Using Biographies to Enhance and Extend Instruction

Introduction | Background Knowledge | Activities | Extensions | Standards


Biographies are crucial for a successful education. This genre has influenced the world. Without Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda would not have had the inspiration to change the world with the wildly popular musical Hamilton. Without My Story by Rosa Parks, many students would continue to believe that Rosa was an older woman, tired from a long day. Without Pies from Nowhere or Sweet Justice, people would not know about Georgia Gilmore, the woman who fed the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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Background Knowledge

A biography is a book written about someone's life. A subset of the biography genre is an autobiography, a book someone writes about their life. Biographies can be expository, where facts are presented clearly and logically, or literary or narrative nonfiction, where the facts are given in a narrative or story format.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says books should serve as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” for students. Books as windows allow students to see into the lives and realities of others. Books as mirrors enable students to see their own lives and realities reflected in those of others. Books as sliding glass doors allow students to become immersed in the lives and realities of others and empathetic for the challenges they face. While this analogy was intended for children’s literature, biographies can be an excellent way to promote diversity, honor many cultures and experiences, and encourage empathy. Biographies can also teach students about themselves and where they can fit into the larger world.

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  • Living Wax Museum
    • After reading multiple biographies and teaching a few basic research skills, invite students to choose their own famous person to learn more about. As a culminating activity, students can present a Living Wax Museum. If a physical living wax museum is impossible, consider using Blabberize (TeachersFirst review) to record their short (about 30-second) presentations.
    • After the Wax Museum, invite students to stay in character for a dinner party activity. Group students into teams and have them interact as their biography subjects.
    • Take advantage of these suggestions for 50 Mini-Lessons for Teaching Students Research Skills (TeachersFirst review) to guide students as they conduct their research and prepare biography presentations.
  • You Be the Biographer
    • Students interview someone they know - a classmate or family member - and create a biographical presentation about the person. Consider giving students a choice of how to share about their subject. They can write a paper or share information through a Timeline (TeachersFirst review). Or, students can try a Free Template to make a brochure or newspaper article (TeachersFirst review).

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Correlation to Standards

  • AASL National School Library Standards
    • Inquire Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners display curiosity and initiative by: 1. Formulating questions about a personal interest or a curricular topic. 2. Recalling prior and background knowledge as context for new meaning
    • Inquire Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners adapt, communicate, and exchange learning products with others in a cycle that includes: 1. Interacting with content presented by others. 2. Providing constructive feedback. 3. Acting on feedback to improve. 4. Sharing products with an authentic audience.
    • Include Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners exhibit empathy with and tolerance for diverse ideas by: 1. Engaging in informed conversation and active debate. 2. Contributing to discussions in which multiple viewpoints on a topic are expressed.
    • Include Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners demonstrate empathy and equity in knowledge building within the global learning community by: 1. Seeking interactions with a range of learners.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners identify collaborative opportunities by: 1. Demonstrating their desire to broaden and deepen understandings. 2. Developing new understandings through engagement in a learning group. 3. Deciding to solve problems informed by group interaction.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Create Domain - s Learners participate in personal, social, and intellectual networks by: 1. Using a variety of communication tools and resources. 2. Establishing connections with other learners to build on their own prior knowledge and create new knowledge.
    • Collaborate Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners actively participate with others in learning situations by: 2. Recognizing learning as a social responsibility.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Think Domain - Learners develop and satisfy personal curiosity by: 1. Reading widely and deeply in multiple formats and writing and creating for a variety of purposes.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Create Domain - Learners construct new knowledge by: 1. Problem solving through cycles of design, implementation, and reflection.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Share Domain - Learners engage with the learning community by: 3. Collaboratively identifying innovative solutions to a challenge or problem.
    • Explore Shared Foundation, Grow Domain - Learners develop through experience and reflection by: 1. Iteratively responding to challenges. 2. Recognizing capabilities and skills that can be developed, improved, and expanded. 3. Open-mindedly accepting feedback for positive and constructive growth.
  • ISTE Standards for Students
    • Empowered Learner - 1b. Students build networks and customize their learning environments in ways that support the learning process. 1c. Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.
    • Knowledge Constructor - 3d. Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories, and pursuing answers and solutions.
    • Innovative Designer - 4d. Students exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance, and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.
    • Global Collaborator - 7c. Students contribute constructively to project teams, assuming various roles and responsibilities to work effectively toward a common goal.

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