Friday, June 17, 2011

Signature Projects: Biography Time Line

Many years ago, John Koch wrote The Interview each week in the Boston Globe.  At that time, teachers in the Wayland Public Schools were looking for a new venue for biographies.  We decided to copy Koch's model with a twist.  Instead of interviewing living people, we'd have students become experts of inspirational people in American history and create a Koch-like interview with those people.

A fifth grade colleague at the time piloted the project.  Students read and read and read about a person of interest in American history.  Then they created an interview modeled after Koch's Boston Globe The Interview.  We even had Koch come in to talk about his work which was helpful to both teachers and students.  After that, students dressed in character, lined the school auditorium creating a human time line and welcomed visitors and their questions.  The project was a success.

Now, a good 12 years or so later, the project still exists.  Many teachers over the years have put their own stamp on the project, and Koch's Boston Globe The Interview no longer exists.  This year's teachers connected the interview process to the popular news show, 60 Minutes.

I attended the event as a parent today.  Since I knew the project well and had worked with many fifth graders over the years to complete the task, many of the famous people in history's names were familiar to me, but others were new.  Visually, I once again enjoyed looking at the clothing changes from the early 1600's to the twentieth century.  I spied the mix of scientists, inventors, artists, writers, politicians, presidents, explorers, entertainers, sports stars and others.  Again, I was amazed at the fact that most of those famous people in history got their first inspiration in the early years of life.  For example, Wilbur and Orville Wright's fascination with flying began with a toy helicopter their father gave them when they were young, and Robert Goodard's inventions began with his love of science and experiments when he was young too.  I enjoyed asking the young experts questions about the people they portrayed, and learned facts and information I never knew before.

I was amazed at how knowledgeable each fifth grader was about the famous person he or she studied.  I also thought it was interesting to see how students chose historic figures that resembled their own passions, interests and challenges.  I admired the care and thought that went into each child's costume, and most of all the pride each child exhibited as they answered the questions I asked.  I marveled at the bravery and courage of the persons portrayed, and wondered how the study of these champions in history would influence our fifth graders.

I was very grateful for the diligent and thoughtful work the teachers had done to prepare these students.  The fifth grade students were experts!  They knew their characters well.  Several had even rehearsed the accent and speaking style of the character they portrayed.  I'm sure that the students will never forget this signature project.  I also know that this project will evolve over the years.  It's important that the project continue to resemble a familiar, timely venue as it helps children access that venue for greater learning on their own time.

What signature projects do you support and encourage at your school?  What learning takes place during these signature projects? During the biography project students learn about history, reading, writing, presentation, effort and passion.  They are asked to think critically, collaborate, create and communicate. It's an awesome project -- a reason why we teach, and a memorable event that will help to propel our students toward their future goals and learning.  If one of this year's teachers chooses to blog about the details related to this project, I'll connect the link.