Home Education Magazine
September-October 1998 - Articles
Real people, true stories...who isn't fascinated by them? Biographies are consistently on the New York Times' Best Sellers list, and "based on a true story" is a staple of made-for-TV movies. A&E, a cable television channel, has been running its popular Biography series for ten years, and now has imitators on other cable networks. What better way to jump start a child's interest in history than to investigate the life and times of one fascinating person?
My local homeschooling support group, LEARN (Life Education and Resource Network) has held a Biography Fair for two years now, with plans to make it a permanent part of our annual schedule of events. The concept is simple - each child or family is asked to research a famous and fascinating person, then do a presentation for the group. (Shy kids sometimes just make a poster.)
Ideas for subjects comes form all over. A computer enthusiast profiled Bill Gates. Ethnic or cultural pride can suggest a subject, George Washington Carver and Bringham Young are two examples. The group's six-year-olds was really impressed by a building he was visiting on the Indiana University campus, so his mother helped him research its architect, I.M. Pei. He included photographs he took of the building, and his own building design in his project. Building model rockets as a 4-H project led naturally to a report on Robert Goddard, the original American rocket scientist.
Many of the participants develop new insights after doing the research. One teenager's report on the House of Windsor (the British royal family) was completed just after Lady Diana's death. She reported that happy marriages have never been common in the royal family, at least since the time of Henry the Eighth! Her sister's report on Shirley Temple inspired the family to watch lots of old movies featuring the child star, and the family discussed the rampant racism and sexism they saw. My own son, Ian, age 11, told me that if he had lived in Marco Polo's time and had never left Europe, he might not have believed in striped lions (tigers), big stupid gray unicorns (rhinoceri), or nuts with sweet drink inside that are a big as a man's head (coconuts) either. "It must have been sad for Marco when so few people believed him, and really boring back home, too."
To start your own local Biography Fair, arrange for a fairly large space with tables. Some children like to display the movies or books they used for research, or bring artifacts (like a silk scarf, craft "jewels," and a coconut on the Marco Polo table). Keep the rules simple to allow for maximum creativity. Insisting that the report be on a single, dead, actual person would have prevented some of the best presentations we have had. In addition to the House of Windsor and Bill Gates reports already mentioned, we have also had exhibits about The "American Girls" characters, which allowed us to look at women's issues of a certain time period, and "Pocahontas" the Disney version versus the real Native Americans of that time and place."
LEARN's philosophy has been to keep all of our events non-competitive. Our experience has been that this policy keeps the focus on fun and learning, and that the children are more relaxed. We had participants from ages five through sixteen, with each presentation receiving equal attention and respect from the rest of the group. Our policy has been to call the coordinator at least a week before the event, and to discourage two children from choosing the same subject. Our group is small (30 member families), and the pool of potential subjects so large, that we have not had a problem with duplication so far.
©1998, Nancy Winningham
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