We have been working hard on a nonfiction biography focused unit in Reading and an essay writing unit in Writing. Students perused the biographies we have in our classroom (so many amazing picture books and the Who Was.. series that is at a good level for 3rd graders), and then chose three people they’d like to research and write about. We had already done a number of read alouds of picture book biographies so were able to get our students excited about people they weren’t initially familiar with and showcase some amazing women and PoC. We also looked at photos, video clips, and listened to music. They were hooked!
One thing that was important to remember going into this unit is that research is not only done through reading (even though we love books and LOVE recommending books to children) - we used photos, videos, video clips, maps, and more! Photos are a great way to start talking about primary sources AND verifying information using more than one source. Ask a student to look at a photo and share what they know about the subject ONLY from looking at that photo. You’ll be amazed. Our students were incredibly engaged and motivated and wanted to know all about their research subjects. One child who researched Josephine Baker asked to listen to her music, another asked to read Maya Angelou’s books, and another wanted to look at Keith Haring’s paintings (and more!).
After collecting lots of research, we asked students to come up with 2 reasons why their research subject is or was exceptional and make sure they had evidence to back up those two reasons. We talked about how we might think someone is exceptional (or amazing, awesome, wonderful, etc), but we can give examples to prove it our readers and convince them as well. Our students used a color coded graphic organizer to plan our their two reasons with details and examples.
A note about the color coding - before writing this essay (our any essay), we taught our students about the format of the painted essay from the Vermont Writing Collaborative. We LOVE the painted essay. It’s clear, color coded, concrete, tangible, and organized. We’ve used it with 3rd graders and 5th graders (and have seen it used with younger students) and its structure could help you organize your writing for the rest of your life.
The students used color coded planners to start organizing their ideas and then continued through all the stages of the writing process (they are familiar with the writing process from Writer’s Workshop). One revising technique we found really helpful was having students color their essays (with crayons or colored pencils) to match the parts of the painted essay. This way, when they weren’t sure what color to use for a word, phrase, or sentence, they had to ask themselves if that word, phrase, or sentence needed to go elsewhere. It makes the process of revising for organization so much more tangible!
Finally, we shared our essay at a publishing party where family members and the school community were invited to come learn about some amazing people. We loved seeing adults learning about inspirational humans they had never heard about (or knew very little about) like Major Taylor, Wilma Rudolph, Josephine Baker, Misty Copeland, Bessie Coleman, and so many more. While we highlighted these people by sharing incredible books about them, we didn’t say any version of, “Oh it’s Black History Month, learn about black people!” Instead, we said, here are some awesome books about amazing people.. read and enjoy!