Category Archives: Biography UoS

Dare to Dream

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.12.28 PMWho would ever think we’d be sitting in Paneras with Kim Yaris or be collaborating with a colleague in Minnesota as though we worked just down the hall from each other.  When really, we work on Long Island NY, and our colleague, Kathryn works on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. True story. These events really happened!  Being a connected educator affords us these great opportunities. We are working alongside Kathryn, Kim, and Jan to launch our Biography Unit of Study in a totally new way.  We will be integrating  Burkins & Yaris’ book Reading Wellness as we explore Biography.  What’s even better, Kim Yaris will be coming into our classroom to help with the launch.  

Part of this work includes a device called: Heart Head Hands & Feet (HHHF). It’s a  tool that enables students to name and record the driving forces that make people truly great. It provides a context for children to understand all that goes into a life of devotion for a cause or an idea. Its aim is to help students conceptualize the accomplishments that lead people from everyday interests, or daring new ideas to an extraordinary life.  They see how these remarkable people, like Jane Goodall or Carl Sagan, started on a path to excellence from childhood interests to exceptional achievements in their fields of study. That’s just the beginning.

Using this learning as a scaffold, students  can begin to evaluate their own hopes and dreams and think about what holds true in their hearts.  They can try on these identities of greatness and begin to make their plans to consider what actions they can take to learn more to begin their own search.  This is all done with the hopes they will experience enthusiastic and engaged learning that lights a fire for a personal pursuit of knowledge. This a form of self actualized learning that offers us something special.  We are going to give our students this gift of our ardent belief in their real hopes and dreams.  We are doing this and attempting to make their interests relevant to their own learning.

Biography offers a chance to read through text sets that provide a deeper understanding for time periods and how the times people live in create openings for greatness.  We can open children’s eyes to the interconnectedness between people and events in a person’s life that guides them on their path to success.  This journey is usually not easy and involves problems and struggles that require perseverance and resilience.  These are life lessons for our children to take with them as they set goals for their future. Start with something that you love, dedicate your efforts and find people who share an optimistic lens. If you do that, you too can achieve greatness, even if it’s just right now in a third grade classroom on Long Island or in a fifth grade classroom on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.     

This is how we envision the work to come:

  • Immerse children in biographies (read aloud, independent reading, small groups) using HHHF
  • Build time in for personal reflection as children explore their own interests, e.g. I love apes. I’m going to “Read like Jane.” (Burkins & Yaris) just as Jane Goodall read with zeal and vivacious pursuits of knowledge
  • Schedule a virtual trip to Minnesota so that children can connect with others who are doing this same work – expand their view of the world!
  • Plan a celebration where students create their biography coat and take on the persona of their historical figure.  They are going to also dare to dream about how they make their mark in history.

Celebrate A Historical Mixer – Get Ready for The Wearing of the Coats

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Students were fully engaged and had complete ownership:


The learning was in the hands of the learners.  They put on the coats and were transformed!  They became their famous person.  This sparks the imagination and divergent thinking giving children an opportunity to pretend.  We are always talking about walking in a character’s shoes – why not make this abstract notion a reality by creating context to do just that.


Students engaged in self directed rich conversation as they assumed the identities of their famous people:


This is more than “doing research” it’s living research.  This work allowed students to make swift connections from static facts to personal lessons learned.  Authentic connections are being driven not by a teacher prompt,  but genuine interest.


Students were making a variety of connections (comparing and contrasting, categorizing, analyzing)  all of which driven by their conversation.


Choice equals engagement – we know this but it’s quite something to observe it in action.  Students were actively constructing meaning on a number of levels.  As they taught each other about their person, they naturally began to compare and contrast timelines, top ten facts, movements, and so on.  They began to self govern and categorize themselves into groups that reflected accomplishments.  Some the discussions that followed focused on an analysis of different eras.  For example: Ruby Bridges was a girl when Dr. Martin Luther King was spearheading the civil rights movement. At that same time in history Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.  Each child played a role and clarified multiple perspectives during the same era.  We did not plan this – it just happened this way.  Children are natural collectors, and when given freedom for self expression this childhood strength came through in their work.  Their research enabled them to be well informed and confident.   Resulting in  purposeful talk that was relevant and meaningful.


English Language Learners  were immersed in authentic discourse with their peers engaging in academic conversations


This was especially rewarding.  Prior to the celebration we grappled with way to support our ELL students just enough – we did not want their conversations to be stilted by using sentence stems. While this is a good practice, we wanted to use the celebration as a vehicle for  formative assessment.  We were excited to see the independent transfer of academic English to their discussions.  Whether they were discussing: Christopher Columbus, Jane Goodall,  or Ruby Bridges the conversation were natural. We attribute this to the multiple encounters they had researching their famous people. They had deep understandings and their talk came from a sense of ownership of their own learning.

