Biographies and Autobiographies:
Life Models in the Classroom

Bertie Kingore, Ph.D.

 

How can students construct meaning
and develop an in-depth understanding
of the life of a famous person?

The genre of biographies and autobiographies deserves special consideration as reading materials for gifted learners. Biographies and autobiographies frequently serve as role models for gifted students by illustrating how even prominent or successful people experience triumphs, failures, and hardships throughout their lives. Encourage gifted students to seed biographies of famous people in areas of interests. Librarians can recommend numerous biographies of books with biographic vignettes relating to specific content areas.

The books listed in this article exemplify multiple kinds of giftedness, including specific subject areas, academic/intellectual, performing arts, creativity, leadership, and psychomotor. It is significant that the famous people who display giftedness in these books represent diverse ethnic population and a broad span of socioeconomic levels. Thus, these lives model that giftedness in every population.

To most effectively serve as life models in a classroom, biographies and autobiographies must focus on the following three criteria:

  • Are written by authors of merit,
  • Detail significant people who display gifted behaviors and whose traits are well-developed by the author, and
  • Include thought-provoking problem situations, issues, or personal needs with which gifted students can identify.

 

_________ Learning Experiences _________

Activities are suggested to help students construct meaning and develop an in-depth understanding of the famous person's life. These learning experiences are active participation tasks that enable students to demonstrate the extent of their reasoning and thinking without book reports or worksheet activities (Kingore, 1999). They are effective replacement activities when students have tested out of some required content. Challenge students to read a biography or autobiography of a distinguished person in the discipline and select one or more activities to document learning and insights.

Eminent People News Conference

An Eminent People News Conference is one of Betts' and Kercher's activities in the Autonomous Learning Model (1999) that related well to biographies and autobiographies. Students role play members of different news agencies (newspaper reporters, radio and television personalities, magazine editors, and reporters) and ask questions of another student role playing an eminent person. The challenge is for students to incorporate in-depth information while representing the points of view of the different personalities and their new agencies. Betts and Kercher (1999) suggest question and statements such as the following to prompt the questions students direct to the famous person.

1. What are your most outstanding achievements?
2. Tell us about your childhood.
3. What obstacles did you have to overcome?
4. As a result of your work or accomplishments, how will the world be different?
5. What is it like to be you?
6. What has satisfied you about your accomplishments?
7. What are your next goals and directions?

 

Students have developed creative variations of the news conference format to highlight eminent people. The following are some examples to prompt further ideas.

  • Family Reunion
  • Barbara Waddles (Walters) Interview Show
  • This Is Your Life, Person X
  • Story Board or Movie Making: Scenes from __________'s Life
  • News Release:
    Public Relations Director announcing the most significant accomplishments of __________
  • Obituary
  • Awards Ceremony

Venn Diagram

Use a Venn diagram to compare two biographies of the same person or to compare a biography and an autobiography of that person.

Collage

Create a biography collage of a person by using pictures, words, and symbols to reveal characteristics, traits, family members, significant events, and meaningful objects.

3-D Time Line

Make a paper chain as a three-dimensional time line that sequences the important events in a person's life.

Mobile or Diorama

Develop a mobile, museum display, or diorama revealing significant information about a person.

Life Cube

Design a cube depicting the six most important events or people in a person's life.

Life Newspaper

Create a newspaper revealing significant information about a person. Apply as many of the different sections of the paper as possible to this person's life. What would the want ads for this person contain? What is the person's sports page?

People Bags

Create "People Bags" by placing in a paper sack six to ten items that represent the person or the person's life. Challenge other students to analyze the contents and figure out the identity of the significant person.

Fictionalized Biographies

Adapting the historical fiction genre as a model, students create fictionalized biographies by weaving in anecdotes and conversations that personalize the life of the significant person while appropriately and accurately representing the larger biographic framework of that person's life.

Game: Who Am I?

