Recent Posts

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Heroes of History

Read below for Marceau's amazing story!
One popular conversation in education centers around "What is worth knowing?" To that conversation I'd like to add the question, "Who is worth knowing?"

When I ask students to name someone famous and the first reply I hear is "Kim Kardashian," I die just a little bit inside. Students don't seem to have an understanding of, or appreciation for, the lives of great men and women who changed the course of history. 

But biography picture books can help to remedy that.

Wiser Words Were Never Spoken

My high school daughter recently took her SAT and was describing the writing prompt she was given. She paraphrased the quote and named the speaker (which I won't reveal here), and then described for me the way in which she had crafted her response. 

I finally asked, "And did you include why that quote was so important, considering the person who said it?" 

Her reply: "Well, I had heard of him, but I didn't really know who he was." 

Opportunity lost.

Regardless of what some might have us believe (the PARCC assessment comes to mind), historical context does, in fact, matter when examining any piece of text, and history is the product of those who made it.

Students therefore need knowledge of heroes of history.

Getting Started

Before showing students even a single biography, I gave them some practice summarizing current events articles from Tween Tribune using the tried and true 5Ws and 1H. This required a significant shift in students' responses; after all, I had been encouraging them for months to elaborate, and now they were being asked to summarize an entire article in a single sentence. 

The Tween Tribune article "It's Even Too Cold for Polar Bears!", for example, was summed up as follows:

Due to her specialized diet designed to eliminate a thick layer of insulating fat, Lincoln Park Zoo's resident polar bear Anana had to be moved indoors last Monday during Chicago's record-low temperatures.

Note that in addition to the basic facts, the sentence also provides students with a model for writing a cause/effect relationship.

After some independent practice with longer articles (requiring even greater ability to discern important facts), we were ready to move on to trade books. 

You may want to follow along on the assignment guidesheet which you're welcome to download in pdf (or Word) and be sure to grab the blank sheet as well (also available as a Word doc). You'll notice that the instructional steps below differ somewhat from those given to students for their own work.




Just the Facts
 
For my mentor text, I selected Robert Burleigh's George Bellows: Painter with a Punch!, in part because while George Bellows' art might be familiar to students, the man as an artist was not. I also planned to return to this text in a later lesson on using opposing viewpoints to construct argumentative writing.

In their notebooks, students jotted down a list of the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) and were asked to listen for those facts as I read the book aloud. I read the majority of the book, stopping to monitor understanding and also to ask if any of our facts had been discovered.

By story's end we had 
Who: George Bellows
What: painted pictures that weren't beautiful
Where: New York City
When: early 1900s
Why: to show emotions and power
How: showing scenes of everyday city life

Cobbled together after some discussion and experimentation, these facts became a fact-fixing sentence that sounded like this:

In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life.

Prove It!

Students knew that this was coming. What textual evidence backed up what we just stated? We found several sentences which might work, and finally settled on just a snippet of one quote, which we placed into a sentence that included both the author and book:

According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.”

So What?

But then I asked, "So what? Why did that matter?" And here's where students begin to see the light. Those people from history who changed the way others think, believe, or act tend to be those worth remembering. In the case of George Bellows, he and other students of Robert Henri went against the traditional belief that the artist's role was to paint what was beautiful. 

This led us to construct an opposing viewpoint statement to precede the summary sentence we had already drafted:
For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently.

Legacy

This, naturally, led to the question of legacy. "What lasting impact did this person's life and work have upon us? Why should they be remembered today?"

I had to provide a bit of background here, discussing with students that at this time in history, many schools of art were wrestling with the role of the artist and the artist's responsibility to represent "real life." Eventually we came up with this closing sentence:

Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

Pieced together, the finished summary read as follows:

For centuries, most people believed that artists should focus upon what is beautiful and romantic, but one artist named George Bellows thought differently. In the early 1900s, George Bellows and other artists in New York City’s Trashcan School began painting pictures that showed the ugly, gritty, common scenes of the city in order to capture the emotion and power of everyday life. According to author Robert Burleigh in the book George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, Bellows thought scenes of everyday life were beautiful and was “determined to find them.” Artists of the Ashcan School helped others to explore "bold new worlds" while at the same time recording, in full color, what New York City looked like one hundred years ago.

