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Grades 4-5 Lessons: Biography Studies
Four ways to breathe new life into the study of notable figures.
Digital Life Stories
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6; CCRA.W.7
Objective: Use technology to present information
What You Need: Variety of biographies, construction paper, Internet access
What to Do: Kathie Yonemura has put a twist on the traditional “read and write a report” strategy for teaching biographies by having her students use ThingLink to create interactive presentations after reading a biography.
In the application, students can choose any spot on a central image and add links to photos, videos, and websites, as well as to boxes containing text they have written. For example, for a presentation about Marie Curie, a student might feature a photograph of Curie holding a test tube and add a link on the test tube to a list of major discoveries the scientist made. Or, from a spot on Curie’s shoulder, the student might link to a photo and a short description of her childhood home. The links appear as small icons on the image.
“Different types of learners adapt the application to their own interests and strengths,” says Yonemura, who teaches fourth grade in Encino, California. “Traditional learners tend to insert short lists or descriptions they have written themselves, such as a few sentences about a major contribution the person made to society, while more visual learners tend to link to pictures and videos.”
Yonemura, who blogs at Tried and True Teaching Tools, has students pick out their own biographies to read. As they read, they collect notes in a handmade step book with sections for Birth/Death; Childhood & Family; Events & Characteristics; Contributions to Society; and Bibliography. Students refer to their step books and do additional research about aspects of the person that interest them when creating their presentations.
The process of creating the presentation, conducting research, and choosing what to include and not include reinforces what students have learned about the person. Plus, says Yonemura, “clicking, scrolling, and directly interacting with other kids’ projects helps students remember them.”
Two for One
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9; CCRA.W.7
Objective: Develop synthesizing and writing skills by comparing and contrasting biographies
What You Need: Variety of biographies at the appropriate grade level, chart paper
What to Do: Helping students learn to synthesize and reflect on themes is the focus for Cassandra Ernst, who teaches fifth grade in Shakopee, Minnesota. She has her students gather information about one person from two biographies, and then write about the subject and the themes of his or her life. Ernst uses a gradual-release process.
• She models reading one biography, noticing key information and recording those facts on a T-chart. She repeats the process with the second biography.
• Then, she guides partners as they move through the process. Ernst helps students choose books or articles at their reading level.
• Finally, she has students work individually to complete the same process, using two texts about another person of their choosing.
On the model T-chart, Ernst records information about four aspects of the person’s life: his or her childhood/early life, a problem he or she faced, the solution he or she came up with, and the life lessons we can learn from the person. Ernst then models synthesizing the information and writing a paragraph for each aspect of the person’s life. Ernst breaks up the modeling by having students turn and talk with their assigned partner to discuss key parts of the process.
“I find that having kids compare two texts on the same individual is a very powerful way to help them retain knowledge about that person and gain a strong understanding of the components of a biography,” she says.
Harnessing the Bio
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3; CCRA.R.5
Objective: Understand how a biography is structured
What You Need: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition), by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; construction paper; markers; Internet access
What to Do: Mollie Fitzgerald, who teaches fourth grade in Cary, North Carolina, uses the Young Readers Edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind to help her students understand that factual information can be conveyed in ways other than just with straightforward informational text.
Fitzgerald begins by showing students the book and explaining who it is about (William Kamkwamba) and where it takes place (Malawi). She has students research maps and photos of Malawi to gain a visual understanding of the country.
Then, she begins a read-aloud. Early on, Fitzgerald asks guiding questions to help students recognize that Kamkwamba is recounting events in the order they happened. She leads a discussion about why biographies and autobiographies typically have a chronological text structure.
As the read-aloud progresses, she has students create a timeline. This is posted on a wall, and they add to it during the reading. They also research major events on the timeline—such as the drought prominent in the book—to learn more. In addition, they research notable occurrences happening in the United States at the same time and add these to the wall. This helps them map the book to their own lives and increases their global understanding.
Also, early in the reading, Fitzgerald points out that Kamkwamba tells about the emotional effects of his experiences. Throughout the reading, students note their observations on Kamkwamba’s reactions and feelings in their journals, such as how he felt nervous about giving a Ted Talk, which he discusses at the end of the book.
After finishing the book, students watch the Ted Talk. Because they have analyzed Kamkwamba’s emotions about the talk while reading the book, they are able to notice the mannerisms he displays that show his nervousness.
To wrap up the study, Fitzgerald has students watch a Ted Talk that Kamkwamba gave 10 years after the first one (and after the book’s publication). She then goes back to the timeline and leads students in a discussion about the person Kamkwamba has become and how the events in his life helped shape him.
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2; McREL Visual Arts Standard 2
Objective: Express ideas about a book visually
What You Need: Variety of biographies, chart paper, various art supplies
What to Do: Another way to appeal to visual learners is to have students express themselves through art after reading a biography. This strategy can be used with a read-aloud or with biographies students read independently.
With a read-aloud, hold a class discussion after reading the biography. Ask kids to share their thoughts about important events, how they think the subject of the biography felt at different moments, and the words they would use to describe the person (e.g., honest, courageous). Record ideas on an anchor chart.
Review the anchor chart to have students identify a moment in the biography or an idea about the person that had a strong effect on them. Have them use colored pencils or another medium to create artworks that reflect this moment or idea. As they create their artworks, guide them in color choice, style, and content to best reflect the ideas and moods they are trying to convey. Then, have students present their artworks to the class, identifying the moment or idea represented and why it was chosen.
For longer biographies that kids read independently, have them take “drawing” notes in a journal as they read. After each section or chapter, they should make a quick sketch that captures an important moment or idea. When they’ve finished reading the book, guide students to review their drawing notes to select one to use as the basis for creating a larger artwork. Finally, have them present their artworks to the class.
Photos: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com (Curie); Hudiemn/Stockphoto (Computer)
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