Portraits of Perseverance: Creating Picturebook Biographies with Third Graders

By Dawes, Erika Thulin; Cappiello, Mary Ann et al. | Language Arts, January 2019 | Go to article overview

Portraits of Perseverance: Creating Picturebook Biographies with Third Graders


Dawes, Erika Thulin, Cappiello, Mary Ann, Magee, Lorraine, Language Arts


"There were some things I didn't even know existed and I found them in biographies! I learned about all sorts of different things: I learned about timelines, back matter, and where things are . . . . I learned that there are a lot of steps into making a biography. You have to learn a lot about the person. There's a lot to do-more than you see on the cover."

-Alex, third-grade student

Picturebook biographies are dynamic works of art. Over the past decade, as the field of nonfiction for children has evolved, so too have picturebook biographies. Each year, publishers push the envelope a little further, with experimentations in structure, style, illustration, and format (Aronson, 2011; Giblin, 2000; Isaacs, 2011). With powerful language and images, picturebook biographies are ideal mentor texts with high appeal for elementary students (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2009; Saunders & McMackin, 2004). As two university professors and a classroom teacher, we were curious about the ways in which high-quality picturebook biographies could serve as mentor texts not just for the craft of writing, but for the research process. How can young readers' exploration of the research and artistic processes related to picturebook biographies deepen their understanding of the art and craft of biography and influence their writing of biographies?

In this article, we describe a picturebook biography genre study carried out in Lorraine's third-grade classroom. Lorraine is an avid reader of children's literature; she is committed to teaching with high-quality titles across the curriculum, and she is a student in a graduate program at the university where Mary Ann and Erika teach. This genre study of biography rests on the principle that well-written children's books are powerful tools for the teaching of writing; they serve as mentor texts as children learn about genre and work to compose their own texts (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2007/2017). In Lorraine's classroom, students experience a workshop model for literacy learning (Calkins, 2001; Graves, 1994) where instruction moves fluidly between reading and writing instruction. This model recognizes a connection between the processes of reading and writing (Clay, 1998; Graves, 1994; Moffett, 1968). As children read well-written texts, they become stronger writers. Conversely, the act of writing makes children stronger readers. As they grapple with the decision processes involved in composition, they become more astute readers.

We begin by offering a review of literature that includes our theoretical framing for this project, an examination of the role of picturebook biographies in the classroom, and the use of nonfiction and back matter as mentor text. Next, we offer a description of the instruction throughout this six-week unit, focusing on character, context, theme, and back matter in the reading and composing of picturebook biographies. We discuss student outcomes and then conclude with the implications of this work.

Theoretical Framing

The project that we describe is grounded in a view of literacy learning as a set of socially situated processes (Vygotsky, 1978). This perspective acknowledges literacy practices as constructed by and within communities of practice (Street, 1995; Wertsch, 1991). From this stance, a classroom is a rich site for literacy learning, as teachers facilitate students' talk about text, their attention to aspects of texts, and their production of texts. Together, teachers and students develop shared beliefs about, understandings of, and practices with the literacy processes of reading, writing, speaking, and listening (Gee, 1990).

A sociocultural perspective also recognizes the role of the texts themselves as particular models of language use. As students engage with a range of picturebook biographies, they learn more about this genre, both indirectly through their reading experiences and directly through classroom discussions that focus on the structures and discourses at work in this genre (Holdaway, 1979; Moffett, 1968). …

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