Three categories of biographies

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History, 5th grade


Karen Garcia, Bianca Hill, Constance Fowler,

Elizabeth Harmuth, and Patty Woichik
I Lesson overview

Teacher participants will:

  • Think in terms of three distinct categories of biographies their students can research and write

  • Learn about “micro history”

  • Learn a few new ideas for student biography presentations and share their own ideas

II Standards Addressed

CA HSS standards 5.4.6, 5.5.4, 5.6.2, 5.6.3, 5.7.2

Historical and Social Science Analytical Skills:

  • Chronological and Spatial Thinking

  • Research, Evidence and Point of View

  • Historical Interpretation

III Materials needed

  • “Biographies: Proposed Categories” handout and overhead

  • Overhead transparency of Wikipedia definition of “Micro history”

  • Articles from Rethinking our Classrooms, Vol. 1: Teaching for Equity and Justice, 2007 (Wayne Au, Bill Bigelow, Stan Karp, eds.):

“Unsung Heroes,” Howard Zinn

“Teaching About Unsung Heroes,” Bill Bigelow

IV Into

Ask participants, “Who are some people about whom your students write biographies?” Chart their responses. Are most of the responses names of people mentioned in our textbooks—the most famous, well-known heroes in our history? If there are unknowns, ask participants to give a brief description. Write on chart.

“We’re going to talk about people your students can research when doing biographies, beyond the usual heroes, interspersed with brief ideas for teaching biographies in your classroom.”

V Through

  1. Show “Three Categories” transparency. Show “Famous People” row but cover the “Present” box. Say, “First, we have famous people, some from the past and some in the present. These folks from the past are the ones we usually have our students write about. They are our national heroes, who kids assume were perfect and did good things; there is a lot of mythology built around them which is difficult or impossible to challenge. These were people with power who affected the lives of everyone living then—and still today to some degree.”

  2. CONSTANCE: describe bio-card activity (5 min.) Participants share ideas. Chart.

  3. Next show the “Famous People—present” box. These are famous living people who we could also ask kids to research. They are probably controversial; we can find out all kinds of information about them on the web and people we know may have opinions about them. These people also have varying degrees of power and are affecting or have affected our lives in a variety of ways.

  4. ELIZABETH: describe social studies book activity (5 min.) Participants share ideas. Chart.

  5. Show “Unsung Heroes” portion of Categories, discuss. These are real people whose lives aren’t so well known; it takes some searching to find out about them.

  6. PATTY share explorers biography activity (5 min.) Participants share ideas; chart.

  7. “The Unknowns Awaiting Discovery.” In the present, these can be people in our local communities. Kids can really relate to these people—they can come into your classroom and talk about the things they are doing in the community to improve things. They can convince kids that even if they’ll never be as famous as George Washington, they CAN be activists and exert some power to change things.

  8. In the Past portion of this Category we have the subject of “micro history.” Show Wikipedia definition on overhead. The subjects of micro histories are marginal people whose existence is often discovered accidentally in the process of some other research (archaeology, for instance, as in Katherine Nanny Naylor). By unfolding their lives we are given a window into the larger culture or society that we wouldn’t otherwise have. These are usually people without power, often outliers or even criminals. They are the people whose lives are impacted by the “Untouchable Heroes”—but because they weren’t wealthy or powerful or living in the mainstream, we don’t know much about them.

  9. BIANCA share Picture Frame activity (5 min.) Participants share ideas; chart.

  10. Teachers read articles are from “Rethinking Schools.” The first is written by Howard Zinn, a historian, playwright, and social activist. He was a shipyard worker and Air Force bombardier in WW II before he went to college under the GI bill and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. It was after his World War II experience that he began to question the culture of war.
    Howard Zinn can be controversial. If you disagree with what he has to say about certain political figures, please don’t be offended. Instead, try to concentrate on the people Zinn mentions who are working for social justice and economic equality. Keep in mind that we are charged with helping our student examine alternate points of view, and we should be willing to do the same.

  11. After you read the Zinn article, please complete the note-taking guide (10 minutes to read the Zinn article and jot down answers to questions.)