An impressive summary once completed. But, could students could do it on their own?

Training Wheels

Armed with this model, students jotted down the sentence order in their notebooks as a quick reference:

I. Opposing Viewpoint 
II. 5Ws and 1H
III. Textual Evidence
IV. Legacy

Each student was then assigned a picture book biography from numerous examples chosen by the teacher. Some teachers might be surprised that students aren't allowed at this point to choose their own books, but I feel it's important that students approach the exercise with no preconceived notions about the person they're studying.

Students read the books for homework and completed the four step process outlined on the guidesheet. The following day they shared their first attempt with a classmate and made revisions based on that peer's feedback. I then had students switch books with any other student in the class apart from the one who had heard their summary. This guaranteed that by day three, two students would have read each book and could get together to compare paragraphs. This sharing led to much more productive revisions, as both students had intimate knowledge of the text and could offer more specific feedback on not only form, but also content.

I was surprised by students' success with the process. While some, as expected, followed the Bellows model precisely, simply swapping out details as needed, others departed from the model. A couple of students tried switching sentence orders when writing summaries of their second books, while others tried different grammatical structures while maintaining the sentence order we had established.


One student, not thrilled when handed Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was amazed to learn that this entertainer played a major role in the French Resistance, and led many Jewish children to safety. His paragraph, which he knew fell far short of paying homage to this unsung hero, reads:

Many people might think that miming is a fairly recent type of drama, but it is actually an ancient form of art that, because of sound movies, might have been forgotten; however, a talented young Frenchman named Marcel Marceau revived its popularity. After serving bravely in the Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, Marceau followed his dream of becoming an actor capable of moving the audience to laughter or tears, all without saying a word. According to author Gloria Spielman in Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, "By the time he died in 2007, Marcel had revived the ancient and almost forgotten art of silence." Because of Marceau's work, many performers who followed in his footsteps realize that it isn't what you say, but how your facial expressions and body gestures convey it.

Most surprising to many students was how much they enjoyed reading about people they had never even heard of (many students had already made plans for the next book they wanted to read). The skepticism I witnessed on the first day when distributing books was replaced with enthusiasm by day two of the assignment. And since then, students have been asking to do the assignment again, and many have naturally been begging to read biographies of their own choosing.

So What's Next?

While this lesson can certainly stand alone as an exercise in summarizing, I can see these simple summary paragraphs serving as introductions to other types of responses to biography, current events, and history.

In my next post I'll share some possible extension activities, as well as some of the more popular titles which students enjoyed.

6 comments:

theartofpuro said...

What a great post!

Michelle Cusolito said...

Great post. Are you familiar with Leda Schubert's PB bio Monsieur Marceau? It would be great to pair it with the one you used.

In case it's helpful to you and your readers, I maintain a Pinterest board of my favorite Picture Book Bios.
http://www.pinterest.com/mcusolito/picture-book-biographies/

You'll notice there are some famous people who are represented by multiple bios. Great to read them in pairs, triads, and quads.

I look forward to seeing the list of your students favorites.

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks for the kind words! I dig your site, by the way.

Keith Schoch said...

Michelle, thanks for checking in. I'm not familiar with the title you mentioned, but I do love the idea of pairing books for comparison. Always interesting to see different authors' takes on the same subject. Thanks also for sharing the link to your Pinterest resources.

Michelle Cusolito said...

You're welcome. Glad to "meet."

Have you read History Makers: A Questioning Approach to Reading & Writing Biographies by Myra Zarnowski and Danny Miller?

I'm in the early stages of researching for a PB biography I plan to write. I dug it out from my teaching stuff and reread it to see if anything was useful for me as an adult writer. It has some good stuff in there. The stuff about the "visible author" was especially interesting to me.

Keith Schoch said...

Never heard of that book, but will be sure to check it out. Let us know when your book is ready!