In her formative study, Women of Smoke (1989), Marjorie Agosin tells of the legacy of Latin American women writers who courageously defy their government’s censorship and refuse to be silent. Relentlessly they speak on behalf of those people in their society who suffer deplorable conditions caused by repressive dictatorial regimes. Some writers disappear and others are exiled but the words they write serve as keys or secret codes that “seek to open the doors of silenced cities and countries” (p. 12). All of this could be said of the evocative paintings of Mexico’s Frida Kahlo, the articulate activism of Guatemala’s Rigoberta Menchú and the poetry of Chile’s Gabriela Mistral.
In my curriculum unit I plan to have my third-grade students read about the lives of three important Latin American women from very different walks of life. Biography is the ideal genre by which they can learn about the courage of these women in meeting the challenges of their times and the creative contributions they were able to render to their societies. The great appeal of biographies as a pedagogical tool is in their ability to make history come alive for young readers. Written like fiction, often with dramatic action and excitement, these stories feature factual accounts of real events and real people whom we can admire and emulate, or abhor, and about whom we can seek further information in other sources. Biography is also an ideal introduction to the study and appreciation of ‘foreign’ cultures. Let us now take a brief look at the etymology of the word biography and at the history of its development.
The word, biography, is derived from Greek. Bios means life and graphia means writing. A biography, then, is a written account of an actual life. Early biographers were largely uncritical in their approach and tended to completely idealize their subjects whether they were saints or military leaders. Biography was commemorative, that is, written primarily to edify and inspire its readers. During the 17th and 18th centuries biographers began to employ sound research techniques and based their accounts on more factual information. In addition, literary standards rose and biographies became a distinct genre of high literature. With the 20th century came the powerful influence of Sigmund Freud whose revolutionary new concept of psychoanalysis irresistibly compelled biographers to focus more on the inner, ‘mental life’ of the subjects.
In regard to children’s biographies, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and 70s that biographers began to more realistically portray their subjects and they strove to develop “many sides of a subject’s character, including their negative qualities” (Jerome-Cohen, p. 7). Also, during this time period an increasing number of biographies were being written about such previously ignored groups as women, Native Americans, African Americans and other minorities.
Now let’s take a brief look at these three remarkable figures of achievement from Latin America, our cultural neighbors to the south. These brief biography sketches as well as the longer texts that I have composed (found later in this unit) are based on the reading I have done of a number of biographies about these three women cited in the bibliography section.
Frida Kahlo was a self-taught artist who went on to become one of the greatest Mexican painters of the twentieth century. Born during the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo’s life and her art were deeply influenced by this seminal event. She strongly believed in equal rights for all Mexicans and her politics and art reflected this conviction. In point of fact, Kahlo was of mixed heritage, Mexican and European, and she often felt herself torn between both worlds. Many of her paintings explored images from both native and European traditions, depicting her sense of struggle and conflict in belonging to two often contradictory worlds. Frida’s paintings also depict the almost unbelievable pain she suffered throughout her life. At the age of five, she contracted polio which left her right leg thin and weak. Then, in her teens, she was involved in a horrible bus accident from which she never fully recovered. Kahlo’s paintings may be appreciated as both personal and universal at times, evincing her feelings of ethnic pride, happiness, disappointment and pain.
Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Indian from Guatemala, began working as a laborer on large coffee and cotton plantations at the age of eight. Native Indians in Guatemala have few rights as citizens and are forced to work in extremely harsh conditions under the thumb of an oppressive military-led government and wealthy plantation-owners. Her parents were tortured and killed by Guatemalan soldiers when she was only a teenager. Menchú went on to become a courageous activist for the rights of the indigenous people of her country. She fearlessly led a campaign for social justice that brought international attention to this conflict between the Indians and the military government of Guatemala. Indeed, she became a powerful voice for the rights of all indigenous people throughout the Americas. In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize for her valiant efforts in the service of her people.
Gabriela Mistral (a pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga) was born in the village of Vicu–a in northern Chile and was raised by her mother, a schoolteacher. She began writing poetry while working as a village schoolteacher. As an educational consultant, Mistral went on to improve schools in both Chile and Mexico for which she received honorable recognition. But her most outstanding achievement was to be the first South American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature. Gabriela Mistral’s poetry combines themes of love, maternity and childhood. Through her verse she speaks with a voice that all people can understand. Mistral is celebrated both as a distinguished South American writer and as a symbol of the nationalistic aspirations of her country.
I have gathered numerous reference sources on the lives of Kahlo, Menchú and Mistral. Using these sources, I have written simple but interesting biographies appropriate for the age-group I teach and geared to their reading levels. Using a “think-along” format (used by the Steck-Vaughn Company, which creates excellent educational materials for students and teachers), I have inserted key-questions at regular intervals in the texts that I have composed. This will encourage my young readersas Dr. Roger Farr, program author of Steck-Vaughn Think-Alongs writesto take “think breaks” as they read. Thus, while reading these biographies in small-group settings, students will be called upon regularly to pause, think, and discuss the text they are reading. In this way, active reading-strategies of thinking along while reading are reinforced. Research has shown that students who actively reason and interact with the text while reading, comprehend more of what they are reading.
There are three valuable resources that I have used to develop activities that will help my students respond meaningfully to their reading in both oral and written ways. They are: Exploring Biographies by Deborah Jerome-Cohen, Biography and Autobiography by Patricia S. Morris and Margaret A. Berry and Genres of Literature by Janice J. Withington. In addition to providing suggestions for thought-provoking questions that ask the reader to compare and analyze what they have read, they also offer many useful graphic organizers that my students can use in their examination of the subject’s traits, challenges, achievements and important life events. A second source of graphic organizers that I plan to use is The Big Book of Reproducible Graphic Organizers by Jennifer Jacobsen and Dottie Raymer.
I teach third-grade in a self-contained classroom at Lincoln-Bassett Community School. My students are primarily of African-American descent, a heterogeneous group with varying abilities in the 8-10 age range. Although I have designed this unit with them in mind, I am confident that it could easily be adapted by teachers to suit the K-3 grades, if not older.
This unit will be divided into four sections:
I. Frida Kahlo - The Power of the Brush
II. Rigoberta Menchú - The Power of the Spoken Word
III. Gabriela Mistral - The Power of the Pen
IV. Comparison and Contrast of All Three Biographies
The lessons in this unit will be introduced on a daily basis for a period of 45-60 minutes. I anticipate the unit covering a four- to six-month span of time.