When I first started teaching, I assigned a research paper that was an author biography. Students were tasked with researching an author’s life and influences. The intended objective of the paper was to teach research skills, and it just so happened that at the time, our library had a lot of books on authors’ lives and influences. (This was back when we only had one cart of computers for the entire high school, and it was nearly impossible to check them out. My! Times have changed!) While my intentions were good, the students were missing a really important component to make this project even more valuable: actually reading their writing.
After doing some research on biographical theory, a literary theory that uses the author’s life, experiences, race, gender, philosophy, etc. to interpret the work, I realized biographical research is more insightful as a lens to interpret literature, versus a topic for teaching research skills. Still, my favorite way to use this lens is in combination with other literary lenses to create a multiple perspective study of a work of literature. You can read more about how I use multiple perspectives to teach literature in this article. This article will give you ideas for encouraging your students to see literature from a biographical lens.
Biographical Criticism Background
Unlike the other Fab Four literary lenses that I’ve written about (reader response, formal, and historical), biographical lens isn’t linked to a specific literary philosophy. Rather, biographical lens is an approach to literary analysis. Readers naturally question the author’s intentions and influences when trying to find meaning in the story. It wasn’t until New Critics pushed back on outside influences to literary analysis (focusing specifically on the text itself) that biographical lens fell out of favor, but only for a short time.
From casual readers to literary scholars, people want to know an author’s influences. This instinct is where the biographical lens comes from. Formally, biographical criticism assumes the author’s life, thoughts, and feelings of the author heavily influences the text. Therefore, biographical theorists believe that it is necessary to study the life of the author in order to truly understand the text.
Works of nonfiction makes these connections obvious; still, with a little research, students can uncover fascinating connections to the author’s life and experiences. One example is Arthur Miller’s experience testifying with the House Un-American Activities Committee as an influence for The Crucible. On the surface, the work explores Puritan culture. However, knowing Arthur Miller’s experience provides a new layer for interpretation for students to explore literal versus figurative witch hunts.
Biographical Lens in the Classroom
Biographical Lens Shift
In the classroom, biographical lens can easily slip into the fact-based reporting that I described in my introduction. There isn’t anything wrong with reporting facts on authors’ lives, but it’s just not linked to higher-order thinking skills. If our goal is to get students to analyze, create, and evaluate, we need to encourage students to make connections from their research to text. Here are some guiding questions to help students make the shift from reporter to critic:
- To what extent can you connect the text to the author’s life?
- To what extent do traditions or family examples show up in the text?
- What is the difference between the writer and the speaker? Is there one?
- To what extent can you find connections between the author’s family, friends, or acquaintances and characters in the story?
- In what ways is the setting linked to the author’s life and experience?
- What life influences are present in the text?
Biographical Lens Activities
In the classroom, biographical lens provides a great opportunity for student-centered inquiry. As a teacher, you will act as their advisor, guiding their research and interpretations, but not dominating the conversation. Here are three activities to help students use historical lens in the classroom:
Biographical Lens Research
The only way we can learn about an author’s life is to research an author’s life. However, research alone isn’t enough. Students need to conduct their research in conjunction with reading the author’s work(s). This way, as students are researching the author’s life, they’ll be more likely to look for connections to the work. Depending on your students’ research skills, you may be able to let them research freely. However, if your students could benefit from more structure, here are some ideas:
- A guided question sheet
- A curated list of websites for them to search
- A video biography
- A prepared article
One of my favorite resources for sharing biographies with students is biography.com. In short, they have a series of mini-bios, three to five-minute biography videos. These biographies can be great on their own for research. Similarly, students will be inspired to create their own mini-biographies. For instance, this is how I organize the project in my classroom:
- Show students several mini-bios from biography.com.
- Discuss the common characteristics of the mini-bios, including time frame, images, and information.
- Divide students into small groups.
- Assign the Mini-Bio Project by asking students to create their own biography two to five-minute mini-biography. Give them links to Adobe Spark Video and Canva. These are two free digital resources that are student-friendly can be used to create short videos with images, voice recordings, music, and more. Be sure to direct students to make connections to the author’s writing versus simply reporting.
- Give students time to work on these presentations in class.
- On the due date, save time for a screening. Ask students to introduce their video and then explain interesting insights after their video.
- Provide feedback to students as they present. I use a standard-based/single-point rubric to provide a score.
- Once all groups have gone, discuss insights about the mini-biographies.
This project-based learning is a great way for students to make connections to authors’ lives and literature and practice using multi-media to do so. For a teacher, this project is also a feedback/scoring-efficient assessment.
Once students have completed research and made connections, they can participate in discussions to develop their interpretations based on what they’ve discovered. Just like reader response lens and historical lens, biographical lens works well with panel discussions, silent discussions, and Socratic Seminars. These student-led discussion strategies provide the right amount of structure and freedom.
Upping the Engagement With Biographical Lens
Students tend to enjoy this perspective because the influences and connections are often direct. When students make their own discovers, they will be eager to share. From the teacher perspective, historical lens makes a natural connection to the units and novels that you already teach. Biographical lens, historical lens, formal lens, and reader response lens are the four lenses that I fall back on to bring multiple perspectives to the classroom. Using these four lenses as an access point, you can challenge students to analyze with a variety of diverse perspectives. My novel study is a good example of how I use these perspectives to teach a novel or choice reading novel.
One of the main reasons I use the term lens is because it helps students assume a role to “see” the analysis. In fact, some of my favorite ways to use this lens is through roleplay. For example, I love using this fun twist on literature circles with a roleplay for formal analysis. You can read more about how I facilitate literature circles here. To get a feel for what I mean, download my free literary lenses novel roles.
Finally, if you’re looking to teach students about all of the different lenses, check out my Literary Lenses Workbook. This workbook includes 12 different lens activities that can apply to any text.