I love to incorporate biographies into lessons! It seems that no matter what unit the students are studying, there’s a great biography to go with it. Why is it so important to teach biographies? you might ask. For one thing, it teaches a little something about the history of a subject, but more importantly, biographies provide students with great role models to study. So many of our kiddos are influenced by media, and when you ask them who they admire, they will name a sports star, film or TV star, or a music idol. While they may be famous, not all of those folks are admirable.
I like to provide students with stories about people I believe have made great contributions to the world and have demonstrated character traits like persistence, compassion, and overcoming obstacles. Almost all eminent individuals have had to overcome great obstacles and had to deal with failure. These are great lessons to teach our children because so many of them think that to be good at something it must come easy. Teaching biographies is teaching the lessons of life.
Of course, I have my favorite biographies I like to use. Probably my favorite biography is Snowflake Bentley by Catherine Briggs Martin. Talk about persistence. Wilson Bentley spent his entire life studying and photographing snowflakes. That was his passion. Paul Torrance, the father of creativity once said, “Fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity.” That is exactly what Wilson Bentley did. He developed a way to attach a microscope to a camera so he could take the beautiful up-close photographs of snowflakes we can enjoy today. Did he get rich? No. Did he become famous? Not really. In fact, during his lifetime, he spent more money on his photographs than he ever made from selling them. It wasn’t until the book Snowflake Bentley was published and earned a Caldecott Medal that many teachers or kids had even heard of him.
When I teach about ancient Egypt, I always include the picture book Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs which is the story of Jean-Francois Champollion who studied the Rosetta Stone to learn the key to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Like Snowflake Bentley, Jean-Francois had a passion which began at a young age. By age 11, he vowed to be the first person to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In school, we often read biographies of the most famous folks in history like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc. I enjoy reading about them, but I also like to expand the kiddos’ knowledge and incorporate some of the men and women the kids are not typically introduced to in school like Jacques Cousteau, the famous French oceanographer; Nellie Bly, a female reporter; Marian Anderson, the famous African American opera singer; and Jane Goodall, the conservationist and environmentalist who spent her life studying chimpanzees.
Today, many of our brightest children fail because they never learned the correlation between effort and achievement. Our highest achievers start out in school at the top. They make straight A’s with little or no effort. Then when they hit the middle years where the work becomes more rigorous, we see a pattern of underachievement often begin. So many of our brightest students have failed to learn that even bright students must work to achieve. Teaching biographies is one way for students to learn about people who have achieved and how they had to work hard to achieve their goals even though they were bright or talented. It helps students understand that we are not born knowing how to invent the light bulb, paint the Mona Lisa, or compose a symphony. It is only through persistence and effort and learning from failure that we can achieve greatness.
I have several biography units on my TPT store which you might wish to check out! Just click on the links below to go to the individual products.
Next time you are about to begin a new unit of study, do some research for some great biographies of experts in that field to use with your students.
That’s all for today, but remember to always… Keep ’em Thinking!
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