In groups of two to four, students read an article or biography of a person who lived during the period of time currently being investigated in social studies, creative or performing arts, science, math, or in areas of sports. Once the materials are read, the students choose 10 significant facts about their person and rank them from little-known to well-known. Students are encouraged to remain very secretive about the identity of their person.

On a given day, students bring their ranked lists to class. Members of each group read their clues by saying "Who Am I?" and stating the fact in first-person narrative form, beginning with the least-known fact. If another group guesses correctly on the first clue, they get 10 points. Points decrease with the reading of each clue so that the 10th clue is worth only one point. The team with the most points wins.

Student Autobiographies

After reading biographies and autobiographies, students analyze and discuss common elements and attributes of this genre. They use this insight to create their own autobiographies.

My Life

Students choose one of the activities discussed earlier in the article to complete for their own lives. To increase complexity, encourage them to include actual past and present events as they predict future experiences.

Meeting of Lives

Students incorporate themselves into the significant person's life. Where does this "meeting of lives" occur and how does the student's presence affect the event?

Autobiographic Interviews

Students interview three to five people who know them well and compile the information into an autobiography: "My Life as Others See Me."

Family Tree

Students research and complete a family tree. They then write descriptions of whom they judge to be the three most significant people in this family tree. Encourage visual and graphically talented students to incorporate photographs and drawings.

 

Recommended Biographies and Autobiographies

A school or public librarian is a welcomed facilitator when seeking quality biographies and autobiographies that relate to classroom experiences and students' interests and needs. Books in this genre include eminent people representing many different disciplines and kinds of talents with reading levels appropriate to early readers through scholars.

Adler, B. (1986). The Cosby Wit: His Life and Humor. New York: Morrow.

Adler, D. (1992). Benjamin Franklin Printer, Inventor, Statesman: A First Biography. New York: Holiday House.

Adler, D. (1989). A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holiday House.

Bedard, M. (1992). Emily. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Blue, R. & Naden, C. (1991). Colin Powell: Straight to the Top. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Dravecky, D. & Stafford, T. (1990). Come Back. New York: Harper & Row.

Freedman, R. (1993). Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. New York: Clarion Books.

Freedman, R. (1991). The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. New York: Holiday House.

Freedman, R. (1987). Lincoln: A Photobiography. New York: Atheneum.

Gherman, B. (1992). E. B. White: Some Writer! New York: Atheneum.

Highfield, R. & Carter, P. (1995). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. New York: St. Martin's.

Huber, P. (1990). Sandra Day O'Connor: Supreme Court Justice. New York: Chelsea House.

Krull, K. (1996). Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Lester, H. (1997). Author: A True Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lovell, J. & Kluger, J. (1995). Apollo 13. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Martin, J.B. (1998). Snowflake Bentley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

McMullan, J.B. (1991). The Story of Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground Railroad. New York: Yearling Book.

Parks, R. & Haskins, J. (1992). Rosa Parks: My Story. New York: Penguin.

Pinkney, A.D. (1993). Alvin Ailey. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

Stanley, D. & Vennems, P. (1992). Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare. New York: Morrow Junior Books.

Thomas, B. (1994). Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Hyperion.

White, M. & Gribbin, J. (1995). Einstein: A Life in Science. New York: Plume.

 

___________ References ___________

Betts, G. & Kercher, K. (1999). Autonomous Learner Model: Optimizing Ability. Greeley, CO: ALPS.

Kingore, B. (2003). Literature Celebrations: Catalysts to High-Level Book Responses, 2nd ed. Austin: Professional Associates Publishing.

Kingore, B. (2001). The Kingore Observation Inventory (KOI), 2nd ed. Austin: Professional Associates Publishing.

REPRINTED FROM:
Kingore, B. (Spring 2001). Biographies and autobiographies: Life models in the classroom.
Understanding Our Gifted, 13 (3), 13-15.

www.bertiekingore.com