This unit introduces students to five basic principles of biography writing (origins of author, selection of events, subjectivity versus objectivity, archival history, and audience) through a variety of different approaches that can be adapted to fit the needs of all learners ranging from students with learning disabilities to students with extensive, rich vocabularies and backgrounds.
Most of the principles that are taught throughout the unit have emerged from discussions in the 2012 Yale New Haven Teachers' Institute seminar,
"The Art of Biography"
, and from the assigned texts by Virginia Woolf, James Shapiro, Robert Caro, Chester Brown, and St.Augustine. Although I would not use any of these books for my middle school students, I think the principles they suggest are highly transferrable to the students for use in their own biographies or autobiographies. I intend to use kid–friendly texts and videos to deliver these same ideas.
A Timeline of Memories and Past Reflections
, will be a month–long writing unit designed for middle school students, grades five through eight, but the principles of the unit are universal in nature, specifically and purposely intended to be tailored to fit the high school writing curriculum for students in grades nine through twelve, and for ages ranging from fourteen through eighteen up to college students in an English Composition class, aged twenty and over. The unit addresses the interests of students through reading, writing, sharing experiences, and role playing in order to peak their curiosity about the subject matter. By the end of the unit, the students will choose one of the following: write a biography of another person they know, or write their own autobiography. Each way, the students will have to use the principles of biography to complete the final assessment. Students are thus encouraged to become narrators of their own stories, engaged with the idea of being a creative reader, writer, and thinker.
The unit's focus will be on writing. Throughout the New Haven Public School's curriculum, writing is taught through a series of exercises, and/or lessons in mechanics, vocabulary, and author's craft (figurative and literary devices) all separately. This unit is a chance for students to apply all of the skills learned throughout the year into a finished piece of writing. In addition to learning the elements of writing, students will also read historical biographies of people studied in Social Studies class as well as people that appeal to the students like athletes, singers, dancers, and actors. Presently, only one biography text is used,
Secret Soldier: Biography of Deborah Sampson
, in addition to the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who are studied during Social Studies lessons on the Revolutionary War and Civil War. In order to increase the student's knowledge of how to write a biography, he or she must be exposed to various texts, visuals, and student centered conversations to evoke the mind's senses. The use of visual aids, especially, plays an enormous role in the beginning stages of creating a biography that is individualized and customized to fit the student's life. Most importantly, students get a chance to 'talk" about themselves, which we all know, students love to do. Student discourse is the main vehicle for this unit. It is the foundation for rich relationships within the classroom and outside the classroom.
Throughout the writing unit, students will focus on word choice, figurative language, topic selection, organization of the expository essay, elements of the expository essay, and voice development. In each of these direct instructional teaching strategies, there will be small group instruction where the students can peer/share and have a chance to confer with each other using a specific rubric or checklist to follow in order to guide conversations.