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A Teacher’s Guide to the Lives of … series

written by Kathleen Krull & illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
“Living, breathing anecdotes—the stuff of which the best biography is made.”—Publishers Weekly
Ideas for Specific Books:
Women    Writers   Artists    Musicians  Athletes    Presidents

When to use Biographies in the Classroom

By Mary Lou Meerson, from Harcourt “Lives of” study guide, copyright © 2000 by Harcourt, Inc.  Published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission.  All rights reserved.

As an advance organizer
Have students read the biographies of one or two prominent figures from an era—before they study that time period using textbooks—to establish a fund of prior knowledge. In each Live of… book, Ms. Krull details the background, historical influences, and current events in which each subject lived. As students then meet the characters and events of the biographies in a textbook or other source, they will bring their own understanding and interpretation to the material. They will be better prepared and more motivated to deal with a straight text.

As enrichment and extension
The Lives of… biographies are uniquely well suited for read-alouds during a unit of study—to build interest in a time period—and as independent research assingments for individuals or small groups, who can then report back to the whole class.

To build critical thinking skills
As a class or in small groups, have the students read several biographies and construct compare-and-contrast charts, or Venn diagrams, comparing the subjects. Have them write critical essays evaluating such things as how different people approached the same subject or problem; how certain people influenced their own times or field of expertise; or what might have happened if certain people had lived in a different time.

More advanced students could present a “Meeting of the Minds” skit. (Each student portrays a person profiled in one of the books. A conversation is staged among a diverse set of people. Each student must respond and react to ideas as his or her historical figure would have.)

To summarize a unit
When you have finished teaching “the facts” about a time period or event, reading one or two biographies of people from that same era brings students a sense of closure. Biographies allow students to understand the generalities they have just learned by filling in some specific and personal details of the time. Students will recognize familiar events in the biographies and can predict what may happen next, making them more ready to move on to the study of the next chronological period.

Activities for use with some or all of the books in the series

  • Build a timeline around the room in ten-year increments (begining with the earliest date of birth in whatever books you have). As you read about each person, place his or her birthdate on the timeline.
  • Before reading a biography, brainstorm a word web. Write down anything the students say they already know about the subject, even if it’s wrong. It is often helpful to see what misconceptions students have and to dicuss how they were formed. After reading the biography, go back and make corrections and add points.
  • Create a historical context for the biography you’ll read by storytelling pertinent historical points. For instance, when reading about Cleopatra, you may want to show on a globe the extent of the Roman Empire; when reading about Harriet Tubman, review the slavery issue. Make this short, interesting, and fun.
  • As you read each biography, enter significant events on the timeline. The class must agree on which events to include. Frequently ask questions such as “Did Queen Victoria live before or after the First World War?” Have students use the timeline to check their answers. Most historians agree that learning the order of events is more useful knowledge than memorizing (and then forgetting) specific dates.
  • Introduce some form of note taking for students to use while reading or listening. Don’t insist that they copy facts and dates. Instead, call for critical thinking, summation, and judgment. One method is to have students choose what they think is the most important or interesting information about each person and then explain why they made that choice. Another method is to prepare one provocative question about each person. Students must answer and defend or explain their answers. Some good question types are “Was she right to…,” “What did you think of…,” or “How would your life have been different if he had not…”
  • Have students write a letter to the person they’re read about, explaining how something he or she did has affected their life, decades or centuries later.
  • Have the students watch a movie or documentary about the person. Critique it for accuracy.
  • Have students express their feelings about the person through art, poetry, or music.
  • As a class, collect a set of criteria for “greatness.” What makes a leader? Education? Personality? Opportunity? What else?
  • Isolate a “happenstance” in one of the biographies: something the person did not plan or was not responsible for. Have students write a paper speculating on how this person, or history, might have been different if this event had not happened.
  • Set up a “Hot Seat,” where students take turns role-playing: answering questions from fellow students as they think their subject would have.
  • Create and play a trivia game based on facts from one or more of the books.
  • Examine the “For Further Reading” section at the end of each book. Discuss how authors cross-check facts and draw their own conclusions based on the research of others.


Lives of Extraordinary Women

  • Have students find out more (in history books from the library) about how Isabella of Spain and Elizabeth I of England supported exploration of unknown lands. What was the result of this support? Why did they do this? Were these two queens alike in other ways?
  • Have students choose two people who lived close to the same time period (see your timeline), then have them research three or four major world events of that time and explain how those events influenced each of the pair.
  • Have students select their five favorite extraordinary women. Have them write one sentence about how each viewed her role as a leader and another sentence about how each viewed marriage and children. Is there a consistent pattern, or do they exhibit diverse attitudes?
  • Have the students write riddles about the women. Have them exchange riddles with their classmates and try to stump one another. For example:
    • I was the first person to send doctors into battle with armies.
      I made some of North America part of Spain.
      I had only two baths in my entire life.
      Who am I?
  • Display a map of the world, and place a pin at the birthplace of each extraordinary woman. Discuss areas of concentration and areas with no pins. (Use pins of different colors to indicate the subjects of each book in this series. Look for and discuss any patterns.)
  • The gender representation in the six books in the Lives of… series is as follows:
      Book Titles Male Female
      Lives of Extraordinary Women 
      Lives of the Writers
      Lives of the Athletes
      Lives of the Artists
      Lives of the Musicians
      Lives of the Presidents
    Discuss some of the implications of these data. Are women prominent musicians today? Have the students think about how female roles and expectations at various times in history may have affected how, or whether, women could express themselves in the arts or other fields.

