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Assess what students already know about biographies. Choose several to read and give students something specific to look and listen for. The books below are all very different in format and have varied approaches in their storytelling. Have students pay attention to the format, especially if you are going to follow up by having them do some writing themselves about a famous person.
Burleigh, Robert. Tiger of the Snows: Tenzing Norgay: the boy whose dream was Everest. ISBN: 978-0-689-83042-6 Reading level: 5.1
A celebration of the sherpa who accompanied and made history with Sir Edmund Hillary as the first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Written more like poetry than prose, it creates a sense of urgency and reverence, both for the mountain and for the man.
De la Pena, Matt. A Nation’s Hope: the story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. ISBN: 978-0803731677 Reading level: 3.6
Beautifully illustrated by Kadir Nelson, this book recounts what could be Louis’s most important fight. A victory over German Max Schmeling as WWII approached was a victory for America itself.
Fleming, Candace. Amelia Lost: the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart. ISBN: 978-0375841989 Reading level: 6.3
A different approach to a popular biographical subject. Fleming alternates between the usual biographical content, and the search for Earhart after her disappearance. Maps, photos, and other primary sources shed light on Earhart’s career and the ways in which she sought to create her own celebrity status.
Krull, Kathleen. Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President and the Country. ISBN: 978-0-15-206639-0 Reading level: 4.5
An example of a biography that examines one aspect of the subject’s life in depth. Includes many of Lincoln’s own words and jokes.
Moss, Marissa. Nurse, Soldier, Spy: the story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. ISBN: 978-0-8109-9735-6 Reading level: 4.9
Who knew that so many women (hundreds!) disguised themselves as men and fought alongside husbands, brothers and fathers in the Civil War? Sarah Edmonds stands out because she lived as a man before enlisting and because she played so many different roles during the war. Later happily married, she wrote a book about her exploits and donated all proceeds to organizations that helped Civil War veterans.
Ryan, Pam Munoz. When Marian sang: the true Recital of Marian Anderson, the voice of a Century. ISBN: 0-439-26967-9 Lexile: 780
Rich vocabulary, lush acrylic illustrations and designed like a playbill, this tale of the extraordinarily talented singer who overcame prejudice begs to be discussed with older students. Marian Anderson sang to enthusiastic crowds in Europe long before receiving recognition in the U.S. and earning the distinction of first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera.
Scieszka, Jon. Knucklehead: Tall Tales and mostly true stories of Growing up Scieszka. ISBN: 978-0-670-01106-3 Lexile: 750
Fast paced chapters, lots of family photos, and Scieszka’s hilarious stories about life with five brothers will keep students laughing. Use as a springboard for some autobiographical writing and lessons about “voice.”
Older students can practice summarizing after hearing or reading a biography. This lesson called “Bio-Cube” at NCTE’s ReadWriteThink website will prompt students to distill lots of information about someone into relevant parts. A printout of their work folds into a cube for display or sharing.
Trading card maker is an activity that allows students to upload images of famous people, input some basic information, and create and print trading cards for display or as study aides.
My Fake Wall is a site at which students can create a fake Facebook profile and wall for someone they learned about through biographies. You may want to use a teacher or class account to submit these, since there is registration required. Or have students create “wall” content offline, offering to publish examples that are well done.
Need online sources for historical and contemporary people for students to read about for the projects above? Have students look at the Smithsonian’s Innovative Lives and the Academy of Achievement Virtual Museum, both reviewed here at Teachers First.
Longer term writing project:
If you want students to write a biographical piece after reading a number of biographies as a class or in literature circles, Jamie McKenzie’s Biography Maker can guide them beyond a simple retelling of the facts.