Using Historical Biography to Learn about the Character of Social Justice

Article excerpt

Biography can be used by teachers to generate an interest in learning history while providing students with meaningful opportunities to practice the language arts. In the unit outline presented here, elementary students use reading, writing, speaking, viewing, listening and drama to investigate the life and times of Americans who stood up for their constitutional rights and became advocates for social justice. Research indicates that learners of all ages tend to personalize the past in order to make it useful and meaningful; children already know about, are interested in, and enjoy learning "social history" - changes in the material culture and social relations of ordinary people. Young learners' prior knowledge and interest in social history has been attributed to early and direct experiences with the kinds of history informally conveyed through personal acquaintances, family stories and elements of popular culture (Levstik & Barton, 1996). In contrast to social history, "political history" - changes in societal institutions, foreign relations, and forms of government - is much more challenging and difficult for children to learn because understanding political history relies so heavily on an adult vocabulary that presumes knowledge of abstract concepts in the field of history and the social sciences. Although political history is important and features prominently in most state's social studies content standards, it is not the best place to begin history instruction with elementary students. Using biography capitalizes on children's prior knowledge and learning preferences by allowing teachers to scaffold understanding of political history beginning with the social history they already know, care about, and are interested in learning. Exploring the theme of social justice through historical biography has the additional advantage of appealing to children's concern for fairness - what adults more commonly refer to as social equity - by providing them with opportunities to discover how diverse individuals and groups of people who lived in the past dealt with adverse circumstances resulting from prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance. The social studies curriculum standards addressed in this unit are: II. TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE; IV. INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENTAND IDENTIFY; V. INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS, AND INSTITUTIONS; X. CIVIC IDEALS AND PRACTICES (NCSS, 1994).

What Kinds of Biographies are Appropriate?

Teachers can prepare for this unit by identifying biographies of Americans who took action to achieve social justice. Examples of such individuals in United States history include Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruby Bridges, Molly Bannaky, Benjamin Banneker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Blackwell, Amelia Earhart, Mifflin Gibbs, Sacajawea, and Gertrude Ederly.l To increase the number and diversity of biographies, I allow students to read stories in which the main character, family, or group is fictional, for example, the story of Japanese Americans and Navaho code talkers during World War II, or a group of immigrants escaping to freedom in America.2 The idea here is to select biographies that present compelling stories within an authentic historical context; thus, check to make sure a book's facts and settings are historically accurate and that characters' situations and reactions are historically plausible. Books should also present the reader with a rich variety of images that depict the past through drawings, illustrations or photographs.

Evaluating Historical Significance

Begin the unit by reading a short biography aloud to the class; then, distribute copies of the "graphic organizer" (see Figure 1) and tell the children that you need their help identifying the most important or significant events that happened to the person or group featured in the book. Discuss what it means to evaluate the historical significance of an event while completing the graphic organizer with students as you read the book aloud a second time. …