  12. Teachers share out their notes in table groups (7 min.)

  13. SPECTRUM: Teachers get up and stand in a row in order from “Strongly disagree with Zinn’s hypothesis” to “Strongly agree with Zinn’s hypothesis,” with “I’m not sure” in the middle. Volunteers can hold the 3 signs. As they are standing in their line, ask those who wish to share out their ideas.

  14. If this article and exercise stirred up some strong feelings in you, I encourage you to become active in a cause you believe in. Similarly, when we stir up strong feelings in our students, for example by telling the truth about our national heroes, we must provide some way to smooth out those feelings by offering a positive outlet. That might take the form of a class project to help out in the community. Bill Bigelow offers another way to do just that. Read his article (7 minutes to read article.) Debrief. This can be a great outlet for kids who are feeling a sense of discouragement because they’ve learned some unsavory truths about their idols.

VI Beyond

I encourage you to get beyond the traditional heroes we study in 5th grade history. Remember that the Historical and Social Science Analytical Skills ask us to help kids examine other points of view, examine primary resources, and pose relevant questions about historical events (Banks’ Heroes and Holidays vs. Social Action).


Unsung Heroes” by Howard Zinn
1. Zinn is accused of “taking down our national idols,” thus creating a sense of alienation and depression in his readers. He counters that instead we should honor those historic figures who worked for peace, social justice, equality and humanitarianism. What do you think?

2. Adding “new” heroes to our curriculum would be difficult and maybe uncomfortable. Do you think it’s worth it? Would you do it—or have you already?


from Wikipedia

Microhistory is a branch of the study of history. First developed in the 1970s, microhistory is the study of the past on a very small scale. The most common type of microhistory is the study of a small town or village. Other common studies include looking at individuals of minor importance, or analysing a single painting. Microhistory is an important component of the "new history" that has emerged since the 1960s. It is usually done in close collaboration with the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology.





Can be controversial
Hilary Clinton
Condoleeza Rice

Bill Gates

Dolores Huerta


Tiger Woods

Carl Sagan

Richard Nixon

Untouchable” Heroes

George Washington

Harriet Tubman

Betsy Ross

Daniel Boone

Christopher Columbus

Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis and Clark

Abraham Lincoln


Tex Ona:

Filipino 11 year old who sells his drawings to raise money to build houses for the poor in the Philippines.

Marion Wright Edelman:

Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund, first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi state bar.

Denise McQuade:

Disability rights activist, New York City; early activist in Disabled in Action; executive director, Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, Inc., 1984-1992

Carlos Santana:

With his wife, founder of the Milagro (“Miracle”) Foundation, a charitable foundation that supports underrepresented and underprivileged children and youth in the areas of arts, education and health.

Philip Berrigan:

Protested the Vietnam war and the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal.

Jose Rizal:

Martyred national hero of the Philippines; the most prominent advocate for reforms in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era.

Madam C.J. Walker:

American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur, tycoon and philanthropist.. Her fortune was made by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women.


Cherokee chief who wanted to avoid war with the Colonists.

Judith Sargent Murray:

Feminist writer, wife of founder of Universalist Church; pseudonym “Constantia.”)


Community Activists

Who can your students identify in their communities?

Family members

Local politicians, police

Local artists

Local businesspeople

Community activists


Charlie Toledo: Suscol Council

Violet and Vivian: Kashaya elders

Napa: Molly’s Angels, Jim Big Bear King

Vallejo: Mel Orpilla


Mary Burton:

Indentured servent arrested in the New York Conspiracy of 1741.

Katherine Nanny Naylor:

Wealthy widow in Boston.

Martin Guerre:

French peasant of the 16th century who was at the center of a famous case of imposture.

Helen Jewett:

An upscale New York prostitute murdered in the middle of the night at her brothel in 1836.


Websites (click on reading and language, then writing activities, then biography maker for a step-by-step lesson that kids can follow. It asks good questions.)

“Liberty’s Daughters” by D.Michael Ryan. Women in colonial history.

“Traitors, Seamstresses and Generals:

Voices of the American Revolution”

Excellent one-page biographies in kid-friendly language; goes beyond the usual information.

Revolutionary War Biography Websites in alphabetical order by name with links to other websites. for examples of “Bio-Poems”.

Teaching American History 2

Summer Institute, 2008

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