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Thinking About Biography

Thinking About Biography

For being the shortest month in the year, February sure has plenty going on! Groundhog Day kicks off the month to predict the future; Valentine’s Day pops up to help us cherish the present; Presidents Day and Black History Month are dedicated times to remind us of and celebrate the past. Thinking more specifically about Black History Month and Presidents Day, we are celebrating people. Therefore, for the month of February, we thought we would spend some time thinking about the genre of Biography.
There are so many reasons to love biographies. There is a reason why Biopics are huge Hollywood blockbusters. There is a reason why the headlines in the daily news usually include a person and something they’ve done. People are interesting. We follow people through history and listen to their contributions and think about their impact. When we study these people in more depth, we uncover the qualities of change makers. We build empathy and understanding of why they decided to make change and how they did it. We think about their actions and it very well could shape the way we think and approach our futures.
When biographies are studied in classrooms, there tends to be a big buzz in the room.  Students love to become immersed in another time period, learn from someone else’s experiences, and get answers to questions about the past. Before we create curriculum to support students around this genre, it is helpful to consider some common beliefs that might exist.

Quick Tips for your Curriculum Development

As teachers of reading, we can think about these common beliefs to set readers up for critical thinking around the people that fascinate them.  Here are a few tips to support things that a biography reader can do.
Biography readers:
1)  Sort through the details. Not every piece of information will be 100% relevant to the reason why a reader might be reading the biography.  For example, most biographies will give common details such as birth and death dates. These types of details can help to set the time period and put some context into what was happening in the world at the time of their arrival. However, other details such as when the person got married or how many children they had may not always be relevant to understanding the big ideas around the person. 
So, in order for readers to navigate what is important and what might not be as important, consider pushing them to think about the big events presented in the book.  Set them up to examine why the author is providing that information. Then, push them one step further to include what they think the event really says about the person. That is where the themes of their lives will become apparent. As a result of this kind of thinking, a reader can see the traits of the person they are learning about more clearly. They might even make admirations and aspirations for something in their own life, based off of that person.
(This is a sample student notebook from reading a biography.  The reader organized their thinking by making  a column for the event they learned from text, another column to record why they thought the author included it, and a third column to interpret what they think the information REALLY means).
2)  Categorize biographies by the person’s contributions. When a reader picks up a biography and does the initial reading work of reading the blurb on the back, they will be looking for the main reason why they would read about the person. They might be looking for the type of biography it is. What categories do the people fall into? Are they activists, inventors, criminals, or athletes? When readers know the purpose for the biography, then it could make it easier to put together the influencing events in the subject’s lives.
3)  Notice the actions and interactions of the person. As readers, we study the person’s actions so we can learn their motivations, what obstacles may have been in their way, and how they solved it.  We study their interactions because their outcomes may have been influenced by other people whether they were an obstacle to them or a support. Set readers up to pause when they notice interesting actions or interactions and try to connect it to the bigger picture. Readers will need to ask themselves, “What does this action/interaction reveal?” and  “How might it have contributed to their successes?”
Here is an example of a teacher using Kaeden’s Cesar Chavez Graphic Biography (kaeden.com/collections/biography/products/cesar-chavez) to teach into the genre by reading a text aloud to students. This provided them with the opportunity to work on their comprehension through listening. In these images of the book, the teacher strategically designed a spot to stop and think with students about the interactions between Cesar’s family and a landowner. Cesar’s family was taken advantage of in a situation. Cesar later went on to be an activist so workers would not be taken advantage of.

Enjoy reading biographies with your students! Studying biographies with your students will remind them that people are fascinating! Perhaps they will even begin or continue to explore their own identity through text - just like the people they read about, they too, have a chance to create their own journey.  As you engage in conversations with your readers, start to make some lists. Find out the types of people they like to read about and jot it down. Think about the content areas for which you are craving more biographies and jot those down.

Next week, we will think about classroom libraries and how biographies can be a part of it! 
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