biography · mentor texts · writer's notebook

Biographies with Heart

I recently received an email from a junior high teacher who was looking for some support as she began her unit of study on biographies.  She wrote that she was “looking to push this biographical piece to be heartfelt.”  She wanted her students to think about “why we remember these people” and to “engage in research that goes beyond the computer.”

I immediately thought of an article I had recently read in the Winter 2013-2014 edition of the Illinois Reading Council Journal, titled “Biographies in Focus: A Framework for Supporting Biographical Writing in the Classroom (written by Donna E. Werderich, Alice B. McGinty, and Barb Rosenstock).  The authors of the article outlined several ways that students might focus their biographical writing:

  • focus on an object or item that was important to the person and illustrates their life in some essential way
  • focus on a special event that had wide reaching implications for that person’s life
  • focus on their relationship with another person
  • focus on an interest or important hobby that contributed to that person’s accomplishments
  • focus on an essential character trait that defines that person

So, in an effort to help the students think about these different approaches, the classroom teacher and I will first arm ourselves with mentor texts which illustrate each approach.

The Tree LadyThe Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins tells the story of Kate Sessions and how she created Balboa Park in San Diego.  The book focuses on her passion for and interest in botany.

Night FlightNight Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic by Robert Burleigh is a biographical book about Amelia Earhart which focuses only on one special event, her flight across the Atlantic Ocean.  It is written like a narrative and begins, “From high in the cockpit, a woman gazes down.  It is exactly 7:12 p.m.  The sunset ripples over the rough-hewn airfield.  Good-bye, my friends, good-bye!”

The WatcherThe Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter tells about the life of Jane Goodall.  The short picture book focuses on Jane’s defining character traits of keen observation and love for animals.

Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock is an interesting biographical account of Thomas Jefferson, focusing only an important hobby – his love for reading.  The book tells the story of how this hobby led to the creation of the Library of Congress.

Waterhouse HawkinsThe Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley also focuses on an important hobby or interest.  It recounts the life of Victorian artist, Waterhouse Hawkins, and his love of art.

Annie and HelenAnnie and Helen by Deborah Hopkinson and Raul Colon is a biographical account of Helen Keller, told through her relationship with her teacher, Annie.  It is told through both a narrative structure and Annie’s original letters.

After the students have had a chance to enjoy these books and dig in to the different approaches, they can begin thinking about which approach would work best for their chosen person.  I am thinking an entry in their writer’s notebooks will help them work through these options:


Looking at my quick entry about Muhammad Ali, I am considering two options.  I could write about his life as a boxer, focusing on the object of his boxing gloves.  Perhaps I might write about his life in a narrative form, with the gloves becoming more worn and faded as the narrative progresses.  The second option I am considering is to focus on the character trait of having strong beliefs.  Perhaps I might write less about his boxing life and more about his beliefs in religious freedom and racial justice.

I hope this process of using mentor texts and a notebook entry to narrow the focus will help meet the teacher’s goal of biographies that have a little heart.

13 thoughts on “Biographies with Heart

  1. I love this idea of ways to focus a biography. It’s one of those things that you don’t think of on your own, but make so much sense when you hear/read it. Thanks for sharing the idea, and the book suggestions. I can really see incorporating this with the TCRWP Unit of Study for information writing.


  2. Another fun thing to do with biographies to get them thinking in their ‘person’s’ head is to have them write journal entries, letters, and playlists from their POV based on what they learned 🙂


    1. Stacey, if you Google the title of the article, you will get a link to the EBSCO website. There is a button you can click that says ‘read article for free’. From there, you’ll need to search for your local library and then input your library ID #, etc.

      Or once I get back to work on Friday, I can scan a copy and email it to you!


  3. We got more heartfelt results when we asked writers to conclude with how the ‘person’ impacted their own lives; what they taught them about how they’d like to live their lives. I can see that coming very easily after such a focused use of mentor texts.


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