5 Ways to Teach Biographies in Middle and High School

Hi there-- The SuperHERO Teacher here to talk about biographies! Finding unique, innovative ways to teach informational text can be challenging, especially when you want to keep students engaged while simultaneously strengthening their reading, writing, and annotating skills. Below, I’ll share 5 activities or tips to teach nonfiction, specifically using biographies.

Engage students with art or visuals
Before introducing a piece of nonfiction text to your students, try showing a picture of the person or a piece of art related to them. This gives students a visual as they are reading through the biography. For your more visual learners, this will help them make connections to the text. If you’re doing a larger unit on biographies, hanging posters, art or photography around the classroom will set the mood for the unit. Here’s an example:

Use creative alternatives to research projects
Who says research PROJECTS have to be Times New Roman and double spaced? Instead of an essay, turn it into a project where students have to develop a scene that depicts the person they are reading about while simultaneously sharing factual information about them. Here are some examples:
  • Have students develop a social media platform for their assigned person (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc)
  • Biography in documentary film style
  • Record a movie trailer of their life
  • Host a gallery walk by turning your classroom into a museum of art either created by or about each person
  • Assign a variety of projects (group and individual) using my Inspirational Women, Men and Non-Binary Biography Journal
Include current biographies
Historical figures are important to include, but so are modern day biographies that students can personally relate to! For example, include a biography about Beyonce or Taylor Swift so students are already familiar with the person, but are now diving deeper into their life to see where their success came from-- struggles and all.
Have students write an autobiography
Now it’s time to flip the script! After reading and researching about other famous, inspirational figures, have students write an autobiography where they share their story. Now that they’ve seen several examples of what a biography looks like and the research it entails, they can begin brainstorming and drafting their own. It’s a perfect opportunity to strengthen reading AND writing skills. 
Practice annotation skills in a group setting (FREEBIE)
Text annotation can be a relatively dry process in my opinion. However, when students are working together and sharing their findings, it develops a level of engagement that didn’t exist before. Using the free annotation guide I provided, assign each person in the group a different person’s biography. After completing the annotation and comprehension questions, they can share their answers with their group members. This gives students the opportunity to learn about other important bios than the one they are researching, too! 

Check out these awesome resources from members of The Secondary English Coffee Shop:
Thanks for reading!

Espresso Shot: Tips for Distance Learning

Chances are your school has moved toward distance learning--or is planning to--due to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving you very little time to acclimate yourself to this style of teaching. We know online teaching can be a daunting task, so several of us have put together some tips and resources to help ease your mind and hopefully make the process easier.

Tracee Orman: If you are currently reading a novel, short story, or poetry, simply recording yourself reading aloud (adding your own commentary or lecture notes) can be very beneficial for students. I use QuickTime's recording feature (simply open the app and select File > New Audio Recording) to make short audio files that I can share with students through email or a platform like Google Classroom. If you don't have QuickTime, you can use Google Play's free recording app. Allowing your students to hear your voice can be comforting and adding your own commentary and questions in an audio file can help with their understanding of difficult passages. If you are starting a new unit, keep the reading passages short. You can search YouTube and LibriVox.org for free audio recordings of short stories and poems. I also posted these free editable reading graphic organizers you can share with your students that can be used with any piece of literature. (You can also download them in PowerPoint format here.) Finally, if your students don't have internet access but have a phone number, just calling and checking in with several different students each day can make a difference. It will show you still care about them and allow them to ask any questions they may have.

Nouvelle ELA: Distance learning can be an amazing opportunity to develop student autonomy. One thing to consider (particularly in emergency circumstances) is access: do all of your students have access to the technology you're using? Here's a tip that doesn't require prolonged internet access. P.S. It does require an independent reading novel, so if you're not already doing that, now's a great time to start. 😀In a previous post on the Coffee Shop, I talked about creative reading. This is an extension of your students' independent reading and requires them to think creatively and critically. You can print out the free prompts from that post or have your students copy them down from the board. Then, they can answer them in writing any time during a school closure.

The Super Hero Teacher: When we think of virtual teaching, we often think that the interactive component isn't possible. How can you possibly complete an interactive notebook with students if you aren't able to cut and paste, right? Luckily, that's no longer the case with Google Slides and the ability to design interactive notebooks for students that are completely digital and cut/paste free! Here's your PRO tip for designing in Google Slides: simply transport any PowerPoint document into Slides, add text boxes, and share with students! Students can respond to questions interactively, add photos/charts/clipart, and turn it in virtually.

