BY MARY ANN CAPPIELLO & BARB ROSENSTOCK on behalf of The Biography Clearinghouse
People are hardwired to connect to other people. From birth, research tells us that babies prefer human faces over all other images. People are also hardwired for story. For tens of thousands of years, we humans created stories and listened to them as if our lives depended on it. Often, they did. Story helps us process the present, connect to the past, envision the future; and reflect on broader cultural issues. Story developed along with language itself.
Stories about people’s lives are called biographies. With this post, we’re introducing a new initiative to explore the potential of the powerful genre of biography to connect students with the broader world.
The Biography Clearinghouse, endorsed by the Children’s Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English, developed out of casual conversations about biography’s underused potential. We are an expanding set of educators, authors, students and interested readers working together to use biography to champion diversity, explore history, model agency and support perseverance.
This fall, we’ll be launching a website to support educators as they explore the ways the craft of biography can connect students—with the past, with the future, and with each other.
Our core principles express the belief that biographies are uniquely positioned to accomplish a variety of classroom goals. They can be read for pleasure and academic learning. They can evoke student wonder and prompt questions. They can address real issues in society and help students build empathy and know that they are not alone.
Our principles affirm that biographies can support Literacy, Content Area/Disciplinary Literacy and Socio-Emotional Learning. A fuller articulation of the principles can be found at our Biography Clearinghouse Principles document.
The Biography Clearinghouse website will address the process of investigating biographies, crafting biographies, and exploring content areas with biography. Biography creators will share their process, research, and motivations in writing and illustrating these complex works. Since real people advocate, solve, write, read, experiment, and create; we can use real people’s diverse life stories to explore all content areas: history, mathematics, language arts, science, and the arts. Biography gives students a way to see what is really possible in the world. Working with stories of the struggles and triumphs of accomplished people can ignite students’ own activism, agency, and perseverance.
You will hear from The Biography Clearinghouse via the CLA blog every three weeks this fall as we add new content such as book titles, author interviews, research artifacts and teaching materials. Additionally, to keep ourselves responsive to the unique challenges our classrooms face this year; we want to hear from you! We want you to join us as part of The Biography Clearinghouse initiative. We invite your help in crafting this new story—to use the connection to others inherent in diverse people’s lives to encourage curiosity, creativity and commitment in your students.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, ideas, and classroom dilemmas. Or, comment below if you’re reading this on Twitter or Facebook. We’d love to know how you’ve used real people’s stories in the past, and how you’d like to see them used them in the future. We invite your help in crafting this new story—to use the connection to others inherent in diverse people’s lives to encourage curiosity, creativity and commitment in your students.
Barb Rosenstock is the author of many picture book biographies for children. Her books have been awarded Orbis Pictus and Sydney Taylor Honors, among many other awards. Otis and Will Discover the Deep, illustrated by Katherine Roy, won a SCBWI Golden Kite Award, and The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpré, was awarded a Caldecott Honor.
Mary Ann Cappiello teaches courses in children’s literature and literacy methods at Lesley University, blogs about teaching with children’s literature at The Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog, and is a former chair of NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction K-8.
Update 9/1/2020: Readers may also be interested in the post: Ideas for Change with Tonya Bolden’s Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl by Jennifer Graff and Courtney Shimek (on behalf of the Biography Clearinghouse)