Teaching a biography genre study? Check out these ideas. No more boring book reports. Instead, bring biographies to life! Create an inviting learning center where students explore short biographies. Help kids select people they admire. 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!”
She pulled out a set of lesson plans and began to explain. “As you can see, we’ll spend three weeks on our biography genre study. To accomplish everything, we’ll layer it in three sections. The first two – reading, responding and research – are essential. The third – enrichment activities – can be used for early finishers or homework.”
Start with Short Biographies
Ms. Sneed continued, “Kids love to learn about people from the past. First, we’ll 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 when I’m teaching biography, 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.”
Next, Ms. Sneed wandered over to her desk. Mr. Grow noticed a huge stack of picture books. “The second step in teaching biography 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 organizer. It can actually be used at just about any point in a biography genre study. Additionally, we use it with our Martin Luther King ELA resources.”
Crafts and Projects
Ms. Sneed dug into her teaching biography file one more time. “Why don’t you take a look at these templates? When kids work with their hands, they become more engaged in their biographies. In addition to crafts, a double timeline, social media activity, and research pages are included.”
Continue Teaching Biography with Longer Texts
Ms. Sneed paused for a sip of coffee. “When teaching biography, I also like my students to read full-length books. I generally 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.”
For the Grand Finale – A Wax Museum!
“Now it’s time to discuss one of my favorites when teaching biography. This project lets you bring history to life! After researching a famous person, kids write monologues and dress like the people in their biographies. It’s a wax museum right in your classroom.”
Mr. Grow’s face lit up. “Hey! I did that when I was in elementary school! Cool!”
Ms. Sneed pulled a 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 this part of our biography genre study. 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.”