During a summer stroll, I realized my mind was wandering to a beloved corner of my classroom library—my collection of picture book biographies. Although they are available to my readers all year long, I featured them only when biography was the genre of the month and during our biography unit in the spring.
What started as How can we engage with this collection all year long? quickly evolved into Students must explore stories that highlight successful people of all colors. It will be empowering for readers to learn how people past and present have contributed to the world in their own unique ways. Fast-forward through all the thought bubbles, and Meet Someone New Monday was born! In that moment of discovery, I knew I would introduce my class to a new figure each Monday and share their stories through picture book biographies. What I did not yet know was who I might invite into the spotlight.
Considerations for Text Selection
Engagement matters. Representation matters. Relationships matter. These three statements are simple yet powerful, and are the driving forces in my text selection process.
Young readers love to hear about the books that have tugged at our heartstrings and fascinated our minds. When considering which biographies I might use for this yearlong project, an easy entry point for me was to ask, Which biographies are already in my collection? Which ones do I love and feel inclined to share? Most of my initial choices featured powerful women. I made the decision to alternate between men and women each week.
Secondly, and even more importantly, I looked around my classroom and thought, Whose stories need to be shared? Will my students of color feel represented? Will every student feel seen? Biography explorations are the perfect opportunity for educators to de-center whiteness, even in classrooms with primarily white students. As educators, we have the power to shape how our students view themselves and other people of color. To me, “representation matters” means investing some money in my classroom library, borrowing books from our school librarian and literacy specialist, and browsing my local library’s collection. “Representation matters” means pulling marginalized groups from the sidelines and into the spotlight. Below are some picture book biographies that have been and will likely be shared with my readers.
Throughout the year, our efforts to learn about our readers as people beyond the classroom allow us to make great strides. Seeking out people in history who share students’ passions informed some of my read-aloud choices. Picture book biographies feature inventors, artists, scientists, athletes, activists—the list goes on. I ask myself, Do my students’ interests connect to this person’s life work? Just as important, Might this figure’s life work open my students’ eyes to something new? With texts lined up, I began building a vision for this weekly reading tradition.
The Big Reveal
At 12:50 each Monday afternoon, “Okay, mathematicians. It’s time to clean up!” quickly became a cue for excitement. Fourth graders hurriedly put their math manipulatives and workbooks away, and whispers of “It’s Meet Someone New Monday reveal!” often floated through the air. The five to eight minutes leading up to recess on Mondays were filled with joy and curiosity. Readers huddled up on the rug, eager to know who we would be learning about throughout the week. This brief moment in our school day was all about building excitement and background knowledge.
Have you noticed how young learners are fascinated by facts? That is all I needed to share to draw them in! Sometimes, we watched a short video clip summarizing the person’s accomplishments. Other times, I showed a photo and shared what I knew about the figure’s life. Better yet, sometimes students were invited to share what they already believed to be true about the person! Another idea is to read the introduction or summary on the book jacket.
Digging into the Text
In an effort to build suspense, interactive read-aloud time was separate from our big reveal. The beauty of read-aloud time was that we could celebrate someone’s unique life work while readers engaged in repeated skill practice across several texts. Thoughts about character, author’s craft, and theme came to life in the form of partner talk and sticky-note jots. The following were some of our focus questions:
What kind of a person is [historical figure]?
What are some writing moves this author used that you could try in your own narrative or informational writing?
What is the unique life lesson we are learning from [historical figure]’s life experience?
|“Mary Walker is passionate and selfless. She spent so much time working to take care of her family even when she had a dream of her own.”
|“The author did not just tell us about his everyday life. She needed to figure out the most important parts to share.”
|“The life lesson is you should always do something if that something is changing our world.”
Leaning into partner talk and collecting readers’ ideas invited me to study what was going well and what next steps we might try together. What are they growing ideas about on their own? What scaffolds have helped them with this work? What ideas could be stronger? Reflection led to action in planning for our next Meet Someone New Monday, upcoming reading minilessons, and conferences.
A Teaching Tool
Meet Someone New Monday became an experience I could reach back to on any day of the week—a teaching tool of sorts! It served as a connection for minilessons and a bridge in my conferring work with readers: “We were recently learning about [historical figure] and read [title]. An idea that you had about ________ was ________. That is the same kind of thinking you are trying with this text.” This was easily adapted to meet the needs of the reader beside me. I could reach for a Meet Someone New Monday experience they felt particularly connected to in order to push them forward.
An Open Invitation
As I extend this invitation, I am reminded of my why—the giddiness of my Indian students when figures from India were in the spotlight, the honesty of my Black student who requested more books with African American characters, the curiosity of my Asian American student who was inspired to continue her own research, and the passion of my Brazilian student who demanded that immigrants get equal opportunities. Among the readers who were fueled by what Rudine Sims Bishop refers to as mirrors were those who explored the same biographies as windows, now recognizing that our history is shaped by people of all colors.
Near the end of the school year, one of my white students asked a big question. He acknowledged that black, brown, and white are all colors. So, why is it that Black and Brown people have been and continue to be treated differently?
The answer is not simple, but through Meet Someone New Monday, we are able to open windows for learning about history and growing big, bold ideas. The stories we share matter. Join me in amplifying the success stories of people of color, and make sure to share on social media with the hashtag #MeetSomeoneNewMonday!