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Saturday, February 25, 2012
There are many different ways to help your students get excited about writing biographies.
By Erin Bailey
Posted February 24, 2012
Writing biographies offers students the chance to synthesize multiple writing lessons into one project. It's also an effective way to practice the core skills they need to become good researchers and communicators. To model the biography writing process, I recommend two new books about well-known authors.
Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Although intended for primary audiences, there is enough meat to satisfy upper elementary students. I liked the book’s message: writers work very hard because they love it, not to get rich. Young writers struggle with non-fiction writing because they are tempted to make a list of facts and exclude a story. Louisa is a good example of what information to include in a biography and how to present it in an interesting way.
Another exercise is to note the differences between the first and final drafts of a Biography of Frederick Douglass, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack.
The Extraordinary Mark Twain by Barbara Kerley
Suzy Clemens wrote about her father, Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), when she was just thirteen years old. The book’s pages have mini journals attached to them—excerpts from Suzy’s diary—complete with grammar and spelling mistakes. (Finding her errors could be an entertaining activity.) The reader gets to see Samuel Clemens as a family man, stripped of his celebrity persona. Because The Extraordinary Mark Twain is based solely on Suzy’s diary, it is not a linear life story. Instead, its anecdotes offer a glimpse into just one aspect of his life, which is a more challenging way to write a biography.
Older students can write about one facet of their subject’s life. Perhaps it will be the subject’s fascinating career as a disc jockey, being known for his or her practical jokes, or maybe the subject witnessed a historical event. Encourage your students to uncover the unique details of a person’s life rather than the typical time and place of birth, school, marriage, career, and death. Sometimes, using a worksheet can help students decide which details to find.
Room for Creativity
Besides the customary historical figures, students can write the biography of a famous fairy tale or nursery rhyme character. Why did the Big Bad Wolf become so bad? Was Jack able to put his nimble feet to good use later in life? Other popular biography subjects at my school were the teachers and staff. Be sure to schedule at least two interview periods several days apart. This gives the writer a chance to organize and discover missing information. These can be compiled into a book that visitors to the school will enjoy reading.
Check out these lessons for more great ideas:
After students research a historical figure, they write a biography and make a video to present their subject. These can then be presented in class.
This clever idea lets kids combine their artistic talent with writing. The box lid introduces the person researched and each slice is a paragraph about the person.
While students are learning to use the features of Microsoft Word, they are also writing an autobiography completed with digital photos and a collage created online. Allow them to share their work with the class.
Aspiring writiers use research to put family events in chronological order. They write autobiographies and compile family pictures to present to the class in a lesson that combines heritage and family history.