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Beth Sommers


As a member of her school's "Heroes Committee," Beth Sommers worked the entire year to plan a school-wide day of celebration on the topic of heroes in April. In the fall, her principal suggested that it should include a unique project he had seen years before at a school in Maine -- the "biogra-body."

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The idea was for Sommers' fifth graders to read about a hero and then create a life-sized stuffed "body" of that hero. When Sommers tried to learn more about the activity, however, her research yielded no results. An out-of-state phone call later, she was on her way to Maine to visit teachers and collect slides and sample of "biogra-bodies" made about ten years ago. It was a project "resurrected!"

"We discussed the basic procedure, and I headed back to our school," recalled the Greenland (New Hampshire) Central School teacher. "Another fifth grade teacher, Sheila Pratt, and I met with Kathy Hanson, the art teacher, and we hammered out a timeline and list of procedures for creating our version of those bodies. It was clearly a team effort, as many memorable projects are."

In January, students were charged with creating full-sized 3-D biogra-bodies of their teacher-approved heroes. Each hero would be dressed and accessorized in the appropriate attire of his or her time period, profession, and so on. Students had to display ten facts about the hero somewhere on the biogra-body -- not the face. Facts had to include the hero's birth date, birth place, and significant accomplishments.

"The first step for the kids involved researching their heroes using a variety of sources," Sommers told Education World. "I taught students how to gather and organize facts, and present them in a well-written, five-paragraph essay. In media/computer class, the kids learned to use IIM (Independent Investigation Method) research to gather facts and take notes. That was a huge process in and of itself -- but extremely worthwhile. Writing is a critical part of learning in fifth grade, so we chose to spend a lot of time on that."

After the essays were completed, students moved on to constructing the "bodies" in art class. Using 5x7 photos of their heroes' faces, each student sketched his or her hero using pencil and paper. The art teacher then made a paper pattern of a body, similar to a four-foot tall gingerbread man. Each student taped the pattern onto a folded piece of natural white muslin and cut it out. They sketched and painted a face on one side of the fabric.

The trio of teachers and several parents sewed together the pieces of muslin back to back with a 1/4-inch seam allowance. Students trimmed the outside edges and turned the bodies inside out. A 12-inch slit was made in the back of each body so students could stuff it with two bags of fiberfill. Then the slit was closed with masking tape.

"We sewed the hands to make it look like the figures had fingers,," reported Sommers. "Our art teacher showed kids how to add hair to their heroes' heads using yarn, fiberfill, pipe cleaners, and more. The kids then took home the bodies to dress and accessorize. When the children brought them back to school, we wired them into folding chairs with fishing line to prop them up into sitting positions. The biogra-bodies were a tremendous hit. Our entire school community loved them!"

One of the most impressive aspects of the project for Sommers was how recognizable the "heroes" were. Many of the students' creations were quite accurate. The heroes will be on display again in the art room during the school's spring open house as part of a "biogra-body museum." Sommers also is generating a presentation called "The Making of a Biogra-body" that will be shown on a television screen so all in attendance will grasp the hard work students put into their projects.

"Students were very creative in the ways they displayed the ten facts about their heroes," shared Sommers. "Two kids put facts on index cards and attached them to Tiger Wood's golf club. Another child added his facts, one by one, to Ben Franklin's kite."

The successful completion of the project required a team effort -- art and classroom teachers, parents, and willing kids. As always, parent support was critical.

"Having a clearly defined vision for the final product and well-written expectations accompanied by a timeline with due dates and checkpoints was huge as well," Sommers stated. "I spelled out everything for the kids ahead of time, including how their essays and bodies would be graded at the end."

Sommers' class has done well with several hands-on projects that she has assigned this year. She finds that those projects appeal to diverse learning styles and help cement newly-learned information in unique and creative ways. She adds, "I'll definitely do this again!"

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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