The Daring English Teacher: Distance learning presents many unique and new challenges for educators and students alike. One of the most glaring aspects remote learning reveals is the lack of access and equity across the world. When students are left to manage their own learning remotely, the disparities are pushed to the forefront. As an educator in a district impacted by a district closure, the only real advice I can offer that really matters is this: educators must demonstrate flexibility, compassion, and understanding. Some of our students might not be able to complete remote lessons, and teachers need to be understanding of that. Personally, I will be using Remind and Google Classroom to push out assignments to my students with the understanding that they might not get done on time. With that said, I am keeping assignments minimal and standards-based. I am only assigning content that is truly necessary. I’ll also be extending an olive branch to my students. They can work on any of their late work from the semester during our downtime. Because, at the end of the day, if they are working on something for my class, I am happy. When we return to the classroom, I’m sure we will have a new set of unique challenges waiting for us, but for now, I’m focusing on being flexible, compassionate, and understanding.

Room 213: Remote teaching and learning may not require you to spend hours creating new lesson plans. In fact, if you use it as an opportunity to give your students a little freedom and choice, you may get more engagement and be able to give yourself a break. First of all, it’s a great opportunity for kids to read for fun, rather than for an assignment. Tell them to set goals for the number of pages they read each day and then ask them to read a few more pages each time. Make it a challenge to see who can increase the most (do it by percentage rather than number of pages so everyone can compete). You can throw in a few responses here and there to hold them accountable if you like. For non-fiction reading, post links to sites where kids can access news stories and articles like Newsela, Time Magazine, NPR, etc. Instead of assigning an article they have to read, let them choose. Ask them to summarize what they've learned and do a response. Ted Talk videos are also good to post for response. You can even get kids to practice their research skills by exploring topics and ideas they are interested in. Tell them to spend their online class time searching something they find interesting. Then, they can write a reflection that includes some paraphrased & quoted info that they need to embed and cite. These things are all low-prep for you, but give the kids the opportunity to build skills while they do something they find engaging.

Secondary Sara: I'm fortunately able to use Google Classroom and Google Apps with my students for their remote learning during the next (several?) weeks. I'm relying heavily on Google Forms and Docs as my primary methods of assessment. For example, since I was able to send home some books with students before our school closed, we're using a Google Form for students to submit their reading each time they finish an independent reading book (instead of a reading log).

Since National Poetry Month is coming up, I made this Free Poetry Madness Bracket to still give my students an interactive poetry reading experience that will hopefully feel fun and not like too much "work".

Additional Resources:

• You can access several FREE resources and tips from a group of ELA teachers here.

• Teachers Pay Teachers is offering free TpT School Access to any school affected by the Coronavirus. Fill out the form by clicking the link. This will give your school access to high-quality resources without having to pay the access fee.

• Quizlet is offering FREE Quizlet Teacher through June, 30, 2020.

Scribd.com is offering free access to many books normally behind a paywall.

• Shmoop offers tons of funny and educational free videos that you can send to students.

Head to our Instagram account and join in the conversation with other educators. 

Lesson Openers to Excite & Engage

I read once that Albert Einstein remarked it is a miracle curiosity survives formal education. This observation has stuck with me: a pesky stone in my shoe. 

Somehow, amongst all the curricular demands, standardised testing, graduation requirements, examination preparation, and everything else which pulls at me, I desperately want to instill a sense of wonder, curiosity, and excitement in my students. I desire for them to love learning, to ask questions, to be curious about what they see, read, and hear. 

And one of the best – and simplest – ways I have found to do this, is the use of lesson openers which excite and engage. Inspired by the concept of provocations in the Reggio Emilia Approach1, I open learning experiences in an open-ended way which provokes student exploration, discussion, creativity, and ideas. This way, when we move into the content of the lesson, students are already engaged; their curiosity is hopefully piqued, and they’re more receptive to learning. 

Below are five simple ways I open classes in order to provoke engagement, discussion, and curiosity. Click here to get a downloadable version to stick in your daily planner, or on your desk as a reminder when lesson planning! 

INSTRUCTIONS: Place an object (which links to the lesson content) in the center of the room. For added intrigue and curiosity, place it under a cloth to ‘reveal’ when students are settled. Then use the exploration of this object to springboard into the lesson of the day: through a discussion, writing exercise, word association game, etc. For example: for a writing class about using varied sentence types, the object could be a bowl of sweets, and students write about the experience of eating one for the very first time. Or, it’s an informational text lesson, using a newspaper article on how social media impacts beauty standards, the object might be a pile of make-up, and students discuss their personal associations with these products. [Nouvelle ELA has a similar lesson for analyzing symbols: get it here]

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Wait a while before you explain the presence of the mystery object: perhaps even have students spend time thinking about it and making predictions for why it is there (you may want to give them one or two clues). Equally, if appropriate, have the desks arranged in groups and place different objects on different desks. For example: in an introductory lesson for a unit on ‘Identity’ place different pieces of fruit around the room, and have students move to the one that most represents them, and then encourage them to explain their choice.  

