7 Fantastic Activities for Engaging Your Students in the Study of Historical Figures

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Join me as I walk you through some great biography activities for your upper elementary students.

Biography or Narrative Nonfiction

I’m excited to share seven fantastic activities for engaging your students in the study of historical figures with narrative nonfiction. But, first, what is the difference between biography and narrative nonfiction? As I see it, a biography encompasses a person’s entire life whereas narrative nonfiction highlights and details a small moment or a few small moments. I love narrative nonfiction (or literary nonfiction as it’s sometimes called) because I relish those snippets that make moments of time in a “larger than life” person’s story come alive. The descriptions of scenery, the character development, and the way important people have faced and conquered problems makes them real to me. Throughout the years, I have found that my students feel the same way.

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Coverage of the contributions made by Black people and women should not be limited to two months.

Teaching About Historical Figures Throughout the Year

Many of us plan to teach biographies and narrative nonfiction during Black history month and women’s history month. However, I urge you to think outside the box and take time throughout the school year to introduce your students to the often omitted stories of women and Black people who have made history for centuries. As I have mentioned before, I did not enjoy history as a child (or, frankly, until I became a teacher) because it was all about men and wars and that simply did not interest me. The same goes for our students. They need windows and mirrors to really learn to love history. Students need to see themselves in the stories – both fiction and nonfiction – that they read.

Rather than waiting until February or March, I teach about historical figures over the course of a few weeks in one unit or space them out throughout the year to correspond with Patriot Day (September 11th), the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 5th), the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in January, Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, Earth Day in April, and National Space Day in May. The books* that correspond with those dates are The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Rosa, My Brother, Martin, Wilma Unlimited, Catching the Moon, The House That Jane Built, Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, Ada’s Violin, and Mae Among the Stars.

*affiliate link

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Using a variety of activities and materials as you study influential people keeps students engaged.

Keep Students Engaged in Learning About Historical Figures through Activity Variety

I always love to start any book study – regardless of whether it is fiction or nonfiction – by front loading vocabulary. My favorite narrative nonfiction books have a lot of rich vocabulary and I want my students to understand what the words mean before they dive in. For example, in Catching the Moon alone, Crystal Hubbard uses crouched, launched, planted, slammed, snared, mustered, huddled, bolted, punched, scooped, pumped, lingered, and other vivid verbs to describe Marcenia’s and her friends’ actions.

I use Frayer models and, for Catching the Moon, I recently added some poke cards. Frayer models are great because students are challenged to think of non examples, to define the word, and to find synonyms as well as use the words in original sentences.

I have created a variety of graphic organizers for defining narrative nonfiction, for analyzing text structures, for identifying main idea and theme, for author’s purpose, for character analysis, and for figurative language and sensory images. When students participate in analyzing the author’s purpose for including how the twin towers sway and breathe as Philippe Petit walks between them, they realize that Mordicai Gerstein is both informing them and entertaining them. When students think about and discuss how much perseverance, curiosity, and bravery it took for Marie Tharp to be taken seriously when she shared her map of the ocean floor in the 1950s, they understand how times have changed for women in the sciences.

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Using a variety of activities and materials as you study historical figures keeps students interested.

In addition to graphic organizers, I find that discussion cards are great for small groups and partners because they keep conversations centered on the book the students are reading. I’ve written about using discussion task cards for novels in the past, but I enjoy using them with nonfiction when we’re learning about historical figures, as well. The discussion cards prompt students to focus on a text structure or analyze and make connections to quotes by the historical figure they’re studying.

Catching the Moon (Marcenia Lyle)The House That Jane Built (Jane Addams)
The Problem & Solution Text StructureThe Cause & Effect Text Structure
Marcenia wants to go to the baseball camp. However…I can infer that Jane was inspired to help others because…
Clarence and Harold defend Marcenia. Consequently…When Jane left the door unlocked at Hull House, she…
Marcenia’s father says they cannot afford cleats. As a result…Jane was a creative problem solver. I know this because…
Examples of discussion questions from the book companions for Catching the Moon and The House That Jane Built
Rosa (Rosa Parks)Mae Among the Stars (Mae Jemison)
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”“Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.”
“Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.”“The really wonderful thing that happened to me when I was in space was this feeling of belonging to the entire universe.”
Students can make connections to historical figures by analyzing and discussing famous quotes.

Timelines are also great for narrative nonfiction and biography. My book companion Mae Among the Stars includes a timeline graphic organizer, but students can always construct their own on Canva, on poster board, or on butcher paper.

Finally, my students LOVE creating models to demonstrate understanding of scientific content. In response to Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, students can create 2D or 3D models of the ocean floor.

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Let me know how you plan to celebrate the great accomplishments of women and Black people throughout the year.


There are not enough days in two months to celebrate the outstanding accomplishments of the all too often overlooked influential people in history. I hope you’re excited to use biographies and narrative nonfiction stories throughout the school year. Will you and your students enjoy Frayer models for vocabulary, analyzing text structures, identifying main idea and theme, using discussion and poke cards, making connections to quotes, creating timelines, or creating something original to respond to a true story about an historical figure? Let me know how it goes for you in the comments.

Links to Book Companion Resources You and Your Students Are Sure to Love:

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jeanna Baggott

    I love your ideas!

  2. Rebekah

    These are great ideas! I need to bookmark this for the next time I’m teaching about biographies. I couldn’t agree more about not having enough days to teach about important people.

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