Final Thoughts…

This celebration brought the entire third grade together as a community. This was powerful in a number of ways.  The duality of the roles as speakers and listeners propelled pragmatics into the forefront. This was cooperative learning at its best.  Each class gathered to share the collective learning that united the grade level. Remarkable.  This provided an opportunity for colleagues to view students with a broader lens.  It created an opening to assess transfer, not just the research knowledge, but also their verbal discourse, and students’ abilities to work collaboratively and with purpose.   

Teachers Do TED Talks Too! Meet Cynthia Rylant

The children gave us an assignment and we were off planning our own TED Talk about Cynthia Rylant.  We followed the structure we set for the students and here is our planning;

How did what you learned about your author’s life impact yours?

She is such a private person yet so much of her life is out there for all to read through stories.  This really makes us think about how we are putting our teaching (private practice) out there for all to see while we are blogging.  Putting yourself out there leaves you open to vulnerability. She shows us how special ordinary moments are; the people you know, the places that are special to you are worthy of attention.  Even people who would otherwise be shy of attention have dynamic stories to tell and there are avenues to pursue this. This is so important to us as teachers because we want to give children a great variety for self expression and teach them that every story matters.

Why are you passionate about the author? Why should others care?

Teaching small moments is one of the hardest forms of writing to teach.  Children have trouble seeing “regular” experiences as being story material. Life is story and each day is a new adventure that can be put to the page.  Cynthia Rylant knew this, stories cling to her everyday experiences and are showcased in her books:

  • Take the soot faced coal miner coming home with clean lips
  • A simple lighthouse keeper making sure everyone is safe
  • The day to day adventures of a boy and his dog
  • Family coming together, animals making ready for winter

We should care about life – as teachers it’s our job to lend insight to our students about the value of life and curiosity and living each moment to the fullest.  We want our students to have an observant eye.

Favorite books:

  • Lighthouse series: I want my students to always know they can count on me.  A classroom is like a family in the way that we are all vested in each others’ success: we listen, we encourage, we care about each other.  Family is not only defined by who you’re born to it is defined by love. Cynthia Rylant shows us this as we see Pandora and Seabold coming together and nurturing their family of mice.
  • When I Was Young In the Mountains – I want my students to have a strong core;to have a sense of who they are and an understanding that they are valued. As a teacher I want them to know that the sense of who you are comes from your early beginnings. A family doesn’t have to be a traditional family.  If you grow up in a loving home you are set for life.  Cynthia shows us this as she grows up with her grandparents and shares her identity.

Image & Quote: We created our own just as we are asking students to create theirs… you can do this easily using PowerPoint / grouping the image & quote / saving it as a picture:

Rylant quote for march 14

We’ll Never Forget TED: Technology Entertainment Design

So what does TED stand for?

Even with the most thorough planning we couldn’t  prepare for everything.  The first question they asked was: “What does TED stand for?”   Uhhhh….. that’s a good question. The most obvious question; and we didn’t have an answer.  Small details can elude us when we’re planning big work.  There we had it, a teachable moment – let them see that you don’t always have the answers.  In life they won’t always have answers show them that curiosity requires some work and follow up on their queries. We believe this is what empowers students, vesting ourselves in their questions gives them value.  Teachers don’t have to always be in the lead, the key to formative data is to step back and observe and listen.  Kidwatching is an overused term almost taken for granted idea – but how often do we actually make it part of our planning?Tenis Cri

We listened – here are some discoveries we made today:

  • Khayyam uses Python to code
  • Mia’s cousin used coding in Minecraft
  • Aidan’s brother created an app for a school project
  • Our class would love to create our own app
  • Students wanted the teachers to do a TED Talk too

Each discovery elevated the status of the child who shared it.  This wasn’t on the lesson plan but we wouldn’t change it.

We observed- here are some discoveries we made today:

  • Kids listened with rapt attention during Thomas Suarez’s TED Talk
  • Kids totally focused on note taking-getting all the details correct
  • High engagement level for all
  • Students adding on to other students’ ideas

Each discovery confirmed how far they have come since the beginning of the year and now they are ready for this new, big work.

We shared what TED stands for: Technology, Entertainment, Design. This was followed by many “Ohhs….that makes sense!”  Off they went, busily making their own plans and we have an assignment to complete too.  Stay tuned for our TED Talk.

