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Those "Blank Stares"

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

This Month of Mondays has challenged my thinking about a number of topics. Here are just a few:

Engaging Students
Nuser1 brought up an idea that may lead to unintended self-censorship: choosing not to teach biography (e.g.) because s/he had a depth of knowledge and background in history (e.g.) that surpassed her students’. S/he therefore avoids some of the blank stares, eyes in the lap, and other student behaviors that signify lack of knowledge, interest, or engagement.

I wonder if that’s akin to the brilliant physics professor avoiding teaching 100 level courses.

The gap between understanding what one might need to know about certain persons who contributed to the history of mankind and what students bring to the experience looms large, making the writer limit teaching something for which s/he has background, knowledge, and presumably some passion.

So, do we water down our content or sublimate our passion?
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Learning about Life through others’ Lives, Part 3

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

This is not the conventional great-teaching-deep-cultural-exploration and learning-Rosenblatt-inspired-response entry. This is a what’s-on-my-mind, I’m-exposing-my-dismal, disappointing-failure entry.

Typically, teachers use non fictional texts to explore cultures within and beyond their students’ world, knowing the importance of gaining information as they their develop a global perspective of others from the outside in; however, we’ve found that getting acquainted with characters in story may open the world to children in ways expository text doesn’t. Enter biography, with its factual base and strong narrative style to function as a literary bridge between fiction and non fiction, and a cultural link between characters’ lives and environments and our children’s lives and environments.

Children connect with story almost on a visceral level. Similarly they are fascinated by the lives of others, especially if they have a cultural framework of the times surrounding that character. Young children ages 6 – 9 are at a critical time for social and attitudinal growth. Biography can provide rich examples of problems and solutions, challenges and strategies utilized by people in history and those who are our contemporaries.

The exploration of life and culture through biography is written about eloquently in Language Arts text books, Children’s Literature text books, heralded in break-out sessions at conferences, and read about in journals. Accounts bring to light successful, upbeat lessons with widely inspiring results.

We know that one way children learn about people’s lives is through biography. They can learn about culture and environment, perseverance and persecution through biography as well. Duthie (1998) writes, “Biography and autobiography are important components of lifelong literacy … open a door for reflection and discussion, and can satiate curiosities with positive resolve at a crucial time in their development.” Who argues? What better way to grow a global perspective of others?

Well, that’s what I’d like to know. Read on:
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Learning about Life through others’ Lives, Part 2

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

Reading biographies, studying the genre while having access to a variety of titles about the same person offers choice as well as opportunities for depth and exploration. Consider Elisabeta, a Mexican American fifth grader who did not see herself as a reader, who expresses surprise at the extent she got hooked on reading about the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo:

I really don’t like [books], but if it’s something really good, if it’s about a person and I’ll want to keep wanting to learn about that person and what else they would do … when we read the biographies, I like had to read them. I picked up a couple of them and like … Frida was one of the ones. At first I read the picture book and it was pretty good, and I found another one of her and I picked it up and read it and kept reading more and more and getting hooked and I didn’t realize it … all of a sudden I was fighting people just to get the Frida books. [I was getting very interested] very. Because I don’t like reading … like her books, I just loved reading them. She would like … she went through so much stuff and life, she still kept going on and going on …Yeah! I got hooked on Frida.

Further, offering biographies of people about whom the readers have never heard fuels curiosity and hopefully, further inquiry. After reading biographies of Elvis and Amelia Earhart, Marianne, a Caucasian third grader found a biography of King Tut (Edwards 2006). She told me:
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Teaching Biography: Learning about Life through Others’ Lives

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

Harvesting Hope: teaching biography to enrich cultural knowledgeThis month I invite you to explore biographies, focusing on personal response and extensions to culture. In what ways can reading biographies, thinking and writing and talking about them inform us about ourselves as well as other cultures?

Biographies and autobiography have the unique ability to reach into the soil of human experience and till it for the reader (Duthie, 1998) as well as provide a springboard for thought and argument, inquiry and pleasure (Harvey 2002).

Through reading and responding to Harvesting Hope (Krull 2003), Mario made personal connections that evoked memories keeping him focused, interested while expanding his world.

Mario was a Mexican American fifth grader whose first language is Spanish. He quickly found parallels to events in the early life of Cesar Chavez to a few poignant experiences of his own. He told me:
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