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Signed by the author

Students pen biographies about people in their lives

Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Kentwood — There’s a lot you can learn when you sit down and interview Grandma, Meadowlawn Elementary fourth-grader Malakhy McCoy discovered in writing the biography of Melinda Beeks.

She finished school early. She skipped grades in elementary school. She loves to eat spicy stuff and pizza, spaghetti, fried chicken, French toast and steak.

Students in teacher Rebekah Jahaziel’s class started working on biographies in January, choosing a person to feature such as a grandparent, uncle, aunt or neighbor. They interviewed their person, adding more details to their writing each week. Categories included early childhood, education, career and even an about the author page. 

The project culminated in a recent book-signing event with parents and community members.

 Malakhy visited his grandmother’s house for the interview. 

“It was really fun because I got to learn about how she went to school and what it was like for her,” he said. “What I find exciting is I learned about what her school days were like and what she liked in school. She liked math, reading and science.”

Zung Thawng reads his book and shows images to the class and guests

With Help From an Expert

Throughout the process, students worked virtually with Jacqueline James, a Georgia-based author, historian and educator. She is author of 25 biographies in the children’s book series, “Friends of Martin Luther King, Jr.” 

Jahaziel wanted her students to learn how to delve into someone else’s story and took the opportunity to have her students work with James.

“I always tell them, ‘What she’s teaching you, you can’t learn from me; I’m not a book author, I’m your teacher, of course, but you can gain more experience from an actual book author who knows exactly how to write a book. Now you are having that same experience,’” Jahaziel said.

A retired teacher, James, a native of Grand Rapids, spent most of her teaching career in Georgia, but also taught in Grand Rapids Public Schools. She works with a class each year.

James is used to questions about writing biographies and her process. “I started going to schools to teach students how to do it. I picked a fourth-grade class every year because (my biographies) are written at a fourth-grade level and up. I just take them from start to finish.”

It can be powerful, she said. 

“You should have seen what some of the students learned… They got a chance to compare the schools. One little girl found out her father went to a segregated school.” 

Students made different connections with their work: applying text-to-text, text-to-self and text-to the world observations. Text-to-self, for example, can mean comparing the subject of the biography to oneself. 

“They also got to compare their person’s education to how school is for themselves,” Jahaziel said.

The students’ biographies were printed, bound and published at the school.

Fourth-grader Victorine Amani wrote all about her grandfather, Sadiki, who lives in Africa. She interviewed him by phone, taking notes about his childhood in Congo, large family, and how he dreamed of becoming a doctor.

“One of the most meaningful things that happened to him was when he met my grandmother or when he became a doctor,” she said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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