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Monologues, Poems, and Time Lines-- Biography Lessons Made Easy!

Four educators opened their files to share lessons that integrate biographies in classroom activities. Using monologues, poems, and time lines, these teachers show children that biographies can be fun as well as informative. Could you use a new method for teaching biography? These educators may have the ideal idea for you!

"Success, or heroism of any kind, is the product of setting goals for yourself and working hard to attain those goals," Pam Chandler told Education World. "If kids can see that many of these important people came from backgrounds similar to or even tougher than their own, maybe they will be the next generation of heroes and influential people. Historical figures often do not seem real to young people. Reading a well-written biography can make them come alive."

Chandler, who teaches sixth-grade at Sequoia Middle School in Redding, California, has her students read biographies and implements some ingenious related activities. "I incorporate reading biographies into my reading class for several reasons," she said. "First, I try to expose my students to as many genres as possible. Second, I teach a core class that includes reading, English, and social studies. I try to integrate across the three curriculum areas as much as possible. Third, I believe it is important for students to realize that heroes and other people of importance were not born with all they needed to be successful."

One of Chandler's most successful activities is her biography book report. She has her students write a monologue as the person they have read about in their selected biographies. The children then dress up as the individuals and perform their monologues for the class. They have been very creative-- some even provide music as a background for their speech.

MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES

Chandler's students have provided her with some wonderful memories of past performances. "One of my favorites was a girl who read about Rosa Parks," she commented. "She walked to the front of the class as though she was exhausted, carrying her shoes in her hands. She set the shoes down in a nearby chair and began talking about her hard day at work and her need to sit down in the bus. She did the whole thing with an accent, which might not have been very accurate, but she did have the kids' full attention."

"Another fun presentation was done by a boy who read about the Wright brothers," Chandler continued. "He came to class with a cardboard airplane that he wore around his waist, supported by shoulder straps. Then this year, I had a boy named Richard who became Stevie Wonder. He wore dark glasses and a suit. We had to find someone who had a belt to keep the pants from falling down! He talked for a full half-hour about Wonder's involvement with Motown Records and civil rights."

Click here to see Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by Alex W.
Click here to see Princess Diana, portrayed by Sara M.
Click here to see Stevie Wonder, portrayed by Richard S.
Click here to see Dolly Parton, portrayed by Maranda P.
The monologues have even made it to the school office and morning "news." "The kids do a wonderful job," said Chandler. "I always send a few of them down to the office to perform for the secretaries and the principal. I have also videotaped them and had the tapes shown during our regular morning announcements. The video is perfect for playing during open house. This is the best thing I have ever done with biographies. My biggest problem is in being able to direct their attention to another genre. They want to read every biography in the library!"

A GRAB BAG OF IDEAS

When another educator posted a request for good biography lessons, Pam Chandler offered her monologue suggestion, and teacher Helen Beesley of Windsor Elementary School in Windsor, Maine, supplied an additional suggestion. The members of Middle-L had come to the rescue!

For a recent immigration unit, Beesley instructed her students to create a grab bag of items that had significant meaning to their characters. "I had the students pretend they were from different countries. They had to bring in items they would have brought with them to [the United States]. The students also had to explain why the items were important and how they pertained both to their characters as well as their countries."

Beesley thought the idea could work just as well with biographies. "With biographies, you could have students choose maybe three to five items that help explain who the person is, what is important to the person, or something the person might wear," she explained. "For example, if a child read about Anne Frank, he or she might pull out the Star of David to represent religious beliefs, a toy kitten to explain Anne's friendship with Peter, and a diary to explain how Anne spent her time. Students should be given instructions about what type of information the teacher wants and a rubric that tells what is expected for an oral presentation and for props, etc."

Beesley has found that props make good lead-ins for audience questions. Her idea could be done in conjunction with Chandler's biographical monologue or as a stand-alone activity. Students are sure to enjoy choosing just the right props for their grab bags!

THE BIO-POEM

Pam Chandler also makes time for an activity she calls the "bio-poem." In this lesson, students use a format and fill in terms that apply to themselves or another individual and construct revealing individualized poetry.

"A bio-poem is a form of poetry using a prescribed or structured format," explained Chandler. "Although it follows a 'formula,' this form still allows for creativity on the part of the writer." She gives students the following instructions:

"On each line of your poem provide only the information requested for that line. For lines 4 through 9, you should begin the line with the underlined words given; you supply the information in the parentheses. You may complete the line with single words or with phrases. Your object is to show the depth of your understanding about the character."