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Any time you add a little mystery or present something unexpected in the classroom, it will pique students’ curiosity. When they are intrigued and curious, they’re primed to engage and learn. Indeed, the emotion of curiosity has long been recognized as a vital motivating factor driving learning2.

INSTRUCTIONS: Write a provocative statement on the board which links to the lesson content. (e.g. If you’re studying Romeo and Juliet: It is possible to fall in love the first time you meet someone. Or reading Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’? What about: Your dignity is always within your own control.) Then place tape, or indicate an imaginary line, across the room, with one end as “Completely Agree” and the other as “Completely Disagree.” Give students a minute to consider the statement and then have them stand on the line to indicate their opinions. [You might also want to check out the Daring English Teacher's blog post on Introducing Complex Ideas to Students]

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Once students have taken their places, ask a couple of students on opposite ends to speak to each other: to debate and defend their positions. Or, have students turn to the person next to them and discuss, seeing if they really are in the right places, or if they should switch (if they feel stronger than their neighbor on the line). Finally, at the end of the lesson, why not do the activity again and see if any of them have changed their positions? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: This not only gets students thinking critically about key themes and issues, but it is also an effective way to make their thinking visible, and to push them to take a stand. Moreover, requiring students to give reasons for why they picked where they did, helps them back up their opinions with evidence and reason. 

INSTRUCTIONS: Think about the content of the lesson, and then try to mimic something of the mood/setting/theme in the classroom environment. While pinterest-worthy classroom transformations are wonderful, that’s not what I am talking about here. You can set the mood in quick and easy ways, which will engage students’ senses when they walk in the door. For example: when studying Lord of the Flies, visually project a jungle screensaver on the board, with ambient sounds. This doesn’t have to be just for literature lessons: if you’re spending the lesson writing, have students enter with ambient coffee shop sounds, or stormy weather (great for writing horror stories!). Check out the website A Soft Murmur for this: go play around with their sound settings. 

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: If possible, engage more senses: play with lighting, images, smells, touch, etc. Or – to really engage students’ imaginations – before playing the ambient noises, have them settle down, and close their eyes. Then give them a scenario to imagine as you slowly turn up the volume on the ambient sounds. For example: in a lesson on Emily Dickenson’s “The Railway Train,” start by playing the sound of a train and ask students to imagine this sound as an animal: what would it be and why? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Engaging the senses is a powerful learning tool: when we create a multisensory experience in the classroom, not only does it pique students’ curiosity, but it can also make the learning more memorable. Indeed, when engaging multiple senses, we optimise the learning mechanisms in the brain, and tap into the many different ways different students learn best3

INSTRUCTIONS: It is as simple as this: play a current song or music video, show an extract from a current TV series, use a trailer for a recent movie: anything which links the content of the day’s lesson with students’ interests and lives outside of class. For example: before we studied The Great Gatsby (click for resources), I played Lorde’s Royals and asked students what the song meant to them. Before telling students anything about Lord of the Flies, we watched the trailer for The 100 and discussed what such a situation would be like.

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Have students suggest the media you present: at the end of a previous class, explain the broad content of the next class (themes, main topic, etc.) and ask students to suggest appropriate songs, video clips, games, etc., which would make for engaging lesson openers. This way, they too are making connections to their learning, and you are making sure the references are highly relevant! 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: When we incorporate students’ personal interests and entertainments in the classroom environment, their learning becomes more relevant, engaging, and multi-dimensional. The key here though is making sure it is really something which students’ are currently interested in: not just what we might assume they will be interested in! And the best way to ensure this, is to really spend time building relationships with students, finding out their interests, and knowing what’s currently popular.  

INSTRUCTIONS: Before class, think about the key theme, topic, or skill which you aim to explore or develop. Then, think of 3-5 key words related to this; write these on the board, or around the room. When students enter, draw their attention to these words, and instruct them to work in pairs to construct a question using the words. For example, before a lesson on Fahrenheit 451 (click for resources), you might use “knowledge” “future” “technology” and “books.” A possible question students might generate: In the future, will books become useless, as we use technology to access knowledge? And this doesn’t have to be limited to lessons on literature: in a lesson about essay writing, words such as “style” “structure” “opinion” and “voice” might generate some engaging questions. 

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Once students have formed a question, provide the means for discussing or answering the question: this might be through small-group discussions, through accessing online sources, or through analysis of a text. The key here is you need to be flexible and open to going where students’ questions take the lesson. Why not even ask them how the class should proceed in terms of answering their questions? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Too often, by the time they reach middle/high school, curious questioning has been replaced by incessant answering: students become adept at answering questions, but often lack opportunities to inquire and question. Developing this ability to ask questions will help with developing critical thinking skills, and engaging discussion proficiency. Moreover, students will be hooked from the start of class, and invested in finding out the answers to their questions. 

