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I Have a Story to Tell: Learning through Peer Biographical InquirybyStephanie Brown-Bryant
Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post discusses our need to know more about others in an article about Nigel Hamilton's Biography. He raises a wonderful question: "Is the purpose of biography to celebrate the lives of the famous and notable and thus to provide exemplars for the rest of us, or to reduce them to their mere humanity and thus to comfort us in the knowledge that they too are imperfect?" 1 This question is the basis of my unit and guides my class's process of writing about the lives of others, particularly students.
The purpose of this unit is to use literary biography to help students utilize lessons from the lives of others as a means to improve their own. Students view scripted and unscripted biographies each day through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, music, and a plethora of television shows (oh yeah, and a few books, too!) With the overwhelming variety of biographical representations, how are we as an audience utilizing the information gained? How can we determine what useful information is available for personal growth or application?
Technology and media smudge the line that divides reality and fiction. We watch the glamorized lives of others in situations that are often unsavory and expect our students to make productive choices from these examples. Whether we would like to admit it or not, our failure to teach students critical thinking skills as students engage in new found connections with influential images is a problem. Our students are seeking role models and finding them in entertainment media and social networking sites. Minimally equipped to discern between appropriate and inappropriate solutions, students often rely on what is familiar. With the goal of interjecting successful, productive lives as a conventional reference point, I welcome the opportunity for students to discover the potential that lies in personal life stories students have to tell.
The unit offers a brief history of biography, a discussion of biography in the media, and strategies and activities for use of biography in our lives. The setting for the unit's implementation is a high school with students of senior classification. Activities will be completed throughout the school year and in conjunction with the English teacher. The unit includes specifications regarding content and local and state standards. Strategies are adaptable across grade levels and curriculum and creative allowances are encouraged as students research and emerge as biographers.
"the unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates
I recently attended an event at which Dr. Cornel West of Princeton, University spoke. (Dr. West included the aforementioned quote by Socrates in a recent Twitter post!) A young man in the audience asked him how he could find positive role models, as his environment didn't offer many. West's response was: "find someone great, and read everything about them! Read the good and the bad, and take what you need to make your life great and the lives around you better." 2 The stirring of emotion that came when I heard him speak those words was undeniable. That statement really made me aware of my literary choices and further substantiated the idea that I have an obligation to teach students how to use the lives of others as a resource for their personal growth.
The educational setting is limited in the types of people and events included due to the controversial nature of some historical figures. The textbook industry in particular must meet the demands of consumers and special interest groups. 3 Biography offers diversity and often cultural perspectives which are important to many minority or disenfranchised groups. Biographies of subjects with similar characteristics give students opportunities to identify with the subjects of biography. Students' ability to examine the lives of people who are faced with similar situations and backgrounds provides an affirmation of their identity and connection to the curriculum. 4
Modern modes of communication seem to have given our youth more information than they can handle. Some students mimic glamorized lives they think are worth striving to replicate (MTV's' Jersey Shore slogan – GTL, Gym, Tan, Laundry) without realizing the consequences of those behaviors. Some behaviors, though youthful in nature, have lasting consequences. Universities, employers and future in-laws are peering into the biographical displays found on Facebook and YouTube to create impressions and students must be aware that people are watching what you do. It would serve them well to become more aware of the power of positive portrayal. Also, they can learn to appreciate how the lives of others can really help them strive to live a life full of meaning and integrity. The history of biography will serve as a backdrop for students to identify how times affect portrayal of people and how the need to know more about each other is constant.
History of Biography
The history of biography is important to students because it shows how it has changed and gives some explanation regarding the manner in which it has evolved. As a facilitator, I will expect students to gain an understanding of the role biography plays in how people are portrayed and how those portrayals can be interpreted. The history I provide will take the students through a progression of perspectives and hopefully guide them to write fair and balanced biographies of their peers.
Curiosity about the lives of others is definitely not a new idea. Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History offers a well chronicled description of the role biography has played in history. Hamilton outlines how our earliest identities and relationships are documented in the ancient world through depictions of humans on cave walls, Egyptian caskets, and Greek fashion. 5 Highly ornate sarcophaguses are just one example of how early depictions were highly artistic in nature. Some biographic representations were seen in forms such as tales, portraits, and sculptures. The subjects were often of great importance and their biographers often well-educated. 6 Biographers served as commemorators (usually dripping with praise for their subjects) as well as historical documenters.
