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February 7, 2013 Black History Month and Presidents' Day Biography Reports By Genia Connell
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    February is a month filled with opportunities to both educate and celebrate. It’s also the perfect opportunity for teaching my 3rd graders how to research, take notes, and write a short report on the life and accomplishments of someone who has made a positive difference in the world.


    Getting Started

    My 3rd graders are definitely novices when it comes to doing research and writing a report, so I take them through the process step-by-step. We do a great deal of sitting on the carpet together and discussing each element of the project, including all the hows and whys of report writing.  

    As I work with my children, a great resource that I use is Scholastic’s Biography Writer’s Workshop with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, part of the Writing with Writers series. While older students are able to use the workshop independently, I find that this provides wonderful tips and structure that I can use to guide my students through their writing.



    Using chart paper, my class brainstorms a list of people they know who have made a difference. They know our focus is Black History Month and Presidents' Day when they volunteer names. I tell my class they are going to do a research report on someone on the list. Students collaborate and research with partners, but everyone writes their own report.


    Have Students Choose a Person of Interest

    Whenever we do a research type project, I always let students choose their own topic, which seems to translate into a personal connection and more ownership. Students choose their people on a first come, first served basis, and their names are written next to the person they are studying. This makes it easy for everyone to see who their partner is, and I can keep track of who is studying whom.


    Gather Resources


    Over the years, I have collected a large number of biographies in a wide range of reading levels in our classroom library and on Storia that we dig into for these reports. I also bring in books from our school library and the local public library. Because students need to fully understand the information in order to put it in a report, I prefer them to use books that are at or even below their independent reading levels. 


    I never give my 3rd graders free rein of the Internet for research purposes. Instead I work with them, normally with me typing the words into the search engine after we have decided on the search terms. I always add the words “for kids” at the end of my search to minimize the chances of something inappropriate popping up. For example: Frederick Douglass biography for kids.

    One of the best and most kid-friendly sites I’ve found for info is Scholastic’s Black History Month: Everything You Need. This site has a great deal of the information that my students are looking for, and it is the one site I feel completely comfortable letting my children explore independently.


    Take Notes

    The length of the different resources we use varies. My students learn that they need to skim books and longer articles for information, seeking out key words. Shorter picture books can easily be read in their entirety.

    Notes are put on a note-taking organizer I created. Scholastic also has a very good graphic organizer that I have used in the past.


    Write the Report

    My 3rd graders are just starting to get familiar with paragraph writing, and I find that teaching them a formula approach is the easiest way to go. Our report consists of only five paragraphs:

    • Introduction: Tell your audience whom you are writing about, when and where they lived, and what they did to make a difference in the world.
    • Childhood: Tell what this person’s childhood was like. Include information about their family, education, and any obstacles they had to overcome such as poverty, slavery, or discrimination.
    • How Did They Make a Difference? I tell my kids that this paragraph is the meat of their report. In this paragraph students write about the major accomplishments made by the person they are studying.
    • Character Traits: All year long we keep going back to our study of character traits that we created earlier in the year. Students decide what two or three traits their person had, and they write about how they helped them succeed in life.
    • Closing: This paragraph wraps it all up with students' reiterating what their person did and what lessons can be learned from them.

    Sticking with the formula approach, they write paragraphs with an introductory sentence, three detail sentences, and a closing sentence. Following writing, partners proofread and help with editing, and I proofread and conference with each student as well.

    The final step is for students to type their reports. Afterward, I show them how to insert pictures into text and use borders and text wrapping.


    Put It All Together in a Fun Package

    Whenever we do reports in the 3rd grade, I like the students to present them in a fun, creative way.

    For these reports my students created a mini version of their person out of construction paper.

    The kids found the heads in an image search, and I showed them how to copy them onto a Word document and make them “life-sized.”

    The report went front and center and additional pictures they wanted to use went inside the jackets. 




    Add a Time Line

    My 3rd graders chose five major events from their person’s life and put them on a time line made out of construction paper. Because they are used to traditional number lines, the trickiest part for my students was placing dates in the correct place on the continuum. We did one complete time line together and the modeling was a must. Most students made the time line a “belt,” while others put it on a necktie for a “TIE-m line,” which they thought was pretty clever.


    Display the Project Proudly

    I will say, my boys and girls loved their biography people. In fact, while they were working on them, they took great joy in setting them up in different spots all around the room. I found them seated on our couch and around our reading table, in bean bag chairs, and even in the students’ seats when they went to the bathroom or lunch.


    Another option for doing this report would be to use Scholastic’s "Biography Poster Report." I have used these in the past, and they are a great way for students to share information they have learned.

    Teacher Resources

    The Teacher Store has a wonderful selection of biographies to use in your classroom, and the Book Clubs frequently feature great titles to add to your library as well.

    Teacher Express offers a wonderful collection of 15 plays focusing on inspiring African Americans like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. in a downloadable resource titled African Americans Who Made a Difference by Liza Charlesworth. 

    Please check out Part 1 of a special three-part post from fellow blogger Alycia Zimmerman for some great titles of biographies to integrate into your nonfiction reading bookshelf.

    What are you doing in your classroom in the month of February? If you have a special project you're doing for Black History Month or Presidents' Day, please share it with us in the comments section below!



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Susan Cheyney