After looking at the New Haven Public School's district curriculum for Language Arts and Social Studies, recent Connecticut Mastery Tests, and district assessments, I found that the strands that presented students with difficulty were writing and editing/revising. Students did not master the application of skills learned such as how to use quotations or commas appropriately, nor did they elaborate on their details given when writing an expository piece of writing. Students lacked strong organizational skills and strong topic sentences. After looking at the district writing prompts, students did not engage with the topic nor did they use detailed, descriptive words to "spice" up their writing. When the mention is made of a five paragraph essay, I get all sorts of sighs and comments, which indicates to me that some students are not comfortable writers nor are they "excited" about writing or the editing process.
The idea of this biography unit is to get students engaged in their own writing while making vivid connections to personal experiences, other texts, and the outside world. Student centered discussions stimulates mental pictures that can only be seen through imagination, and then transcribed through writing. By encouraging student discourse, the students become part of their own learning and are fascinated with the details of events. Student discourse increases comprehension and builds upon personal experience. The students determine what is the most meaningful information that they would like to include in their written pieces. According to Boise State University's Jeffrey Wilhelm, "By bringing the students' background knowledge to the learning table, students will find ways to connect to the topic and will have activated some basis for creating meaning for the text they are discussing and students are in charge of their own learning through questions about and discussion of the topic with peers, parents, and teachers."
This inquiry based learning approach promotes student led discussions and invites more learning about the subject. The biography unit would benefit from this approach because students can learn from each other while engaging themselves in the art of writing.
Since the Social Studies lessons did not include biography, the fifth grade team decided to introduce it in November when we were studying European Explorers of the 1400's. We gave the students an explorer and asked them to search for the explorer on the internet, look through books, then provide an explorer report. Some of the reports were on Power Point, acted out, or made into posters advertising the explorer, but as I saw, many students provided a chronological timeline of events which only covered the birth date, death date, and five major events of the explorer's life. The students did not know where to begin, or even what kind of information they needed to include in their report. Some students wanted to write everything about the explorer while others chose to find one or two important details to tell about. There was no real direction given to the students as to how to do the report, and since there was little instruction on what a biography entails, the teachers decided that the students should just do more of an outline of facts accompanied by an illustration or model of the explorer's route taken to the New World.
Next came Black history Month, and the students wanted to read about a famous African American and write about their life. Needless to say, the biography had three components: family life, major accomplishments, and contributions; again, a chronological timeline of events. After talking to the students about the project, they said that they enjoyed reading about the person's life, but inferred that they could not expand their writing any further then what they were asked to do. It was clear after this task that the students needed more instruction on the principles of biography in order to make a project like this make sense and is more accessible for all of the learners in the classroom.
The biography unit will employ several resources besides the shared reading texts and the writing lessons prepared by the district of New Haven to assist in the final version of the unit. Students will use a variety of classroom resources like the internet to access websites on biography like (www.biography.com), and the Library Media Center where thousands of nonfiction books are accessible for viewing and designing notes on the lives of others. In the classroom, books like
Abraham Lincoln, a Photobiography
, will be available for students to look through. Students can read and write about the people that they have read and apply some of the principles that they have learned in class to their readings of the biographies. Other videos of historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks are all great biographical stories geared toward younger children and streamed live through a website called http://www.unitedstreaming.org