The "golden age" of biographical development extended the earlier representations to a more reflective tone. Greek and Roman biographers infused practical and often critical information. The move from mythical creatures to flawed but relatable humans is seen in writings about Julius Caesar. Details such as baldness and loose clothing added character to the subject and helped citizens of that time better understand their own lives. 7
Presenting holy people in a glowing light, hagiography was a pervasive biographical form in early Christian writings and throughout the Middle Ages. The New Testament is an example of hagiography. Old Testament record of events sometimes includes versions from many sources. Only four gospels of the New Testament act as a biography of the life of Jesus. Christian leaders quieted competing biographers and supported the emotional struggles to protect "the greatest story ever told." 8 The Bible became the best-selling biography of all time. The lives of saints were portrayed with a rich moral thread and filled with sacrifice.
Attention shifted from saints to secular people in the Renaissance. William Shakespeare dramatized the lives of real people and created a sort of "reality-series" through literary works. 9 Filled with emotion and historical reference, he challenged the reader to question the lives of his subjects, which was quite dangerous. Risk-filled biographical writing cost Sir Walter Raleigh his head, as he became the first martyr of biography. He wrote controversial and negative accounts of James I, was beheaded, and served as an example for those who wished to do the same. His courageous stance and dedication to truth outlined the biographer's duty is to investigate and penetrate the soul of the subject. 10
Life depictions grew and biography got a name! Thomas Fuller used the word "biographist" in his History of the Worthies of England, a collection of witty biographical writings about the public life of writers. Fuller used primary sources to write classic accounts of seventeenth century writers such as William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. The Bishop Gauden then used the word "biography" to describe the depiction of a life. 11
Biography in its modern literary form was observed in the writings of Samuel Johnson. He examined the lives of writers and encouraged fellow biographers to write with frankness in a manner that the reader could relate to and utilize. He expressed the need to identify our "motives and passions" from the personal knowledge provided by the biographer. 12 The demand for authenticity created controversy, as in some cases the truth seemed to be an act of betrayal. In addition, the issue of the relationship between the biographer and the subject arose, as seen in James Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson. Boswell has been criticized for omitting facts about Johnson's life. His failure to be objective when describing Johnson was a definite contrast to Johnson's beliefs and provided great irony. He introduces Johnson's biography by stating: "To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equaled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task." 13
Disengagement or Communication - Technological Documentary Platforms
Radio, television, and the Internet emerge as key players in the representations of biography. It is necessary that we discuss technological formats as forms of documentary in our teaching. The focus of technology's role is directed toward the history of social networking, video documentary, and reality television. Download: The True Story of the Internet: People Power. 14 This video represents the revolutionary power of connecting people via the Internet and how our lives are affected. Specifically, it reveals how technology empowers humans to cross boundaries and experience life by connecting with others.
The connection without boundaries poses a problem when information is shared online. Our students, sometimes unknowingly, post the most intimate and telling events of their lives for the world to see. What is their purpose? How do students view their responsibility in sharing this information? I would like to discuss with students the social implications when using these formats. Do these types of media promote or discourage engagement with teenage users? Passive/aggressive behavior is often observed in online settings and the opportunity to ask students to evaluate the most productive uses of these types of media should be used diligently!
Proliferation of these formats, popularity, and ethical concerns is discussed with the use of articles found using GALILEO to research the consequences of irresponsible Internet behavior. (I hope to use cases of cyberbullying and legal cases surrounding these formats at this time). Many students have been victims or have observed cyberbullying and can share their thoughts on the serious act. Judge Tom Jacobs book Teen Cyberbullying Investigated 15 is an excellent resource for teachers and students I will use it to explain how the law defines cyberbullying and present actual cases. This resource is current and focuses on the behavior of young adults in an online environment. A discussion of responsibility to speak up for others and the act of compassion is imperative as students evaluate how bullies hide behind technology.
Biographical representations from 60 Minutes, People magazine, and the Biography Channel will be featured, (as well as a few of my favorite reality television shows.) Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube will also be discussed as their history and major impact on biographical representations is evaluated. These formats are popular with students and will allow them to review how perception is important. For example, students can search for Twitter accounts of a famous person that they wish to learn more about and discuss their perception based on their Twitter page. Since many celebrities use online formats for publicity, they can discuss the usefulness of information found on these pages. Students can also discuss information posted on their personal pages and the possible perceptions readers may have after reading information about them.
Strategies and Implementation
As students identify and interpret the relationships of lives of others, an evaluation of the effects of these relationships of those closest to them will occur. Opportunities for this realization may be obtained by "incorporating various types of literature into the history classroom in the form of diaries, journal accounts, newspaper articles, historical fiction, poetry, biography, and autobiography." 16 Comparison of texts is further discussed by Hynd as a way of helping students to recognize bias and rhetoric as they relate to persuasion. Students can compare conflicting accounts of events and evaluate the arguments in groups or as a class.
