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.

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