Thursday, February 24, 2011

More about biographies before I move on

I have a lot more I would like write about biography research. But I will only share a few snippets.
The "R" word reared its puzzled head again. A young lady was trying to read about the young life of Betsy Ross, and was really making no sense of it. I finally figured out that one of the problems were the vocabulary words Quaker,Society of Friends, [married outside of the] faith, Episcopalian... basically a big part of the drama of her life was shrouded in unknown vocabulary.

A puzzlement for many of the students was the requirement that they learn about their subjects "youth." Vocabulary again. The most puzzled students couldn't define for me what youth meant. They just wanted to find a place in some book or article that would tell them about it. The idea of doing the math to find out how old their subject was when events happen seemed to be new to them.

Of course I realize that at the end of the month I was "supporting" research with the students who had been the least successful. Still, next year I will suggest that during the silly season for biographies that a little daily practice with dates in word problems could make thinking about dates and ages a little more intuitive for everyone.

I have read several of the finished biographies. The variety and level of the fourth grader's writing is impressive. There is just always so much I could have done better to support this work. Next year!

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Our school follows a writing calendar with a genre-of-the-month. February is biography month in grades one through six. Consequently I have been really busy coaching students through their research.

Their is a lot of fabulous writing in the biography section of our library. I wish more students would reach for a biography when they are looking for something exciting or moving to read. Distressingly, I have to take ownership of this problem. When a student is looking for an exciting story I need to reach more often for a biography as part of the book talk.

Sadly, most students are only exposed to biographies when they are required to write one. This means they need the facts - not some interesting or exciting or romantic book. With a graphic organizer worksheet to fill out and a looming deadline for a finished essay, the last thing they need is a biography consisting of poems each in the voice of a person at an imaginary wake, (Talkin' about Bessie , a biography of Bessie Coleman by master poet Nikki Grimes) or anything equally wonderful. Instead they need the facts - at least for the graphic organizer.

So I have been spending a couple of hours each day working with students, mostly from the fourth grade, in small groups. They are sent to the library to "get more information," often after writing a first draft that roughly paraphrases an encyclopedia article.

To be fair, the students I am seeing this week are the unsuccessful ones. There are many thoughtful and moving biographical essays being written in these fourth grade classes. Meeting with the students who are struggling has prompted me to reflect on what a biography is and what an author needs to be able to write one.

The most common misconception is that a biography must start at the subject's birth, write about every stage (or every year) of their life, and stop with death. This reminds me of the bed-to-bed narratives that are common in the very early grades. Bed-to-bed narratives are (not very gripping) stories that tell about a day starting with getting up and getting dressed/having breakfast/taking a bath and ending with bedtime rituals. They do provide a window into cultural differences! However they are not a preferred model of storytelling or narrative writing. Similarly, the birth to death biographical essay is equally uninspiring.

A good biography even at the elementary level provides clear and even moving information about why this person is important and why their life should be documented. The details of the subject's life are not just any random available facts, but show some connection to the meaning of the story.

A great biography goes a step beyond documenting the subject's life, but uses the details available to bring the person to life, making the reader care about the subject. A great biography is art.

However reading a great, or even relatively good biography about a subject will probably not give the student the information required to fill out the dreaded "graphic organizer" and write an adequate essay about every stage of the subject's life. The biographer has carefully selected what facts to present to tell a story about the subject. If the student is going to write their own story about a biographical subject, they will have to actually do research.

So this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Extending Reading Clubs to the Classroom

The second grade lunchtime reading club was a wonderful experience. The girls that started it wish it could keep going. We will keep talking about how they can continue during lunchtime on the their own. Meanwhile, just about everyone in the class wants to be part of the reading club! I talked about this happy problem with my principal and she suggested "empowering" the classroom teacher to run reading clubs. She suggested that a particular time each week could be carved out for reading clubs and that I could visit the classroom to lead a group and perhaps other adults from the school or community could also be invited to lead groups.

To make a long story short - I presented four possible book clubs. 1) an author study of Cynthia Rylant where every student would read Henry and Mudge the First Book plus as many other books by Cynthia Rylant as they could 2) an author study of Ezra Jack Keats 3) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (A longer chapter book that is also available also on CD) 4) a topic discussion group of weather where students would read as many books as they could about weather and talk about what they learned and how the books differ.

The students wrote down their first, second, and third choices. They are anxiously waiting to be assigned to groups on Monday so they can start reading.

I am anxiously waiting to see how this works out!

While I was talking to their teacher about organizing these groups, the teacher's impulse was to assign the students to groups by their reading ability. So much time is spent in classrooms on reading instruction that I imagine it can be hard sometimes for teachers to imagine reading discussion that is not about teaching how to read. I emphasized to him that the books for all of the groups were accessible to a broad range of readers and the students selected for interest, not reading level. I realize that in the library I am very lucky that I get to talk with kids about books - not usually about their reading ability. I hope that I can keep the idea of "reading clubs" in the classroom still clearly focused on the books and ideas, and the students' interests, and not let them devolve into just another period of reading instruction.