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Third Graders Bring History to Life with Bagels and Biographies

Laura Oeschger

Third Graders Bring History to Life with Bagels and Biographies
Story originally appeared online in March 2014.

The lights dim down and the spotlight shines brightly. It is standing room only as the audience, with cell phone cameras at the ready, eagerly awaits the arrival of several famous figures to take the stage. From the back of the room, a three-foot-five “Jane Goodall” makes her way to the stage with a stuffed chimpanzee on her shoulder. This is the scene in Susan Reilly’s third-grade classroom.

Every year, all Shipley third graders participate in the much-anticipated Bagels and Biographies project. Students research a famous figure, write a short biography, and recite it dressed up as the person they have studied. Impressive performances put on by students are the result of weeks of rigorous preparation completed inside the classroom.

How to Choose?
Each student chooses a famous person in history who has demonstrated compassionate participation in the world. Subjects range from Nelson Mandela and Annie Oakley, to Nellie Bly and Steve Jobs. Third grader Ava Trachtenberg chose Sacagawea for her project. "She's very interesting,” Ava smiles.” She's one of the oldest women in the biographies we got to choose from.” She also chose her because, Ava exclaims, "She kind of looks like me!”

Other students select more recent famous figures. Mason Gurkaynak is thrilled to be Steve Jobs. "I really like technology. I play games or watch videos on my iPad mini or iPod touch. Sometimes on my mom's iPhone 5s, too," Mason says.

Students step outside their comfort zones by choosing lesser-known historical figures. "I was really proud of the students who took a risk on someone they never heard of," Susan said.

Preparation and the Writing Process
Research begins with students reading biographies and taking notes in their own words.

The preparation process continues with more research into the life of their subjects. Debra Finger, Lower School Technology Coach, teaches students to use safe search engines to find additional literature and watch videos. With the research students compile, the next step incorporates the writing process.

“The writing process is a big part of the third grade curriculum,” says Susan. “We learn the structure of a story, that a story happens in sequence with a beginning, middle, and end.” Susan and her fellow third grade teachers assign the third graders to write their own biographies of their subjects. Analyzing the timeline of their subjects’ life and major events, students write a beginning, middle, and end section. Students use a lot of graphics to help structure the biography and several rounds of revisions happen. Teachers conference with the students to improve clarity and make the sections of the biography flow nicely.

Transforming into Character
Students' biographies then transform into speeches. With a four-minute time limit, students take lots of time to rehearse and practice their public speaking skills. “This is the prime time to take advantage of learning public speaking skills,” explains Susan. "They're not yet intimidated by their peers." Third graders first use laptops with the Photo Booth program to record themselves. Photo Booth allows students to make adjustments to fit the time constraints while improving their public speaking. Susan encourages the students to meet with one another to offer feedback and constructive criticism before she sits down with them individually.

Final preparations include writing notecards to study and memorize their speeches and preparing their costumes for the big day. After dress rehearsal, the excitement builds for both students and teachers to showcase their hard work to families. “They really get excited because they take ownership of their projects,” Susan says. “They feel more motivated because no one else has their person and they really want to show him or her off."

Prepped and Ready for Show Time
Early in the morning of performance day, the second floor of the Lower School fills with parents and family members. Guests enjoy bagels and other breakfast items in the Common Room as students transform into their famous persons.

Guests filter into the appropriate classrooms and the shows begin. A loud applause is heard from room to room as each student finishes his or her presentation. When the lights come back on, many congratulations fly around the room as well as hugs from parents and high-fives from peers.

Audience Reactions
Students aren’t the only ones doing the learning. “Many parents walk away saying, ‘I learned so much!’” explains Susan.

Shipley parent Jen Trachtenberg, who has twin girls in third grade, can’t say enough about the Bagels and Biographies project. “We love it! It shows a whole other side of our kids. Until you get in here and see what it’s all about, you have no idea. This is my third time in a Bagels and Biographies presentation and it keeps getting better.”

Third grade’s Bagels and Biographies project has been an academic staple for over a decade. The project, while exciting and a lot of fun, challenges the students to think creatively and helps them build confidence, sparking a motivation to work hard and succeed.

See photos from the 2016 Bagels and Bios presentations:
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.