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February 27, 2013 Get Inspired With Biography Research! Part 3 — Design a Stamp By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Have you ever wondered about how the United States Postal Service gets ideas for new stamp designs? They actually take suggestions from regular citizens . . . like you! Using the USPS Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee as our authentic audience, I combined biography research, persuasive writing, and visual art to create my students’ favorite biography project yet. Read on for a ready-to-go three-step writing project that will also brighten up your bulletin boards.

    To get started with a biography genre study, here is a list of some of my favorite biographies to teach with, and for many more ideas about biography research projects, check out my previous blog post.

    Two students proudly display their finished stamp recommendation letters and artwork.

    Step 1: Pose the Challenge

    I like to begin by bringing in a selection of stamps to share with my students. I ask friends and family to save used stamps, so I have a sizable collection to pass around. Although stamps are ordinary objects, most of my students have never actually looked closely at them before. Exploring stamps as “artifacts” generates a lot of excitement — a great springboard into the project. A visit to a local post office further enriches things.

    I share this Weekly Reader article with my students, and I explain that the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) accepts suggestions for new stamp designs and subjects from the general public. According to the USPS webpage about the CSAC:

    Many of the subjects chosen to appear on U.S. stamps and postal stationery are suggested by the public. Each year, the Postal Service receives from the American public thousands of letters proposing stamp subjects. Every stamp suggestion meeting criteria is considered, regardless of who makes it or how it is presented. On behalf of the Postmaster General, the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee is tasked with evaluating the merits of all stamp proposals.

    Finally, I let my students know that they will be writing letters to the CSAC with their recommendations of famous people they want to be featured on a new USPS stamp. “You have to provide compelling reasons to convince the committee to put ‘your person’ on a stamp, so you’ll have to do serious research,” I warn them.

    Step 2: Biography Research and Letter Writing

    Well into our genre study, my students have read enough biographies to choose one subject to put forth as their stamp recommendation. I remind students to choose people about whom we have ample books and other resources — and who personally inspire them.

    I model how to take notes, only recording information that will be relevant for writing a persuasive letter. For my lesson about taking focused biography research notes and the “determining importance” strategy, see “Phase 2” from my blog post with biography project ideas. I also read the book I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff to the class, and we analyze the main character’s tactics for persuading his mom to buy him an iguana. After discussing the book, we create a T-chart comparing effective persuasive techniques and ineffective ones.

    Download this research note organizer.

    Then my students write formal letters to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, essentially five-paragraph essays that present reasons about why their person belongs on a postage stamp. They plan their essay-letters using this graphic organizer and choose “juicy facts” for the introduction and conclusion of their letters. I provide this template to help the students properly address their letters and follow the formal business letter format.

    Download this writing organizer for the stamp recommendation letters.

    A student works on writing his stamp recommendation letter to the CSAC.

    Step 3: Get Artsy With Stamp Design

    Share a bit about the world of stamp collecting and philately (stamp studying) with your students. Perhaps a stamp collector can visit your class — this year one of my students proudly shared his father’s extensive stamp collection. We also visit websites like The American Philatelic Society and Beyond the Perf, the online extension of the USPS’s philatelic publication, to learn more about the art of stamp designs. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum is another great resource for educational materials about stamps. They have over a dozen online exhibits about biographical postage stamps.

    My students plan and sketch their own biographical stamp design onto a large stamp template. They decide whether to use a rectangular stamp template or square stamp template and the orientation for their stamp. After sketching their design with pencil, they trace over their artwork using a black permanent marker. I emphasize that students should only draw large outlines, not small details. Small details will disappear or look too crowded when we reduce the size of their stamp.

    Josephine's original Barack Obama stamp drawing and her plate of stamps created from her drawing.

    Now for some technological magic! I recruit a parent volunteer to help each student scan their stamp drawing. Then, in Microsoft Word, they crop the border off the stamp, reduce the size, and copy/paste the image to make a plate of their very own hand-drawn stamps. The students are always thrilled when their stamp design becomes a very professional looking plate of stamps ready to color with colored pencils.

    MinSeo carefully colors in his Thomas Edison stamps small-sized scans of his original drawing.



    The students' finished stamp plates look beautiful hanging in the hallway with their writing.


    My students proudly share their work with their parents at our culminating "publishing party."

    Other Stamp Activities and Resources

    Let me know if you have any questions about our stamp recommendation project in the comments below. And if you have a favorite biography writing project you do with your class, I’d love to hear about it!

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