The primary strategy implemented is a modified version of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model 17 which includes the following six stages: develop background knowledge, discuss it, model it, memorize it, support it, and independent performance. I selected this model because it can be modified according to the level of the student, and time is regulated according to student ability and pace. Though this model was originally designed for students with learning disabilities, I felt it would be applicable to a variety of learning levels and the division into smaller steps provided clarity for instruction. We will omit the memorization portion as it does not provide additional insight toward the goals of the unit.
Develop Background Knowledge: The unit will begin with a history of biographical writings. Students will be exposed to a variety of biographical writings and discuss how such writings are perceived. The discussion will include moral and ethical issues surrounding how the lives of others are documented. Point of view, historical references, and forms of media will be included. Staying true to being a learner first, I placed myself in the role of the student and selected subjects who shared a similar background, researched the "good and the bad" in their lives, and took what I thought was valuable. It is reasonable that your students may seek other models to research and you may wish to present the unit using people who you or your students can relate and there is a vast amount of information published about them.
Due to the demographics of my students, I have selected President Jimmy Carter as the opening subject of biography. Like many of my students, he grew up in a small, rural, poverty-stricken agricultural town in Georgia (very close to my hometown of Camilla, Georgia). Known as a humanitarian, he is not considered to be a popular or successful president by many. Many of his decisions were extremely controversial, but he remained true to his faith and core beliefs instilled by his family. These characteristics are important as students evaluate how others perceived him in conjunction with facts surrounding his life and presidency. Writings of his mother, Lillian, and his wife, Roaslynn, will also be introduced as additional resources as we follow the example of many biographers and study of the lives of people around the subject. Themes of media impact and change in perception will be discussed.
Another famous Georgian will be included in this portion of the unit. Ray Charles (also from a town very close to my upbringing) will serve as a of reference point as students evaluate the gifts, challenges, and flaws of a talented human being. Charles is best known in Georgia for his memorable performance of the state song "Georgia on My Mind". He was adored and admired by many, but was known as a drug addict and philanderer. Despite his flaws, he was a keen businessman and insisted that his blindness would not define his success. As in the case of Carter, a variety of references will be selected to discuss his portrayal. I specifically selected his story due to the recent portrayal of Charles in the Oscar-winning movie Ray. 18 Students are familiar with several of the actors in the film and are aware of his story. I hope this will encourage a more broad body of background information which will elicit greater discussion.
I made a point of informing you about my links to both of these subjects to further provide a personal connection. Their personal histories are linked to mine, as the biography of environment comes into play when utilizing biography for self examination. I was confronted (as were they) with issues such as race, southern tradition, and poverty, which are strong factors in character development. These factors may not all be applicable to the lives of my students, but I will be sure to stress the meaning behind my biographical selection for my personal growth and to practice what I preach!
Discuss It: I will use Categorization methods to allow students to compare and contrast biographical representations. Students take conflicting excerpts about Carter and divide them according to their similarity. Students then review the relationship between the biographers and Carter and create inferences regarding the purpose of the writing. This portion of the lesson is of particular importance because students should identify how the relationship drives the writing and shapes the opinions they form while reading.
Model It and Support It: I will ask Students to review biographies of a relevant person they select based on criteria designed by the teacher. Aware of the needs of the student audience I teach, I require the use of variety of sources and substantial biographical information in order to create a broad view of the subject, (i.e., they must have several different types of sources). Students may not have experience in selecting information that provides the most accurate accounts and will need some guidance. I feel it is necessary to clarify the importance of choosing meaningful and appropriate readings. Hynd offers the following methods as parameters for sources:
- As many selections as possible should be primary sources.
- [Make sure that the] perspectives held by participants during the period are represented.
- The literature should fit the variety of student reading levels.
- Along with historical fiction, a variety of nonfiction, especially biography, should be included.
- A careful balance must be found between enjoying the literature selected as art and using literature as data for social science analysis. 19
The first suggestion Hynd offers is an example of why an explanation is necessary before students select biographies. For example, as a teacher you cannot assume that students understand how a primary source differs from a secondary source, even if they are high school students. This first concept is important because the student will identify the value primary sources and in turn relate the importance to their own fact-finding process. The result is a student who seeks accurate, first-hand information. Students can compare methods of other and examine the quality of information given. The aim of this portion is to create relevance to their personal lives and hopefully invite questioning into what students want to learn when they read a biography and what challenges may occur when investigating the lives of others.
