Reading Biographies to Reflect on Core Principles and Create Belonging

Katie CunninghamGuest blogger Katie Cunningham is an Assistant Professor at Manhattanville College. Her teaching and scholarship centers around children’s literature, critical literacy, guest bloggerandsupporting teachers to make their classrooms joyful and purposeful. Katie has presented at numerous national conferences and is the editor of The Language and Literacy Spectrum, New York Reading Association’s literacy journal. 

Spring is here and with that spring fever for many students who will be graduating from a significant milestone and moving on to the next stage of their lives. Graduating students will hear speeches that urge them to seize the day, to work hard, to stand out amongst the crowd, and to answer the question “Who will you be?”. The Common Core State Standards are written with this day in mind. While the standards are designed to raise the level of education that any child receives regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, and language, the standards alone do not put children on the path to college and a career. We cannot overlook that some students see themselves from a very early age as “card carrying members” in college settings while others feel displaced. Before we can ask our students “Who will you be?”, we need to wonder “Who do our students believe they can be?”

Katie Cunningham quoteThe last few springs I’ve hosted seventy-five fifth graders to the college campus where I’m an Assistant Professor. These fifth graders attend a school where 93% are of Latino descent, 85% have reduced or free lunch, and almost 40% have limited English proficiency.  For many of them this experience is their first time on a college campus and the vast majority will be the first generation in their families to attend college. The trip is only five miles by school bus, yet our campus is a world away for many students. The trip is designed to give fifth graders the sense that they are card-carrying members. That they belong here. That they are on the road to college as a pathway to a career.

As educators and parents, we know that college and career-readiness cannot simply be reduced to a series of skills-based standards. Rather, it’s a complex topic with social, cultural and political considerations that go far beyond the classroom. I believe we can enact curriculum that centers the standards in engaging and joyful ways, but what can we do to rewrite history for many of our students who face obstacles inside and outside our classrooms everyday? We can bring them to college campuses and support them to see themselves as members of intellectual communities. We can also support students beyond single events to routinely consider what guides us and what has guided people before us to reach their dreams. Harvard Professor Ronald Ferguson established five core principles I believe our schools must teach long before and alongside any reading, writing, or math lessons:

  1. Be a caring and trusting person
  2. Share your voice
  3. Set high expectations
  4. Persist persist persist
  5. Reflect on how far you’ve come

These principles can be strengthened by the sharing of great stories about remarkable people. I’ve chosen some of my favorite Lee and Low books that provide strategic opportunities for discussion around these principles to support students to consider who they are and who they want to be. The following biographies shed light on real people who led their lives by strong principles.  I’ve chosen some of my favorite passages from these books alongside text-dependent questions that incorporate the five core principles. Consider creating a biography text set for your class where students have the opportunity to read across texts. Discuss how these figures were alike, how their lives were different, and which core principles guided them. View videos like the Make the Difference campaign and consider how the children in Koh Panyee relate to the biographical figures in these texts. Then, ask your students “Who will you be?” and listen.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story
Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds front cover

The sign at the swimming pool read, MEMBERS ONLY. Twelve year old Sammy Lee knew exactly what that sign meant—only whites were permitted to enter even though it was a public pool. This was

the practice in 1932. Sammy would have to wait until Wednesday, when people of color were allowed to go inside.”

“Although his father wanted him to be a doctor, Sammy knew he wanted to be an Olympic Champion.”

  • How does Hart’s support of Sammy demonstrate a trusting relationship?
  • How does Sammy share his “voice” with the world?
  • What does Sammy overcome to persist in his pursuit of diving success?
  • Reflect on Sammy’s journey. What can we learn from his life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas.

Game, Set, Match, Champion Arthur Ashe

“WHOOSH! With one smooth swing of his arm, the young black man sent a forehand shot sailing into the opposite court. I wish I could do that, Arthur thought.”Arthur Ashe front cover

“Arthur’s arms and legs were as skinny as soda straws, but he was strong and had quick-fire reflexes. He soaked up everything Ron taught him, including the rules of the game.”

“Arthur started winning, and his confidence grew—a little too much. In a match against a child his own age who was less skilled than he was, Arthur blasted shots past his opponent.”

  • Who supports Arthur Ashe in his quest to become a tennis champion?
  • How does Ron help Arthur to become a sportsman not just a champion?
  • What does Arthur overcome to persist in his pursuit of tennis success?
  • Reflect on Arthur’s journey. What can we learn from his life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas?

Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage
Baby Flo cover

“Goat Alley—that’s where Florence got her start. It was in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington. Jobs were hard to come by. Florence’s daddy took whatever work he could find, but there was never enough money. Not for food. Not for clothing. Not even for coal…” but “like a little bird. She filled the room with song.”

  • How does Nellie, Flo’s mother, demonstrate care to her family and to her customers?
  • What encourages Flo to share her voice and to persist with her passion for singing?
  • How does Flo set high expectations for herself?
  • Reflect on Flo’s life journey. What can we learn from her life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas?

Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars

“Soichiro’s mother wove cloth. His father worked as a blacksmith, hammering molten iron into fishing hooks, shovels, and farming tools. The oldest of nine children, Soichiro liked to watch his father make these things.”Honda cover image

“One day when Soichiro was seven, a man drove a rumbling Ford Model T through town. Soichiro had never seen a car before. He ran beside it, amazed by the many moving parts.”…

“Someday I will learn how a car works and make one myself, he thought.”

  • In what ways does Soichiro persist in his dream of learning how a car works and making one himself?
  • What obstacles did he face in achieving his dream?
  • How does Soichiro share his voice with the world?
  • Reflect on Soichiro’s life journey. What can we learn from his life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas?

Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy
Silent Star front cover

“With this game-saving play, Hoy had made history. He became the first player ever to throw out three runners at home plate in one game! The crowd erupted into cheers. Then the fans did something
else, something they always did to show their appreciation when Hoy made a great play. They threw confetti up in their air and wildly waved their arms and hats and handkerchiefs. The fans made such a visual commotion because William Hoy was deaf.”

  • What are defining moments for William Hoy in his journey to become a major league baseball player ?
  • How does he show pride in what he does even before becoming an inspirational figure?
  • How does William Hoy demonstrate determination in pursuit of his dreams?
  • Reflect on William Hoy’s life journey. What can we learn from his life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas?

Shining Star: The Anna May Wong StoryShining Star front cover

“There was nothing Anna May enjoyed more than sneaking off to the cinema. Watching a movie, she could escape from her everyday life, travel to interesting places, and experience new things.”

  • Where does Anna May find her true self?
  • How does Anna May demonstrate determination in pursuit of her dream to be a film star?
  • What obstacles does Anna May face in achieving her dream?
  • How does Anna May’s determination for quality roles make a difference for not only her own life but for the lives of girls from all backgrounds who deserve meaningful roles in films?
  • Reflect on Anna May Wong’s life journey. What can we learn from her life that relates to our own lives? What specific moments in the text can you refer to in support of your ideas?

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