All in the Family or Whose Life Is It Anyway? Challenges of Writing Narrative Educational Biography about a Relative

By Sherwood, Elizabeth; Freshwater, Amy | Vitae Scholasticae, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

All in the Family or Whose Life Is It Anyway? Challenges of Writing Narrative Educational Biography about a Relative


Sherwood, Elizabeth, Freshwater, Amy, Vitae Scholasticae


We are two early childhood educators at work on a paper about kindergarten teacher Margaret Elizabeth (Betty) Kirby (1911 - 2005). We sift through the materials that document her career from 1933 to 1975. The several hundred primary source documents include photographs, teacher-developed curriculum plans, annotated textbooks and professional publications, anecdotal records, and notes from college classes. There are also personal materials including letters, family photographs, scrapbooks, travel diaries, and other memorabilia. They are vivid and rich resources for learning from the past. We read, we talk, we analyze and debate as we try to tease out just what Betty was like as a teacher and a woman. Even as we work our way through Betty's copious materials, we have differences in our perspectives. Our conversation sounds something like this:

Amy: She seems to have been so open-minded. Elizabeth: That's not how I would describe her. She could, at times, be really rigid in her views. She was generally conservative politically.

Amy: Maybe open-minded isn't the right descriptor. Curious--she seems to have stayed curious and interested in learning new things her whole life.

Elizabeth: Now that I'll give you. She truly was an educator who was a lifelong learner.

Amy has learned about Betty by exploring these materials. So has Elizabeth, but Elizabeth also learned about Betty by being her niece. Betty was Elizabeth's father's only sibling.

In this paper, we will explore challenges of biographical research about family members as well as the dimensions of insider/outsider knowledge in constructing educational narrative biography. Difficulties include questions about whether an ordinary family member can be of interest to the scholarly community, how to see the very familiar with new eyes, and how to construct a portrait of a family member that has value to an outside audience. In reflecting on the beginnings of our research about Betty Kirby, we have come to recognize that challenges of researching family members can be addressed by drawing on the knowledge of insiders--the family--and outsiders, those who are unrelated. We have applied strategies such as consulting with experts in the field, utilizing multiple sources of information, and collaborating with colleagues in our efforts to understand and learn from the complexities of another person's life.

The value of narrative educational biography lies in the purposeful nature of the work. The narrative should provoke thought about educational issues and provide interest and value for readers through its description of particular aspects of an individual's life. It is not intended to tell a life story from beginning to end. (1) While we were intrigued by the materials that provided a window to a classroom of the past, we questioned whether Betty's life as a teacher was one that would be of interest and value to the larger educational community.

Betty kept a record of her classroom practices with her kindergarten children for twenty-five years through photographs and curriculum notes. The photographs provide us with some insight into Betty's teaching. Many of her photographs depict children using large, wooden blocks to build stable, semi-permanent structures for classroom play. The blocks were designed in the early 1900's by Patty Smith Hill, a progressive era kindergarten educator. When Elizabeth first shared Betty's photographs of the children and their block structures with early childhood historians, she quickly discovered that her photographs were rare and highly prized within the profession. (2) We concluded that Betty's photographs were a worthy subject of research, but was she?

As we worked through the boxes of archival material, it became apparent that we had enough documentation to provide insight into one person's vision of kindergarten education in the early 1950's. We were intrigued by photographs of children's artwork associated with month-long teaching units. …

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