Art of Oral Biographical Documentation
Oral history is a key component of the unit and time is given to examine the process. One resource is the Foxfire project. 20 In 1966, a teacher in Georgia realized that lecturing high school students proved ineffective in building language and writing skills. Students participated in listening and writing activities demonstrating the skills of dictation, interviewing, transcribing, and journaling. The project was extremely successful a series of books provide examples and outline the process for teachers and students. The focus of this unit is peer biographical writing and all activities should lead to using carefully selected resources to gather information about students.
More Modeling: Equipped with the value of biographical information methods in which to convey a personal story, students will begin the interviewing process by modeling. Lisa Morehouse 21explains the interviewing process and its benefits in an article. We will use this as a guide for the modeled interview as well as the peer interview. I will invite a staff member, preferably someone who has contact with all the students, and conduct an interview. I will include information from other sources, such as writings from the teacher or accounts of others who know the subject personally and professionally.
The subject will be asked to provide names of people whom we may consult. I will discuss a contract regarding how the information will be used, and seek the subject's approval of the information collected. We will review skills learned from interviewing and oral history as a continued review of ways to gather useful information. Students will evaluate and offer feedback at the completion of the interview and begin to organize questions to present to their peers.
Self-examination and evaluation are important activities in the unit because it is necessary for students to be aware of themselves in order to effectively communicate their authentic selves to someone else (again the ability to discern what things are important will be stressed at this step). The next step is to identify items of interest to others and the personal qualities students have that are entertaining, revealing and authentic. Students are allowed to journal about themselves for a personal reference before they begin speaking with others.
The importance of this step is to allow students to confront themselves honestly and unveil who they are prior to speaking with possible strangers. The middle or high school student undergoes many challenges when discussing identity and some of them may cause controversy. This step helps students privately sort out representations they may be willing or unwilling to share. In addition, students will practice strong communication skills by learning how to communicate in a succinct manner.
Independent Performance: Students are assigned a peer to write about. Expressions of the subject may include social networking documentation, video recordings, writings, and interviews. Students can to view any biographical representations that are allowed by the subject (i.e., social networking accounts, letters, interviews from friends, family and teachers, etc.). Parameters are given, but students will have the creative rights to produce a product within the guidelines of state and local education standards. Realizing the various learning levels, the teacher is heavily involved in assuring proper care and consideration is given when students are presenting information about their peers.
It is important for me to incorporate technology as often as I possibly can. The No Child Left Behind Act requires the reporting of the literacy of 8 th grade students. Georgia defines technology literacy as "the ability of students to use the tools of their society with skill in an ethical, accurate, and insightful manner to meet the demands of the 21st Century workplace and world." Components of media literacy include the ability to use appropriate technology responsibly to solve problems and to create knowledge and learning by accessing, managing, evaluating and analyzing, integrating and synthesizing, and communicating information. 22
Each of these elements is purposefully included as a part of this unit because recent local findings reveal that students are not using technology for meaningful purposes in the classroom due to limited experiences. Creating a better-connected and better-informed student is highlighted as we use several forms of technology to present biography. Guidelines are included below written by Amy Christen to drive the technological portion of the unit:
-Instruction must be synchronized more closely with the ways students live and interact outside the classroom.
-Curricula must address the soft skills required in today's global, information-driven workforce.
-Technology and pedagogy must be better integrated.
-Networking in all its forms is key to bringing about this necessary transformation in learning. 23
Various technological references assist students as they gather information. GALILEO, Georgia's online library, 24 is highly relied upon as a resource. Full access is provided to schools in Georgia, but access is available with a guest login. It contains over 100 databases of scholarly journals and periodicals. In addition, students view clips from United Streaming's video resources. This resource is particularly useful in conjunction with interactive boards and LCD projectors. Educators may obtain an account by contacting your media specialist or the United Streaming website. 25
The transition to digitizing the biography begins with an introduction of types of digital authoring software. After tutorial sessions and viewing examples of completed digital biographies, students use interactivity to bring the biographies of their peers alive as students creatively compile gathered resources. Time will be allotted in the computer lab which will allow students to help each other and provide technical support for those who need it. MovieMaker, a software application that creates moving digital representations, is then used to model how biographical information can be transformed to a digital story. I will introduce copyright laws and presentation methods as students compile lists of favorite audio files to include as a "score" of their presentation. Students will showcase completed digital biographical projects during Technology Night for parents, students, and community members as a culminating activity.
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