Celebrating with TED

We are in the planning phases of the TED Talk Celebration for our Biography UoS.  A TED talk is like a motivational speech that seeks to inform and inspire audiences.  For more information click:

Mentor Text for Ted Talk that we plan to use:

“Most 12-year-olds love playing videogames — Thomas Suarez taught himself how to create them. After developing iPhone apps like “Bustin Jeiber,” a whack-a-mole game, he is now using his skills to help other kids become developers. (Filmed at TEDxManhattanBeach.)”TED

As we view the video we will do a critique:

  • Notice how he shares information –
  • Prepared & planned using notes
  • Humor infused with information (lending his voice to his talk)
  • Purposeful pauses allows the audience to process information
  • He used graphics to augment his talk

Upon reflection for the Informational UoS when we produced a video as part of the celebration – we decided students need more structure, but on the other hand we want it to be authentic.  This is how we envision their talks going:

  • How did what you learned about your author’s life impact your life? Provide evidence & explain.
  • Why are you passionate about your author? Why should others care?
  • Name your favorite stories written by your author  and explain why they are your favorites.
  • Select an image that represents who your author is and select a quote to go with the image.

We all need a little inspiration.  With that in mind, here is a favorite example of a TED Talk.  Meet Simon Sinek as he talks about how great leaders motivate action:

Trying on History – A Celebration: Biography Coats

PIcture 5There is a hum and buzz in a classroom where children are working with a sense of agency. Currently students are immersed in biographies in both reading and writing.  They have been so focused as they gather all their information about the person they are studying.  They have been creating cards about all the different aspects that we learned about while reading biographies.  As we read the cards, we can’t help but smile at the presence of the writing process at work.  There is nothing like authentic writing that holds meaning to young authors.  These cards have all the elements of writing: leads that draw in the reader, ideas are organized, elaboration has added detail to the writing, transition words make the ideas flow, and there are powerful endings.  The best way that we can celebrate their hard work is to share it.  When studying characters we talk about “walking in characters’ shoes”; how about literally trying on their lives in the form of a “biography coat”.

Come on a journey with us, the vehicle is a student’s imagination working to depict long gone eras in time, crayons fall and rise to the page to bring us back to the civil rights era for Rosa Parks as they draw buses; or Jane Goodall steeped  deep into lush jungles sprawling across the page; Francis Scott Key calls out to an American flag flying high in the sky.  ThesePicture 2are visual representations of genuine comprehension as the children create their coat to teach others – to literally share an identity with a historic person.  Powerful quotes add to their growing understanding, timelines filled with important events, and Top Ten Facts all work together to celebrate a special life lived.  Each decision was purposeful, ideas were shared, advice was given and taken in a free exchange with their peers.  Ideas were synthesized to create a coat that would encompass the life of their person.

The share will come next.  The time to go out and tell the world (other third graders) all that they learned as they become experts about their subject’s life.  Facts will be shared, questions will be asked and answered, compliments will be plentiful.  More than that, experiences will be had – real experiences that hold meaning for children – this will make this all memorable not a stale report or “extended response” a learning encounter worth their time and effort because their work is important.  As the children prepare for this day, the excitement and anticipation fills the air.  Stay tuned for the details of the wearing of the coats.


Looking For Connections-Biography Unit

We were reading one of the posts on Slice for Life which spoke about how the events in our lives make us who we are and have brought us to the moment of our life we are now in.  It was about celebrating the good and bad and realizing that if one of those events were different the path of our life would be different. The first thought that came to mind was our biography unit of study.  This year we decided to structure the unit differently than in past years.  Instead of having children study time periods which were connected to a famous person, we had the children study famous authors that we have read books about and to connect their life with their text.

As the unit was progressing, the thing that stood out the most to us was the ability of the children to find the connections between events, people, goals, disasters and many other things that have occurred in the author’s life and the writing the author produced.  They felt like they were putting together pieces of a puzzle and it made them so proud when they could explain why the author wrote a book that we have shared in class.

Contentedness in life is such an important concept for children to learn and using their natural curiosity enhances this process.  They were already curious about the books that we have read, now they were given a chance to study the author and gather the answers  to their questions.

Reflections: Good to Great

ZOOM: Connecting Life to Text

OBSERVE: Children were able to make connections between the author’s life and work


ANALYZE: Students were engaged and actively seeking the answer to their questions.  The were very proud when they were able to explain the choices of the author when looking at their work.  It is not great because they needed  more background knowledge on historic events and time periods to better inform their workReflection

ADJUST: Take a look at the pacing guide to allow for more history before the biography unit

SHIFT: For certain authors, the children had solid background information to fully understand the connections but for others this was missing.  I would make sure that the instruction before this unit sets the stage with the necessary background information.

