Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biographies in the Classroon

All month we INKlings have been discussing using our books in the classroom. I’ve been mightily impressed by the ways that our authors, along with teachers and librarians, have brought books to life for students.

I had a lot of fun writing a curriculum guide for Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer (see my website: Jeannette’s long life in politics made her a massive subject to write about (she lived over ninety years!) but an easy subject for kids to relate to. Rankin was a women’s suffragist, our first Congresswomen, and lifelong peace activist.

Though women have reached new heights of political office, their presence does not reflect their demographics, i.e. 50% of the population. I ask students to research their city and state. What percentage of their representatives are female? What percentage of female lawmakers belong to each political party? [Math exercises.] Why do you think so few politicians are female? [Debate topic, with social studies angle.]

Research a female lawmaker in your state, including her early life, education, and path to political office. Read her website and see where she stands on various issues. Write her a letter and tell her where you stand. Jeannette Rankin advised high school students to do this back in 1940! Take a poll of your classmates about gender politics and graph the results. [Math again.]

Classroom activities such as these show students that my biography can relate to what is happening right now. The issues that fill the news and affect our lives are not new, and biographies of people like Jeannette Rankin connect us to history and perhaps show us a way forward.

NB: Be careful what you wish for. Besides the activities I suggested, one teacher asked her students to fact-check my book for errors. They thought they had found three. Their further research vindicated me twice, but they were spot on with the third example. Ouch!

Picture book biographies are a booming genre these days. Each publishing season offers more terrific stories of people I’ve never heard of.

The Daring Miss Quimby (Holiday House) by Suzanne George Whitaker, tells the story of the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license (in 1911) and to fly the English Channel (in 1912.) Harriet Quimby was an adventurous soul, pushing against all sorts of boundaries for women. Catherine Stock’s loose watercolor illustrations depict this mood perfectly. A “Women in Aviation Time Line” extends to 1999 and suggests classroom projects: research the many women found in the timeline, bring it up to date, and read Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts for a look at the discrimination aviatrixes encountered.

Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee (Tricycle Press) by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Carl Angel, describes a Chinese American’s girl’s love of flying. In World War II she joined the highly competitive WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots. Moss describes Maggie’s career but also weaves in her family’s stories: immigrant grandparents farming in California, parents growing up in traditional China, mother who worked in a World War II defense plant – each generation assimilating more and more. This book can lead to students exploring our immigration history, both politically and personally. How did early Asian immigrants fare in the United States? Where did your family come from and what are their stories?

Biographies can build many bridges in the classroom connecting the historical with the contemporary, the political with the personal. Can you guess that I’m hooked on writing them?

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