Should students read biographies?
I say they should, especially theatre artists if that’s their interest.
Here are the reasons students should read biographies.
I’m excited to share with you the new series of products I am creating.
Places Please is a series of short biographies about professional theatre artists. There will be biographies about actors, directors, set designers, playwrights, costume designers and more.
Here is some terrific news on Lin Manuel Miranda!
Places Please products include a short biography about the artist, plus a sheet with questions about the biography. Links to particular works and sources are included as well and a link to a Pinterest board with additional photos of the artist.
Researching this idea, I stumbled upon an interesting article in Time Magazine by Jason Steinhauer, “America’s Students Need History–But Not for the Reasons You’re Hearing”
“The process of historical inquiry—and what it teaches students along the way—is history’s greatest reward. Studying history teaches that society is not stagnant. Studying history teaches us to question how and why things change, who drives those changes, whose interests are served by them and who gets left out of the equation. History teaches that human actions have consequences. Analysis of past events teaches students to ask probing questions, challenge preconceived assumptions and to recognize that humans have the capacity to be both very, very good and very, very cruel.
Analyzing historic documents teaches us to be careful readers. To be skeptical of one side of the story. To be aware of our own biases. Most critically, history teaches us who we are. I am a Jew, a New Yorker, a citizen of the United States, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. These identities mean nothing without a historical backdrop to set them against. “We swim in the past as fish do in water,” wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm. “We cannot escape from it.”
Should Students Read Biographies?
Steinhauser continues, “Our students may not go on to all be historians, or even remember the hundreds of facts they learn in a given year. But through history they can become more disciplined and rigorous thinkers. They can be challenged to be more independent-minded analysts, and, I would argue, more compassionate human beings—skills that historical study inculcates and that lead directly to life and career success.”
What better way is there to demonstrate to our students that we all have struggles, failures and successes?
When I was a student, we never learned about anyone but historical figures. I knew a lot about George Washington (much of which was incorrect), Christopher Columbus (oh my gosh, don’t get me started) and Johnny Appleseed (really?). Had I learned about people in my field of interest and their lives, I believe it would have helped me understand the initial challenges of the profession.
Perhaps I might have gone further professionally?
I don’t know.
That’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. I thought there were some aspects of theater which had been ignored and I wanted to share my knowledge and expertise with students.
I found these really cool reasons to read more biographies by Kevin Eikenberry.
There isn’t much reason to give you my thoughts when I agree wholeheartedly with his.
Five reasons to read more biographies
“They allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants. In the 1670’s Sir Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That is exactly what reading biographies can do for you – allow you to see further because of what these people have achieved. Admittedly not every biography is about a “giant” but most are (and you can certainly pick from that list). However, even if the person you’re reading about is despicable and not worthy of praise or admiration, there likely are still many lessons to be gleaned from their life experiences and behaviors – even if most are “things you don’t want to do.”
They remind you that history repeats itself. George Santayana wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It was true long before then, it was true then and it hasn’t changed today. Reading about the real experiences of others gives context for the decisions and consequences that we all will face. History (recent or distant) will repeat itself because those who are making history were, and are, human beings. One of the best ways to take advantage of the experience of others is by reading biographies of historical figures, not academic tomes about history.
They promote self discovery. A good self help or professional development book will outline specific steps, tools, techniques and approaches to try. These can be valuable and successful shortcuts to help you make improvements and get results in most any area of your life. A biography, on the other hand, won’t be as direct. You will discover ideas and approaches on your own through the stories and experiences of others. This discovery learning process is often far more satisfying, and most always more lasting, than reading a list of steps.
They allow you to see the world in new ways. Rather than being completely focused on your professional discipline, looking at the way you and your colleagues always look at things, reading about someone from a different era, a different background or a totally different set of life experiences will give you new perspective. In truth, most great innovations come from taking an idea from one situation, discipline or industry and adapting it to another. Reading biographies is one great way to do this.
They give you mentors at a distance. If you have read about the life of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill or anyone else you select, you have had a glimpse into their mind and now have the advantage or “knowing” them. These people can become your mentors at a distance, if you allow yourself the chance to think about what advice they might give you, or what they might do in a the situation or choice you are facing.”
So if you are a teacher looking for something different for your students, give these a look. They are a bargain, too!
My first four are the actor Denzel Washington, actresses Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald, set designer Ming Cho Lee and composer/playwright Lin Manuel Miranda.
I plan to release one each month until I have exhausted the subject. Because there are hundreds of theater artists, I think this series won’t end any time soon, because our students will enjoy learning whoever is up and coming as well as a veteran.
Granted, not every theater artist may appear important at first glance. However, once a student reads about the artist’s struggles to become the person we know, everything becomes very transparent.
Pasek and Paul (creative music team of Dear Evan Hansen)
There are bundles of all of the artists available, too:
Here’s a collection of 24 posters with quotes from famous theater artists. I hope you like them. Growth Mindset in Theater Artists
I’d love to hear how these biographies go for you and your students. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DeborahBaldwin.net