Line 1-- First Name
Line 2-- Title given to the character
Line 3-- Four words that describe the character
Line 4-- Lover of (three items, objects or ideas)
Line 5-- Who believes (one idea or concept)
Line 6-- Who wants (three things)
Line 7-- Who uses (three things)
Line 8-- Who gives (three things)
Line 9-- Who says (a direct quote)
Line 10-- Last name or synonymous descriptor

Following is an example of a bio-poem:

Pam
Teacher
Strong, caring, dedicated, curious
Lover of her children, learning, and her students
Who believes all children can learn
Who wants a safe world for her children, her students to love to learn, and to have more time to write
Who uses her education, her experience, and the support of her family
Who gives her leadership to her students, her tenderness to her children, and her love of reading to her students
Who says, "A good book opens the door into another world."
Chandler
To familiarize students with the bio-poem before they create one for the subject of a biography, Chandler has her students write poems for themselves. "To make it more interesting, I create a master where the center of the paper is lined text surrounded by 2 to 3 inches of blank space," she said. "Students write their bio-poems in the center area. Then they illustrate their poems around the outside of the text box. I show them how they can hide part of their drawing behind their writing. I illustrate this by using some type of full-page illustration. I cover the center with another sheet of paper so that parts of different objects are hidden behind the paper. This gives kids more of an idea of what I am asking them to do. They create some very interesting pieces this way.

"In addition to using bio-poems to represent a person from a biography, I use them with students in doing a character study," explained Chandler. "My favorite book to use for this is The Pinballs, by Betsy Byars. Kids really relate to the characters."

MORE BIO-POETRY

Heather Schacher, of Golden, British Columbia, is no stranger to the concept of the bio-poem. In fact she has her own version that she refers to as the "Getting to Know You" poem. As a new kindergarten teacher at Alexander Park Elementary School in Rocky Mountain School District #6, she hasn't had much opportunity to use this poetry-writing activity, but she holds onto it as a great example of an activity that encourages creativity and stimulates interest in both biographies and poetry.

"The Getting to Know You poem is an idea that an instructor gave in one of my language arts courses in university," recalled Schacher. "I think the poem is valuable because it makes the kids think about themselves in different ways. It makes them aware of themselves and others." Like Chandler's bio poem, this poem also has a set format.

Getting to Know You Poem
Line 1: First name
Line 2: 4 Descriptive words
Line 3: Relationship to (sister, brother, mother, uncle, etc.)
Line 4: Lover of (three things)
Line 5: Who feels (three feelings) ... when ...
Line 6: Who fears (three things)
Line 7: Who would like to (three things)
Line 8: Resident of (location)
Line 9: Last name

Following is an example of a Getting to Know You poem:

Heather
Happy, quiet, red hair, lots of freckles,
Sister of Cory
Lover of my cat, my family, children,
Who feels shy when meeting new people, happy when home with Carmen, exhilarated when riding a horse,
Who fears swimming alone, bears, stitches,
Who would like to see a sunset in Italy, Thyra in Vancouver, a Bryan Adams concert again,
Resident of Golden, B.C.
Schacher.

"All I know is my own personal experience writing the poem," Schacher explained. "I know I felt a sense of pride to have others read my poem. I liked to read other classmates' poems as they let me know something about them. I was able pick something interesting about their poems and ask questions to get to know them better. I learned about the diversity of other people's feelings and daily lives."

The Getting to Know You poem is another ideal activity that students will enjoy creating for themselves or for the subject of a biography. Your students will enjoy sharing their insights into the characters of the individuals they meet through the biographies, and you may choose to have them read or display their poems so that others can learn about the figures, too.

TIMEOUT FOR TIME LINES

If monologues and poetry don't appeal to you, Gail Watson, a computer technologist of John F. Pattie Elementary School in Dumfries, Virginia, recommends that you try time lines! In conjunction with other teachers, she developed an excellent online project that allowed students to combine their biography reading skills and technology prowess.

"It is in the language arts objectives for students to do a biographical time line on themselves or someone famous," said Watson. "In the case of the project Mrs. Murphy's Timelines, students first researched people's lives and wrote up paper time lines. They used a special graphical organizer for collecting data. Then they came into the computer lab and used Microsoft Excel to create their time lines."

Now all of the third-graders in the school are doing autobiographical time lines. They go into the lab with years and events recorded and use the spreadsheet to add boxes, lines, and bars. This year, the students are adding color. They have colored the outlines of the boxes, the background inside the boxes, and the text-- exciting stuff for third grade!

"The benefit I see, from the standpoint of technology, is the multiple use of the spreadsheet," stated Watson. "Teachers think it is good only for math calculations and graphing and fail to envision its use in a purely text environment. Third-graders are required to create spreadsheets and actually end up doing two projects at that grade level. The time line project is first, and it is excellent for introducing kids to the concept of typing things into boxes or cells." The bonus from the standpoint of language arts teaching is that the students gather details for their own "biographies" and make them come alive through technology.

Cara Bafile
Education World®
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Updated 06/4/2007