core-related activities from these biography choice boards. You can see that they also emphasize higher order thinking skills.”
“Hmmm,” said Mr. Grow. “What’s a living history project?”
“Well actually, it’s one of my favorites. This project lets you bring history to life! After researching a famous person, kids write monologues and dress like the people in their biographies.”
Ms. Sneed pulled a square page from her file. Her eyes crinkled. “Here’s an example. Actually, this is a picture of my own daughter. When she was in fourth grade, she researched Orville Redenbacher.”
“Formats vary from simple to complex. Just choose the living history presentation style that’s right for you:
- Classroom Presentation – Each child stands in front of the class and presents his monologue.
- Classroom Walkthrough – First, kids create tabletop displays featuring famous people. Second, they dress like those people. When the time comes, they stand next to their displays. Finally, the audience files in.
- Wax Museum – Students 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.
- Living History Presentation – For the ultimate experience, stage the presentation in an auditorium. Students (in their costumes) sit with their families as part of the audience. As a narrated slide show plays, each historical figure is introduced. Then the child “pops up” and presents a monologue.
“I can’t say enough about the living history 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 while you’re teaching biography.”
Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. The step that really made it fun, though, was to engage her learners. Organizing ELA units around genres connected concepts and kept kids excited about learning. In time, Ms. Sneed developed units for fables, fairy tales, realistic fiction, historical fiction, and mystery.
For more great ideas, follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed. Then you can learn to enjoy teaching too.