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Learn how to Use Image Guide Biographies within the Classroom

September 5, 2020
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Picture book biographies have established themselves as a genre in recent years. There are biographies of famous people (Vincent Can't Sleep by Barb Rosenstock) and more obscure people (The Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson). Some biographies span a lifetime (Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder) or one-day events (A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein). Whatever you want to teach, chances are you can find a biography to suit.

Picture book bios are a great way to bring historical characters to life and encourage students to ask deeper questions about a person, time period, or event. One thing you should know: reading aloud is a long and often complex book. It is therefore a good idea to plan to read a book over several days.

Below are 4 Reading Skills That Teach Picture Book Bios and 5 Ways to Use Picture Book Bios With Your Class (think of Grades 2-5).

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4 Key Skills Readers learn from picture book bios

These skills make picture book biographies an integral part of your reading curriculum.

1. How to Approach Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative non-fiction books require reading skills from both fiction and non-fiction. Students need to identify details that are true and bring their background knowledge about a time period or person into a text in order to better understand it. You must also follow the narrative of a person's life or experience.

Biography to try out: By reading a storybook biography that tells a narrative, such as Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Breaking Dive of the Bathysphere by Barb Rosenstock, students can practice combining background knowledge with new information. In this case, they learn about the depths of the ocean through the history of the bathysphere. At the same time they read a narrative with a beginning, middle, end and other features.

2. Expanded vocabulary

Unlike expository texts, which contain many subject-specific academic words, picture book biographies have a wider vocabulary. Students will come across words that they will see in other fiction stories. This allows them to expand their vocabulary alongside the academic words that go with each story.

Biography to try out: With Barb Rosenstock's Noisy Paintbox, you can talk about common words like right and appreciate them. You'll also talk about words related to art: palette, cerulean, and more.

3. Empathic connection with non-fiction books

Another aspect of connecting with text is the ability to empathize with characters, or in this case historical figures. Sometimes the best way to understand what it was like to go through something is a story. Picture book biographies enable students to engage with important events and people with empathy.

Biography to try out: The girl who thought in pictures of Julia Mosca really helps students understand what it was like to be Temple Grandin and face the challenges she faced as a researcher with autism.

4. Ability to view connections

If you read picture book bios during a school year, you will find many opportunities to connect between and between books.

Biographies to Try: Read Jess Keating's Shark Lady about shark researcher Eugenie Clark. Then read Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed on Mae Jemison. Most recently, you read I Dissent by Debbie Levy on Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Then bring it together to talk about how these three very different stories showed women pursuing their dreams at a time when women were expected to stay out of the public eye.

5 ways to use picture book biographies

After you've chosen your bio, there are five ways you can use it:

1. Start with the Who

When starting a new unit, get students to think about the most important (or perhaps a lower number) with a bio.

Biography to try out: To start a revolutionary era unit, read a biography of George Washington, such as A Parade for George Washington by David Adler. Have students brainstorm questions, starting with Washington.

2. Dig deeper

Include a picture book bio during a unit to help students bring the general knowledge they gained from the expository text into a person's experience. What questions were answered while studying that person's life? And what questions do students want to explore after learning more about a person?

Biography to try out: Record Counting on Katherine from Helaine Becker during a lesson on astronomy. This book shows Katherine Johnson and her work with Apollo 13. It can help increase and deepen students' knowledge of how humans first explored space.

3. Introduce the dark

Sometimes you teach a subject that is completely foreign to the students. Introducing it through a person makes the subject feel less obscure.

Biography to try out: Use the biography Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings by Jane Yolen to talk about poetry and get into Dickinson's poetry.

4. Make the familiar unknown

You will come across topics that the students have studied over and over again. Picture-book biographies that focus on a lesser-known hero or a specific part of a famous person's life can re-energize familiar subjects.

Biography to try out: If you're studying the founding of America, check out Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock. You can talk about the life of Jefferson and go beyond the basic timeline or textbook of the expositories.

5. Dry dry subjects

Reading a bio in science, math, art, or any other topic is a great way to show students how those topics affect real people. When you involve real people in the classroom, dry topics can become more interesting and real.

Biography to try out: Learn more about Sophie Germain in Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardoe and Barbara McClintock. She grew up during the French Revolution and was interested in finding order in mathematics. Reading about Sophie will generate more curiosity than solving math problems on the first day of a math unit.

How do you use picture book biographies in your classroom? Share on our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook page.

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