  • Seymour Simon (We just came out of an informational unit so they had the background)
  • Dan Gutman (We continuously discuss reluctant reader so they had the background)
  • Eve Bunting ( Our unit on immigration is later in the year)
  • Patricia Polacco (Our unit on cultural diversity is later in the year)
  • Chris Van Allsburg ( We discuss social expectations for blacks (Civil Rights literature like Sister Anne’s Hands, The Sweet Smell of Roses, The Other Side)  and women (Shark Lady and Jane Goodall).  However, we have not discussed the different social expectations for men.  This would help them understand his


Re-purposing Tools – Going From Fast Food Burgers to Something Substantial

Ham 2




So was it bad – good – great?


Looking at informational writing paragraphing was really hard trying to find a way to incorporate the key elements of writing workshop rubrics.  Moved away from hamburger writing because it was too formulaic.  The appeal for the hamburger writing was  the visual representation for kids to organize their writing.  We want to create paired associations for organization (to a concrete image – hamburger) to the writing process (an abstract way of thinking – rubric).  Through this reflection – we came with an idea: link the two to make a better tool for kids.

Biography UoS:

  • We set-up a structure that made room for different topics within a biography
  • The key elements that we want children to apply to their original writing:
  • We created tools to reflect each element.  This provides opportunities for authentic engagement for these elements of writing.  It also creates greater autonomy and saliency

Zoom in – Teaching organization for writing

Notice – Students were more thoughtful about what goes into their writing and they were more motivated to write.  Their writing seems more creative.  They have a structure to follow so they could be self directed when using the tool.  There was a clearer understanding about their accountability as writers.  Ham I

Adjust – I don’t know if there is anything to change.

Evaluate – Great

Analysis – We used a tool that was very static and repurposed it to be a flexible tool that promotes authentic writing. It’s power was driving the organization for writing that had been weak spot in the prior work.  These are abstract ideas done in isolation but this tool scaffolded the synthesis for the writing process and enabled kids to see where they we going through an image of something familiar – a hamburger.

Adjust – Now that we’ve done a single paragraph we can move into multiple paragraphs.  Now that kids have idea of the larger structure we can delve deeper into specifics like transitioning.

Shift- Linking paragraphs is the next step.  This healthier better hamburger provided the organizational structure for writing a paragraph  – it’s like a chain of hamburger restaurants.


Biography UoS

The key elements that we will be building upon involve students’ prior knowledge of narratives (story grammar)  to connect the known to the unknown.  This idea of a biography’s “setting” through the time period/era in which their famous person lived.  Going on to linking “behavioral traits” with evidence drawing from a famous person’s life: cause and effect including problem/solution, goals/achievements, key people/life direction, achievements and lessons learned.  Our plan includes teaching students how to think like writers who use text features to inform the readers, how young writers can teach others through the use of: timelines, powerful quotes, pictures and photographs.

The thinking here was to introduce biography through story. As students research famous authors they are learning the structure of a written biography.  This process is complemented through writing as students select famous people to research and eventually to present to their grade level peers. The purpose of reading a biography is to not only learn facts but to be inspired by remarkable people.  We want to show children how their “famous person” may have lived an ordinary life can spark powerful stories.  Cause and effect is easily transferred by students because it is the choices that people make that influence the kind of life that is lived  or the work that is generated.  These people are real examples as to how students can aspire to something great.

Biography Table


Community Connections

On Friday night we had our annual Snuggle Up & Read event.  This is an open house where teachers come together in costumes and our PTA beautifully decorates our classrooms to set the stage for reading stories to children and their parents.  We decided to read John Rocco’s Blizzard.  This is a snapshot of Rocco’s life during the Blizzard of 1978.

Our thinking was to give parents a glimpse into what is happening in the classroom.  As part of our introduction we had John Rocco tell the inspiration for his story –

As we took turns reading the book, acting out the scenes, and making sound effects complete with sprinkling “snow” on the audience we saw parents’ faces transform to memories of
that time in history.  Many had shared experiences that revealed wonder and reminiscence to those long lost days.  We are constantly reminded and moved deeply by the power of story.  Years may pass but shared experiences don’t really seem to fade.

Sharing stories means having value and we wanted to set the stage for children to share too; so we sent them off with hot cocoa and a mission: make a map of your snow adventures.  We promised to take a picture and tweet them to John Rocco to show him how his story sparked those in the very young as well as the young at heart.