When I set a goal to read 100 picture books biographies in our homeschool one year I made up a lot of the extra activities “on the fly.” Here they are all in one place to help you make a biography unit study.
I spread our biography learning out over the course of a school year, but you could pick and choose the content and titles that work for you and shorten it as needed.
My girls were in 1st and 4th grade when we did this, and both were past picture books being at their reading levels. Nevertheless, this was a great way to introduce a lot of people from history and compare a wide range of contributions in a short time.
As always, determine what your goals are for establishing a unit study and then build from there.
Our Goals for Biography Study
Here are the two, general goals I had for our biography study.
Introduction to Broad Range of Historical Figures
First, I wanted to expose my kids to a wide range of influencers and contributors throughout history. I knew this was an opportunity to be intentional about the people and ideas that we invited into our school space even if we didn’t go deep with every single one.
Along the same lines, I wanted them to see myriad ways of thinking about the world and engaging with it. Some books talked about people planting flowers and others talked about marching to protest injustice. Acts of beauty are wide and wonderful, and I wanted my girls to understand that there are a lot of creative ways to do so.
Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Second, I wanted to generate some critical thinking opportunities. I wasn’t interested so much in establishing how to write non-fiction, but I was interested in getting some conversations started. I imagined conversations about race, justice, history, human nature, and perseverance and other topics. We also talked about audience, author’s intent, and what made a “good” picture book biography.
Not every book or reading session succeeded in these goals, but enough of them did for me to consider it a success. We “met” so many interesting people in these weeks. Plus, there’s some sense of accomplishment to saying that we “read 100 biographies.”
Meeting the First Goal:
Picture Book Biography Recommendations
Initially I included a giant list of the picture book biographies that we read, but it made this post too long for anyone to read. Instead, I made a separate post that included a massive list of our favorite picture book biographies. I divided the books into assorted categories including inventors, math & science, creators, and even a “just for fun” category of unusual stories and people.
Another great spot to find recommendations is on the post 75 Picture Book Biographies of Amazing Women. There will be some overlap between the two, but there will also be distinctions. Check out whichever one, or both, you think will meet your interests best.
Meeting the Second Goal:
Questions for Reflection
For the second goal, I developed some questions. At the beginning of our reading project I typed up each question into a small square, cut it out, and put it behind a plastic cover on a large multi-colored die, like this pocket dice. Then, each girl had a chance to roll the die and answer the question about whatever biography we had just read.
These questions may need tweaking for younger audiences or to meet the needs that you have.
- Who in this person’s life would you like to ask: “What was ___________ like?” Why did you choose that person?
- What question was this person trying to answer or what problem were they trying to solve?
- What challenges did this person face and how did he/she confront them?
- If you were this person, what would have been a difficult choice for you to make? Why?
- What about this person do you admire?
- Was this person’s success determined by internal or external factors or both? How?
- Why do you think the author thinks this person is important to know about?
- What or who inspired this person? How?
- What did you want to know more about? Why do you think the author left that out? (These are great questions to include if you do a compare/contrast activity like the one mentioned below)
- What would be challenging for you to be friends with this person?
This approach sparked energy for a few read-aloud sessions, and then we just read for a few rounds without questions. I adjusted the questions in the sleeves occasionally, and we’d use the die again once or twice. These were just general ways to get conversations going.
When the novelty of the die wore off or when I wanted to encourage more natural conversation, I turned to some broader questions. These questions are best used after you’ve read several biographies so that students have more context for answers.
- Who is someone else we’ve studied that had a similar interest? How was their approach different? How were the challenges they faced similar or different?
- What makes a good picture book biography?
- Is there certain information that a good biography must have? If so, what?
- What are some ways that you would categorize the biographies that we’ve read if you were grouping them according to similarities? (gender, accomplishment, historic moment, type of activity, etc.)
- How are biographies good for studying history? How are they limited for studying history?
Again, I didn’t use these questions every time. Sometimes we just read the books and left it at that. Other times we answered the question with a bored expression and moved on. There is no magic formula for making this a super-dynamic, win-all-the-time situation. Still other times I’d start with one question and we’d have a conversation that wandered through a host of issues I had not expected to emerge. We experienced it all.
3 Additional Biography Ideas
When you make a biography unit study you may have different goals or want to try different approaches. These are three additional ideas that we used over the course of our year.
Compare and Contrast
First, for one discussion we compared and contrasted biographies that were written about the same person. In our case, we had two biographies about Noah Webster, and he turned out to be a pretty dynamic character. There are actually at least three picture book biographies for him that could be used.
Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris
W is for Webster by Tracey Fern
Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer
Read two or three books about the same person. Then have students answer which one they liked better and why. Have them identify information that one biography included and another left out. Consider why. This is a great activity to talk about authorial intent, style, tone, and even the role of illustrations.
If you want to make this into a written activity you can use a Venn diagram to illustrate the contrast and compare elements.
Read Larger Biographies
Second, in addition to our picture book reading, we added a couple longer reads to our schedule. Specifically, I wanted my fourth-grader to take on a more of a project. That I found a larger book to read that interested my first-grader was a stroke of thrift-store luck.
My fourth-grader read The Hiding Place Young Reader’s Edition by Corrie ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, et al., and completed a paragraph summary for each chapter. On the outside of each summary she drew an illustration and then pasted them all onto a file folder. To learn more about a Matchbox Chapter Summary Project, which was the inspiration for this project, check out this post from Teacher Thrive .
We used this exercise to practice writing paragraphs, to get her to read a more in-depth biography, and to begin incorporating time management skills into long-term projects.
Unexpectedly, I found a longer, more in-depth biography that I thought my first-grader might like. We read it just to enjoy a biography of a higher level. I didn’t assign a project with this because it was well above her typical reading level and just getting through was her success. Read just to delight in reading every once in a while.
We read Courage to Soar, a biography of Simone Biles, for this read. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. My first-grader loves gymnastics, and Biles is the best. I found Courage to Soar at a used bookstore, and we started.
It was worth it. After we finished reading together as a read-aloud, my first-grader took the book to her room and keeps it by her bed. Occasionally before bedtime she finds her favorite spots, snuggles down, and re-reads them. That’s a “win” in my book!
Third, in a wonderful coincidence, a friend of mine invited us to participate in an end-of-year biography presentation. I’m writing this post a couple months before it happens, so I’ll just pass along the general idea.
Each of the kids is going to pick a person from history to represent. They will do a short introduction of that person and the other students will try to guess who it is.
Snacks at the end, of course. (For the kids, too *wink, wink*)
What other biography projects have you done with your students? Do you like reading biographies as an adult?
Finally, just for fun, if you were going to present about someone to a group of your peers, who would you pick? I’d be inclined to consider Eva Kate from Stand Straight, Eva Kate: the True Story of a Real Giant. I’m not nearly as tall as she was, but I could empathize with some of her predicaments.
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