So that's it: if you have ANY questions, please feel free to reach out: come find me on Instagram, or email me at staceylloydteaching@gmail.com.

Looking for other high-interest, provoking lessons to excite and engage? Check these out: 

1Strong-Wilson, T., & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilia's environment as third teacher. Theory into practice, 46(1), 40-47.
2Markey, A., & Loewenstein, G. (2014). Curiosity. In International handbook of emotions in education (pp. 238-255). Routledge.
3Shams, L., & Seitz, A. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(11), 411–417. 

Building Classroom Community through Asset-Based Thinking

by Danielle from Nouvelle ELA

Imagine you’re able to get some singing tips from your favorite pop star. Would you rather do this on stage in front of a studio audience or in your living room with three of your best friends? Props to those of you who’d choose the stage, but most of us would choose the latter.

Learning is a risk. Every time we open ourselves up to learning something new, we take a risk. Perhaps we’re scared of looking foolish, or perhaps we’ve clung to an ideology that doesn’t work anymore. Our students feel that same trepidation when being asked to try something new. To foster an environment where learning can take place, we must first build a community of trust and mutual support. 

A key aspect of building classroom community is helping every student feel skilled and valued. Too often, students at school get the message that they aren’t “enough” of x, y, or z. This triggers their negativity bias. Because our brains are hard-wired to protect us from threats, those threats get magnified and our attention lingers there until we deal with them. Negativity bias means that if a student feels uncomfortable in your classroom, that threat will consume their attention and keep them from being successful learners. (For more on brain-based teaching, check out Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, 2015.)

By strengthening students’ attention on their assets, not their deficits, we can prime the classroom community for learning. One way to do this is to create an asset-based profile (Hammond). Though this is definitely something you can do privately, giving students ownership of this task is a way to empower them.

An asset-based profile can include the physical, social, and mental resources a student has. This can be adults who care for them, community mentors who inspire them, their love of basketball or marching band, and their math skills. 

Today, we’ll dive into soft skills. These are the assets that students can rely on as they take root in the classroom community. This is a great opportunity to shine light on some things that school hasn’t traditionally valued for students. A student might struggle with reading fluency, for example, but be an excellent leader in any group work. Helping students articulate this is empowering and critical to making all contributions feel valued.

Building an Asset-Based Profile

Students will be able to: 
-identify their unique skills and capacities
-recognize multiple approaches to the same goal
-value their peers’ differing contributions
-rely on these assets as they face challenging tasks

1. Tell a Story

Start off this lesson with a story, “A Tale of Three Gamers.” I encourage you to tell this story aloud, since sharing orally will draw in your community of learners. According to Hammond, “In oral cultures, there is a reliance on oral expression to carry meaning and feelings through its emotional vitality. The goal is to express aliveness and animation to stimulate the senses.” 

2. Discussion

After you share the story, ask students to name the best player. Honestly, there is no “best” player since each of the three players reached the treasure (the stated goal) in about the same time. What we want to highlight here is that each player possessed different skills and strategies that made them successful. Students may value some of these skills more than others, depending on their background and their own preferences. 

Once the initial debate subsides, have students list out traits each player showed. You can use the Asset Bank if your students need some help naming them. Do this on the board as a class or in small groups. 

  • Rashod showed courage and tenacity. Even though he died and had to start again, he kept going. He also improved through practice. 
  • Curiosity drove Jessenia. She wanted to know if she could beat the level, even with certain limitations, and she kept trying until she did so. She’s innovative. 
  • Shane showed planning and attention to detail. They managed their health well so that they never died. They also did some hard work before the Big Challenge to help it go more smoothly.

3. Application

Next, turn the gaze inward. Students work with a peer to brainstorm their own assets. They can use the Questionnaire and Asset Bank to facilitate this discussion. The Asset Bank is only a starting place, so you can circulate to provide more vocabulary as needed.

4. Creation

To solidify the value of these assets to the classroom community, display them! As a final step, you can ask students to create a visual representation of three of their assets.

What’s next? 

Using puzzles and games in the classroom are a great way to teach students to value multiple approaches to the same problem. I love these Collaborative Bellringers! Each puzzle is a mini-task that ties in students’ cultural knowledge and problem-solving. This quick, competitive game is a great way to build classroom community in the first few minutes of class. You can grab a free sample here.

Lately, I’ve been using digital breakout games like TERMINUS to help students open themselves up to a challenge. While my big goal is to strengthen reading skills, this game helps students value their own contributions to any team. 

What do you do to build up students' perception of their own skills? Let me know!

Happy teaching!
-Danielle @nouvelle_ela

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