Kids love to share "me" stories. By capturing their natural interest in self, you can help them learn to be curious about others, too - all while promoting literacy, enhancing their research skills, and helping them get acquainted. At P.S. 24 in New York City, we paired our 1st graders up to write and illustrate each other's biographies. The kids learned a lot about the genre, and about each other. They also delighted us with their creativity and enthusiasm.
Stock your class library with biographies. To capture kids' interest, include anything from biographies about their favorite authors, such as Roald Dahl: Tell Me About, by Chris Powling (Carolrhoda Books, 1998), to those about famous "kids" such as Britney Spears: Real-Life Reader Biography, by Ann Graham Gaines (Mitchell Lane, 1999). Choose a segment from one of your favorite biographies to read aloud to the class. After the reading, explain your interest in the subject of your biography; your excitement will be contagious! On a classroom wall, post a sentence strip labeled "A biography is..." in large, bold letters. Later, your class can finish this statement with characteristics of a biography (e.g., a biography is a true story; a biography is about a person's life).
Ask each child to read at least one biography from the class library. As they read, encourage them to think about the kind of information covered in their books. Afterward, create and label a class chart to identify the types of information that can be learned from a biography, such as a person's birthplace, family history, childhood experiences, educational background, and events that influenced that person's life. Then ask children about the specific information they learned (where was Abraham Lincoln born? what was his childhood like?) and enter it on the chart. Discuss which details they found the most interesting.
Explain to students that many sources of information can be used to gather information for a biography, including family records, newspaper articles, eyewitness reports, and personal interviews. Ask them to share how information for their selected biographies might have been gathered. Afterward, tell students that they'll be putting together books of their own - the biographies of their classmates, which they'll research using the interview method. Model how the process works by interviewing another teacher or a student. Work with students to create a class list of interview questions. After completing the list, have students write each question on a separate note card, then pair them up with a partner to interview. During the interviews, have children write their partners' responses to each question on the appropriate card. Since they'll use these cards to organize and write the biographies, they should record responses as neatly and accurately as possible.
Once the interviews are complete, the writing process can begin. Help students put their interview cards in a logical order. After they organize their cards, have children use the information to write their biographies. When the final draft is written, ask students to illustrate each page, or leave space for photos that their subjects may bring in. As they write, remind your biographers that their goal is to tell a story about someone else. Encourage them to save any personal information for the author's page (see "Putting the Books Together," below).
Putting the Books Together
To assemble the books, have the kids add three blank pages to the front of their stories and one to the back. They should number their pages and staple them between two construction-paper covers. Encourage students to illustrate and title the book cover, inviting them to be creative with their titles. The first blank page will become their title page. The second should include a dedication and copyright information. The third is for a table of contents (children can use their interview questions as a guide to writing this). Invite students to use the last page to write a short piece about themselves as authors. Set the completed books aside for use in "Celebrating Our Stories."
Celebrating Our Stories
Host a party to honor your biographers and their work. To prepare, have children create invitations to send to parents and other classes. Then make a banner labeled with "(Your name)'s Biography Celebration!" On the appointed day, hang the banner, display your students' biographies, and set up a podium and book stand. After your guests gather, welcome them with a brief description of how your students set about writing biographies. Then invite each biographer to step onto the podium to read his or her work aloud. Afterward, celebrate their accomplishments with a round of applause and snacks.
Eleanor, by Barbara Cooney (Puffin, 1999). Gr. 4-6.
At Her Majesty's Request, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 1999). Gr. 4-6.
Girls Who Rocked the World, by Amelie Welden (Beyond Words, 1998). Gr. 7-9.
Anne Frank, by Rian Verhoeven (Scott Foresman, 1995). Gr. 4-6.
Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman, by Ann McGovern (Scholastic, 1991). K-3.
Indian Chiefs, by Russell Freedman (Holiday House, 1988). Gr. 4-6.
Marianne Fuscaldo, Robin Kruter, and Maria Tsahalis are teachers at P.S. 24 in Queens, New York.