Trying to get kids interested in learning can be challenging. One of my favorite ways is by incorporating high-quality mentor texts into my daily lessons. This time of year, I love to bring winter into my Texas classroom by teaching my students about Snowflake Bentley. I've also found it offers some great connections to math and science creating a fun way to make cross-curricular connections.
This blog post will help you find a way to use Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin as an introductory lesson for teaching biography and math concepts for elementary students.
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Teaching Biographies as a Literary Genre
Most state standards include biographies at some point. Why?
Biographies can provide a bridge between fiction and non-fiction. Biographies also humanize historical figures, making them more relatable to students. This is helpful because it can lead to more in-depth discussions and can help students explore both historical issues and personal decision-making from a different perspective.
Stories like the one of Snowflake Bentley are interesting, but they also make for great discussion pieces!
There are a few things to keep in mind when teaching biographies:
- Introduce biography as a literary genre and discuss the different elements that make up this type of writing.
- Discuss why people might choose to write about someone's life story.
- Purposefully select biographies that are age-appropriate for your learners and they can relate to their lived experiences.
- Pre-read any biography you select to identify areas where you can make cross-curricular connections.
An Overview of Snowflake Bentley
Written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, the book Snowflake Bentley tells the story of Wilson Bentley, who was born in 1885 and is credited as being the first person to photograph a snowflake.
The book begins with a brief overview of Wilson's life leading up to his fascination with snowflakes. We learn that he grew up on a farm in Vermont and loved spending time outside observing nature. As a teenager, he became particularly interested in snowflakes and began to experiment with ways to photograph them.
One of the things I love about this book is that it's not simply a biography. It also includes elements of science and art. Briggs Martin does an excellent job of weaving these different elements together so that students can see how they are all connected.
After reading the book, I like to have a discussion with my students about Wilson Bentley's life and how his passion for snowflakes led him to become famous. We also talk about the different elements of symmetry that can be found in snowflakes. Finally, I ask students to think about their own passions and what they might be.
Before You Read – Getting Started with Snowflake Bentley
There are two major things you'll want to do before you get started reading the book. First, you'll want to review the characteristics of biographies. Then you'll want to make sure you've activated student background knowledge.
I've shared some tips and ideas for each of these steps below.
Introducing the Genre
Biographies offer a unique combination of the elements of fiction with the real story of someone who has lived. This creates a great opportunity to allow students to apply both their understanding of the story elements – character, setting, problem, and resolution – and the elements commonly found in non-fiction.
When you're preparing to introduce biographies as a genre, it is important to begin by helping students understand that biographies are literary non-fiction books. This means that the information in these types of texts should be accurate and reliable, but there might still be some creative license used when writing a biography to allow for interesting descriptions and dialogue.
Students need to be able to distinguish between the different elements that make up a biography before they can apply them to their own reading. I like using science biographies, like that of Snowflake Bentley, because this allows me to make connections to the standards for teaching about different types of scientists and STEM careers. Since we read a lot of non-fiction in science, it also helps students to see how different types of nonfiction texts are connected.
Here are a few other math and science biographies I really enjoy reading with my students:
- Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women & the Space Race
- On a Beam of Light: A Story About Albert Einstein
- The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin
- Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code
- The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath
Review the text elements that define biographies
Prior to reading the book, you'll want to begin by introducing (or reviewing) the key parts of biographies. This means talking about the different elements that biographies typically have, such as character, setting, and problem.
You can also talk about how biographies are written and what students should be looking for when they read them. For example, I like to use biographies to review standards related to timelines since most are written in sequence.
Here's a great example of an awesome anchor chart from the Teacher Trap you can create to begin this process.
Activating Background Knowledge
You'll likely also want to begin activating some prior knowledge that students may have related to snow. This can be especially important for those students who don't live in snowy places, as they may have a limited background knowledge to draw from.
Some questions you might consider asking include:
- What places on earth get snow? Which don't?
- How do snowflakes form?
- What are some unique properties of snow?
- What are some experiences you've had with snow?
Introducing the Text & Making Meaning
Once your students have a solid grasp of what a biography is and the key features they should expect to find in the text, you can transition to reading the book.
As I'm reading, I like to stop and record key events in the form of a timeline so that my students and I can go back and synthesize the big ideas later.
Here are some key events you'll likely want to include:
- 1865 – Wilson Bentley born in Vermont
- 1869 – Bentley begins to attend school. (Age 14)
- 1870 – Bentley began his study of snowflakes, drawing hundreds across 3 years (Age 15)
- 1871 – Wilson discovered there was a camera with a microscope. (Age 16)
- 1872 – He receives the camera as a gift (Age 17)
- 1873 – Wilson takes the first photograph of a snowflake
- 1926 – Bentley had spent $15,000 on his work & had made $4,000 in sales
- 1928 – Bentley took hundreds of photographs during a Valentine's Blizzard
- 1931 – Snow Crystals is published & Bentley passed away a month later (Age 66)
After Reading: Synthesizing to Make Sense of Biographies
After we finish reading any biography, I like to use a timeline to review the big events of the individual's life and begin to make meaning of their important contributions to society.
Since you've been creating a timeline as you worked through the book, you'll have everything you need. To keep things focused, I like to use a flipbook similar to the one shown below to allow students to record the big ideas.
The biography flipbook includes four tabs that focus on the 5 Ws:
- Who is the person you read about?
- What did they do that made them famous?
- When did they live & what was life like during that time?
- Why should everyone know about this person? How can it help us?
I also use this same resource when I have students read through and record information on a biography of their own choosing because they are already familiar with the format. I've included the Biography flipbook in the free resources I've shared below, so be sure to grab a copy if you'd like to add it to your own lesson plans.
Making Cross-Curricular Connections to Math & Science
When it comes to making connections to math and science, there are a ton of great options to choose from that all relate to snow. Here are a few of my favorites split out by grade levels:
While you're likely not going to dig as deep into the biography component in the primary grades, you can still use this text to introduce activities relating to snow.
For example, you can connect math by having students measure and compare different snowflakes or create graphs to show the distribution of various shapes.
You could also have students explore symmetry by creating their own paper snowflakes. Here are some great free templates you can download.
3rd – 5th Grades
Older students also love the opportunity to review symmetry with paper snowflakes, but there are also a number of other activities you can have students do at this level.
For example, you could have students explore the volume of snow through displacement experiments or calculate the amount of water needed to create a certain depth of snow. You could also connect with science by looking at the different types of precipitation and how they're formed.
For third and fourth graders working on multiplication, you can have them examine patterns in the points on different amounts of snowflakes. This can be used to make data tables or model multiplication problems.
Fifth graders might even use snowflakes to practice calculating measures of central tendency like in the worksheet shown below.
Grab the Free Resources for Teaching with Snowflake Bentley
Now that you've read about how you can use the biography Snowflake Bentley to introduce biographies and make cross-curricular connections, I'm sure you're ready to tackle this in your classroom.
That's why I created these free resources to help you!
In this digital practice pack, you'll find:
- Biography Flipbook
- Snowflake Measurement Task Cards
- 3 Snowflake Math Printables
Sign up to access these great freebies & enter your name to win a $25 Teachers Pay Teachers.
Find more great lessons & free teaching resources to help you make cross-curricular connections
Visit these great posts from The Reading Crew to access more ready-to-implement lessons with connections to science, social studies, and math.