Lives of the Writers

  • Take a class poll: Who has read a book by any of the authors profiled in the book? Make a graph of the results. Ask students who have read any of the books to give short opinion reports to the rest of the class. Did they like it? Why? Would they recommend it to their friends?
  • Read aloud and discuss excerpts from some of these authors that your students have probably not read. Some suggestions:
      • The tilting at windmills scene from Don Quixote by Cervantes
      • “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven” by Poe
      • The description of life at the blacking factory from David Copperfield by Dickens
      • One of the tales from Mules and Men by Hurston
      • A poem by Emily Dickinson
  • Read aloud the episode about whitewashing the fence from Tom Sawyer by Twain. This used to be thought one of the most hilarious anecdotes ever written. Did your students find it funny? Discuss whether humor changes over time.
  • It is only comparatively recently that women have felt comfortable publicly acknowledging their writing. Trace this trend by listing facts about authorship and publicity from each female author in this book.

  • Lives of the Artists

  • Arrange to have your students view actual works by the artists in this book. Depending on your resources:
  • Arrange a class trip to an art museum
    Borrow art slides or reproductions of pictures from a library
    Show films about the life and works of one or more of the artists
    Look at art books
  • Choose an Artist of the Month. Have students create a bulletin board about that artist’s life and works. (One fairly inexpensive way to acquire prints is to buy wall calendars that feature art. These are usually half price in January!) Have students create a piece of art using their own ideas but the stylistic features of that month’s artist (for example, outlining objects in black like Van Gogh or zooming in on a single flower blossom like O’Keefe).
  • Many of the artists profiled in this book seem to be volatile and eccentric. Do the students think that these are the traits of a creative person? Or are naturally quirky people drawn to the arts? Discuss Picasso’s statement that “It’s not what an artist does that counts, but what he is.” Do the students believe that a “normal” person, living a “normal” life can create great works of art? (Let the students use their own definition of normal.)
  • Make a list of how old each artist was when he or she died. Have the students speculate on why artists seem to be especially long-lived, even though many of them were poorly fed or had unhealthy habits.

  • Lives of the Musicians

    • Play the music of some of the composers included in the book. Some selections that are especially accessible for young people are the “Minute Waltz” by Chopin, Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, “Oh! Susanna” by Foster, “Lullaby” by Brahms, selections from The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, any piano rag by Joplin, and “This Land Is Your Land” by Guthrie.
    • Have students make a list of whom they consider the ten most influential musicians in the past thirty years. Have them defend their choices by stating what is unique about their music or how it has influenced society or other musicians.
    • Hold a musical talent show, with all styles of music and types of instruments invited. Encourage budding composers to play original works.
    • Many classical composers got started by playing the organ in a church. Have students find out if any of today’s popular musicians began by singing or playing in their houses of worship.
    • Have your students pantomime all the roles as they listen to a recording of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev. If possible, have some of the instruments available for students to try.
    • List and discuss as many types of music as possible (such as classical, pop, rap, country-western, and jazz). Ask how many students have heard at least a bit of each kind. Encourage them to widen their exposure to many types of music, rather than listening exclusively to only one kind.

    Lives of the Athletes

    • Read aloud the statement by Jesse Owens at the front of the book. Have students discuss their emotions about sports figures, past and present. Do they feel that any of these figures were “superhuman” in their accomplishments? Do they think that Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan are “no different than any other mortal”?
    • Watch films (or excerpts from films) starring Sonja Henie, Johnny Weissmuller, or Bruce Lee. Other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a champion bodybuilder, can the students think of any other current TV or film stars who were athletes first?
    • Hold a Tarzan yell contest and give a prize to the best imitator.
    • Have each students choose one of the following statements and write an essay defending it:
      • A. Prominent sports figures should lead their personal lives in such a way that they can serve as role models for young people.
        B. Prominent sports figures are just doing a job, which happens to place them in the public eye, but they should be able to lead their personal lives as they wish.
    • Hold a mini-Olympics. Include traditional track-and-field events, as well as baseball or basketball throws, jacks, marbles, hopscotch, jump rope, four square, or tetherball.
    Lives of the Presidents
    • Hold a class discussion or debate to decide who were the five greatest presidents of the United States. Specifically define “great” and illustrate how each chosen president met the criteria.
    • Choose any president and have the class read a more traditional account of his life in a textbook or encyclopedia. Prepare a Venn diagram showing the differences and similarities between that account and the one in Lives of the Presidents.
    • Which countries of the world have had female leadership with real power (not titular heads, like the modern queen of England, but actual leaders like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)? Why do the students think the United States has never had a female leader?
    • Have students make a prediction as to if, or when, there will be a female president of the United States. What special problems would she face?
    • Have the students visit on the Internet to see photographs and diagrams and to find out more about the history of the White House.
    • Many presidents have become very ill or have died in office. What factors make this one of the hardest jobs in the world?
    By Mary Lou Meerson, from Harcourt “Lives of” study guide, copyright © 2000 by Harcourt, Inc.  Published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission.  All rights reserved.