The Art of Biography

2013 Volume III

Introduction

This seminar, intended chiefly for teachers of reading, writing, social studies, history, and English, sought to encourage the use of biography (including autobiography) as a method of classroom instruction. Everyone has a life worth recalling, even if only to one's family or to one's self: learning itself, if by that we mean accumulated experience, is arguably the most important use of biography. Maybe that's why biographies, whether in print or electronic editions, continue to be so widely read.

How, though, do you go about writing a life, whether it's your own or someone else's? Because I've been working on a biography myself – of the 20th century American diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan – I've tried over the past decade and a half to learn something about the subject by teaching it to Yale undergraduates. I adapted the course for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute in 2012 and, in the summer of 2013, for the Yale National Initiative. My teachers and I concentrated on several things:

First, the reading and critical discussion of biographies and autobiographies, selected with the help of the seminar to reflect a range of subjects and approaches. I wanted the list to include both good and not-so-good biographies, because I think you can learn at least as much from each. I wanted the emphasis to be as much literary as historical, because biography – which is really about character – relies as much on the skills of novelists as of historians. And I wanted to explore particular genres of biography, ranging from the first great autobiography (St. Augustine's Confessions) through graphic biography, a recent innovation in the field (Chester Brown's life of Louis Riel).

Second, extending the concept of biography from the printed page to the new media that will – as costs come down – surely be making their way into classrooms. Yale's Collaborative Learning Center provided each of my teachers with iPads for the two weeks they were in New Haven, and we experimented with their use both inside and outside the seminar. Particularly valuable to us was Art Authority, a pre-loaded app that allowed us all instant access to thousands of portraits and landscapes, each suggesting something (usually multiple things) about biography.

Third, extracting from these readings and visual materials certain principles of biography that can, with appropriate adaptation, be "teachable" across a wide range of age groups and student skill levels. I was fortunate to have teachers working across a broad range of grade levels and student needs. Without the years of experience my teachers brought to our seminar, we would hardly have been able to connect principles with practice as thoroughly as we did.

Finally, based on the readings they'd done, the iPads they'd experimented with, and the principles they'd identified, each of the teachers in my seminar produced a curriculum unit for use in their own classrooms and we hope in others, meant to engage students in the reading and writing of biographies or autobiographies. These reflect several different approaches:

The use of autobiographies focusing on the experiences of childhood and adolescence. Carol Boynton's unit, designed for first through fourth graders, introduces her students to the idea of autobiography through the stories of two prominent children's authors, Patricia Polacco and Tomie dePaola. Taylor Davis employs a similar approach in a unit intended for sixth through eighth graders, based on the boyhood memoirs of the author Roald Dahl. Working with the same age group, Michelle Hilbeck explores the issue of bullying in school through the autography of Dan Greenburg. And Raymond Smith, who also teaches middle schoolers, concentrates on the negative lessons to be learned from the troubled adolescence of the author Jack Gantos. From these examples, their students will be able to compose, illustrate, and circulate their own autobiographies, in each case emphasizing, as do Polacco, dePaola, Dahl, Greenberg and Gantos, specific character-shaping episodes, some to be emulated, some to be avoided, drawn from the experiences of others roughly the students' own age.

Autobiographies and biographies documenting the lives of individuals within distinctive groups. Role models are important, especially within "minority" communities, a point stressed by several teachers in this year's seminar. Torrieann Dooley introduces her second graders to this idea by way of a Dr. Seuss story, after which her students will read age-accessible biographies of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lisa Christenson's fifth graders will study African-Americans during the American Revolution, and then write about what they themselves might have experienced if they had they lived in that time and place. Terry Anne Wildman is teaching a similar unit on fugitive slave narratives before and during the American Civil War. Audrelia Dugi, a high school teacher in a Navajo school, is emphasize the lives of notable Navajos as a way of training her students in appropriate techniques for interviewing members of their own families about their history, which in their culture is rarely if ever written down.

Using the life of a single individual to teach principles of autobiography and biography. Camille Pires will put her third graders through a detailed analysis of Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, letting them discover for themselves what it takes to write an autobiography. Audra Bull's middle-schoolers are particularly interested in Walt Disney, so she has made herself an expert on his life as a way of encouraging them to try their own hand at drawing, but also to show them how a biography is constructed. Sonia Henze, who teaches women's studies to high school students, undertakes a similar project, with parallel purposes, on the life of Gloria Steinem. Finally, Liz Daniell, who teaches English to high school students, takes advantage of the recent discovery of the remains of King Richard III to teach Shakespeare's eponymous play, stressing the extent to which the Bard, like many biographers, had an interest in blackening his subject's reputation: her students will learn, from this unusually dramatic case, the importance of reading biography critically.

I've learned a lot from working with these dedicated teachers, and all of us hope the curriculum units they've prepared will be helpful to others. I'm grateful as well to the equally dedicated staff of the Yale National Institute, and to my seminar coordinator Carol Boynton, for having made our collaboration possible.

John Lewis Gaddis