When Dr. Webre asked me if I was familiar with biopoems (biographical poems) and whether I ever used them in fifth grade social studies, I replied that many of my fifth graders had written bio-poems about themselves, but I had not incorporated formula poetry into my social studies classes. She shared some of the bio-poems about Peter Stuyvesant created by her pre-service teachers, and I became interested in utilizing trade books to enhance content in conjunction with bio-poems in my fifth grade social studies classes.
Since my students had already studied the settlement of the thirteen colonies, I decided to center my lessons around George Washington. By the time my students reach fifth grade, they are familiar with George Washingtonís major role in the founding of the nation, but they know very little about him personally. In the textbook, he is described as serving three major roles in the history of our country, first as a general in the French and Indian War, then as commander of the Continental Army, and eventually as President of the United States.1 Relying on only the text, the students come to know him just on the surface.
I began a character study by having the students write down everything they already knew about George Washington, including his accomplishments, and also words describing him as a person. As anticipated, the brainstorming did not take long. Along with his most famous role of president, only a few descriptions were written, such as ìsmartî and ìhis face is seen on money.î
Then I displayed the framework of the bio-poem on an overhead projector. Most students mentioned that they had completed bio-poems about themselves previously and were familiar with the format. We briefly discussed each line of the poem. I told the students that, after further study of George Washington, they would complete a bio-poem explaining what he was like as a human being.
The students listened to a reading of George Washington: A Picture Book Biography.2 As they heard new information, they added or revised their original brainstorming lists. From the studentsí reactions and their lengthy lists, it was clear that they found his life much more interesting than they had previously believed. What seemed to interest them most was that he wore dentures made from the teeth of a hippopotamus and that he owned many slaves that he eventually freed.
With the revised lists, the students composed bio-poems about George Washington. They were allowed to refer to their texts and other books made available to them so that they could find more words describing the man.3 Upon completion, students were paired and asked to revise and edit each otherís poems. Each student typed his or her poem on a computer and received a printed copy (See example, inset).
Once all three chapters of the textbook were read and all poems were published, I tested students on the life of George Washington. The test contained multiple choice items, true-false items, and open-ended questions. The average score was 93%.4
The average test score and the bio-poems written by my fifth graders attest to the effectiveness of integrating trade books and student writing. The poems reveal that the students realized that Washington was a real person who had brothers, a wife, and stepchildren for whom he cared. Additionally, the bio-poems reveal details learned through shared reading and student rereading of trade books, as well as the textbook. The bio-poem format served as a motivational device, encouraging my fifth graders to come to know George Washington personally, rather than knowing him only as a distant historical figure or as a one-dimensional image seen on a one-dollar bill.
1. Richard Bohem, Claudia Hoone, et al. United States. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 2000).
2. James Giblin. George Washington: A Picture Book Biography (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1992).
3. Bohem, 222-223; 247-250; 325-328; Joan Heilbroner, Meet George Washington. (New York: Random House, 1989).
4. The lessons described spanned a three-week time period.
Maria Inzerella is a fifth grade teacher at Duson Elementary School in Duson, Louisiana. She also serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
by Lori Davis (fifth grade)
Truthful, responsible, reliable, friendly
Relative of Lawrence Washington
Who loves farming, soldiers, adventure
Who feels proud, grateful, brave
Who needs medicine, better teeth, to retire to Mount Vernon
Who fears his country losing freedom or independence, false teeth
Who gives help, friendship, love
Who would like to see no slavery, a free country, people working together
Resident of Mount Vernon