© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.
Look, theres my fifth grader! exclaimed Jeremy as my second grade class encountered a group of older children in the hallway. A round of smiles, waves, and friendly greetings was exchanged between the groups of children as they passed one another in the hall.
Later that morning, one of my students raised her hand.
Mr. Miller, can I read my biography to the whole class? asked Tracie with a look of eager anticipation on her face.
Sure you can! I replied. I think well have time right after lunch. Tracie had started second grade that year reading at the pre-primer level and had been too shy to utter a word outside her circle of closest friends.
These exchanges took place during a biography-writing project in which fifth grade students interviewed second grade students. The project develops reading and writing skills, incorporates the benefits of cross-age mentoring, and introduces the students of both ages to the concept of biographical research and writing. It began when a fifth grade teacher and I, each in our respective classrooms, introduced our students to the process of biographical writing. Biographers gather information by directly observing a person, interviewing them, and studying primary and secondary source documents. We read aloud the biographies of several historical figures and well as living persons. (see references).
The teacher of the fifth-grade class further prepared her students for the biography-writing activity by helping them compose interview questions. She assisted them in developing interview schedules in which questions were grouped into categories (for example, personal and family demographic data, school activities, and personal interests). As an optional activity, her students could make microphones to be used during the interview process, made with heavy cardboard, paper towel tubes, aluminum foil, and tape.
The fifth grade teacher also provides her students with opportunities to develop and hone their interviewing skills. Divided into pairs, they practice asking one another their interview questions and recording the responses. The teacher stresses the importance of accuracy and encourages the students to record responses verbatim (without demanding a clean or accurate result beyond childrens abilities). Thus, the stage is set for the students to begin the process of collecting information for their biographical sketches.
The two classes meet together in a convenient location and the students are grouped in pairs, each consisting of an older and a younger student. The older students conduct their interviews, letting the younger child hold the microphone to add a touch of TV realism. They record, verbatim, the younger childrens responses to their interview questions.
Then they thank the younger children for taking part in the project.
Back in their own classroom, the older students record their personal impressions of the interviewees. This might include data related to physical appearance, personality, and other general observations.
Then the biography-writing process begins. The teacher provides the students with time, encouragement, and one-on-one assistance as needed to help them develop their biographical sketches. Skills like outlining the story, spelling, punctuation, and composition are reviewed and practiced. Self-editing and peer-editing are encouraged as the students polish and refine their compositions. Finally, the students create report covers and illustrations for their finished work.
Sharing the Sketches
The two classes meet together again, and the older students share their finished products with their younger partners. After reading the biographical sketches to their younger counterparts, the older students present their partners with a personal copy of their compositions. Back in their own classroom, the younger students read their biographies to one another in small-group settings.
Then its time to return the favor. Roles are reversed. The younger children develop interview schedules, conduct interviews, write biographical sketches, and share their finished products following the procedures outlined above. Having just practiced the difficult task of taking dictation, the older children are now willing to be patient while the younger ones try to record their answers to interview questions. The structure and scaffolding provided throughout this activity enable the younger children to fashion finished products of surprisingly high quality.
This biography project is an excellent vehicle for providing cross-grade socialization while furnishing meaningful, relevant educational experiences. Language and social studies skills are put to practical use. Performing both roles, biographer and interviewee, challenges students to think critically about what goes into the final work and, in the process, they have some serious fun!
Adler, David A. A Picture Book of Sojourner Truth. New York: Holliday House, 1994.
Bradby, Marie. More Than Anything Else: The Life of Booker T. Washington. New York: Orchard, 1996.
Bray, Rosemary L. Martin Luther King. New York: Greenwillow, 1995.
Freedman, Russell. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (New York: Clarion, 1993).
Fritz, Jean. And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1973.
Giblin, James. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
Gross, B. G. A Book about Christopher Columbus. New York: Scholastic, 1974.
Kunhardt, E. L. Honest Abe. New York: Greenwillow, 1993.
Lawson, Robert. Ben and Me. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939.
Parks, Rosa and Jim Haskins. I am Rosa Parks. New York: Puffin, 1998.
About the Author
Frank Miller is an associate professor of Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas.