This week, three students, at three different times, asked me if we would be doing “Who Was . . . ?” What they were asking was, “When are we going to interrupt the Language program to do independent novel studies that require more student work than usual from us?” Why did they ask (and ask again)? Twice from September to November we did Who Was?; now, in January, they ask again. Why? Read on, and you’ll find out.

This week—after two exhausting days of school—I looked forward to marking the “Who Was” assignments from our last round. Was I excited to do marking? Yes, because it was going to lead into our new week of going back in time and learning from the past.

What is Who Was?

The Who Was? series includes novels that profile figures in world history. Our library contains the life stories of the following: Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, and the Underground Railroad. These, along with about one hundred other titles in the Who Was? series have helped history come to life in an engaging way for students. Penguin Books has now added “What Was?” and “Where is?” subtitles as well. This year, I’ll prepare a novel study for What was the Great Depression?

When I first came upon this series ten years ago, I thought they were just nice books to add to our school library. But, in the last six years, we’ve integrated the Who Was? Series to be an integral part of our Language Arts program.

To date, we’ve created 23 sets of independent novel study questions from the Who Was? books. Three or four times a year, we interrupt our traditional Language program and students from Grades 3 to 8 engage in these independent novel studies.

For up-to-date information on this series (and the latest books) visit this website:

Why this Series?

  1. The stories are easy for younger students (Grade 3) to read and comprehend. The stories explain complex issues at the students’ level. Their website says the novels are geared for Grades 3-6, and they’ve hit their target.
  2. The novels are engaging. When I bought Who Was Dr. Seuss? and Who Was Babe Ruth?, I had a few minutes to spare, so I sat in the bookstore and was going to glance through them. Forty-five minutes later, I had read both books—and had learned more about people I thought I already knew.
  3. I can’t think of another series that has engaged the entire age range from Grade 3 to Grade 8. Many series are great for older or younger—but both? Magic Tree House books, for example, are great for younger students, but aren’t engaging to junior high students. And Gordon Korman trilogies are engaging for Grades 5 and up (lower if I’m reading aloud), but they’re hard for younger ones to read independently.
  4. It helps that I’m engaged and excited about the books. The ideas covered in this article, however, can be applied to any other series that you find engaging. If the teacher is excited about a topic, we have a better chance of engaging the students. I can’t imagine why every teacher (and hence every student) wouldn’t be engaged in these books.
  5. Working with the Who Was? series builds my personal energy and is something I look forward to. Writing, marking, and preparing this material builds my energy rather than draining it. Any regular activity that builds teachers’ personal energy is a good investment.
  6. Here are a few more people and topics the books cover: Leonardo DaVinci, Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, D-Day, Sacagawea, Wayne Gretzky, and Princess Diana (available in April 2017). The topics chosen don’t focus just on sports or history or artists; they cover much more. Because they’re written and published in the US, they cover many US Presidents and other stories from American history, but there’s enough variety that we can ignore material we don’t want to work with.
  7. The books are cheap and cost effective, so there’s no need to break the bank: The books sell for six dollars or less, depending on your teacher discount.
  8. The simple illustrations (and sometimes pictures) enhance the learning in each book.
  9. When I read What Was Pearl Harbor?, I found out why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. (Why didn’t they leave the USA alone while they were conquering their portion of Asia? Now I know the answer.) The following are more trivia facts I’ve learned:
    • Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, had to stay in different hotels than his teammates. Before he started with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the owner insisted that Robinson never fight back when the inevitable racial comments arose. To reach his potential, Robinson had to stay clear of the conflicts.
    • Milton Hershey was an orphan who eventually established the Hershey Chocolate Company. He shared considerable parts of his wealth with his community because he felt that that’s what the wealthy should do. He had tickets to go on the maiden voyage of the Titanic but had to miss the trip because of a meeting.
    • Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing her Little House books when she was 65-years-old. No publishers of adult fiction wanted them, and—at first—no publishers of children’s books wanted them either. Now, they’ve become forever famous as books for mid-level readers.
    • Helen Keller once locked her mom in closet for a few hours. She was blind and deaf, but she knew what she was doing.
    • Babe Ruth once ate seven hot dogs, drank four pop, and had one apple. After this, he got a stomach ache—he blamed it on the apple.I bought my own adult children copies of Who Was Walt Disney? to help them remember our visits to the happiest place on earth.

Effective Routines and Procedures

  1. Set aside one week three times a year to engage in Who Was? novel studies. (When we’ve done it four or more times in a year, the activity lost its novelty. When we’ve gone longer than a week, the students have lost their focus.)
  2. Keep a detailed (up-to-date) list of which novel studies each student has completed. When we start a week of Who Was?, I have two or three sets of worksheets ready for each student. (I also have multiple copies of the novels for which we have written questions.)
  3. Expect students to work independently for the entire week. That said, as we transition the Grade 3 students into the Who Was? series, we’ve allowed an older student to help them for their first one or two novel studies.
  4. Encourage students to speak up in class. Once or twice each class, a student will interrupt the class to announce some interesting fact they’ve discovered. Interruptions are encouraged as we dig deeper into what they find and learn. Rarely do I have these kinds of aha moments in the traditional language program.
  5. Transfer Who Was? learning to regular work. In the normal course of our week (a week when we weren’t studying a Who Was? book), we talked Martin Luther King. A Martin Luther King leadership conference was being advertised in the newspaper. And I explained why, fifty years after his death, people still look at Martin Luther King as a great leader.
  6. When the Language 7 students were done their story about Albert Einstein, we discussed his life history. Many of the facts came from Who Was Albert Einstein?
  7. I also used Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder? as a stepping stone to teaching primary and secondary sources in a practical setting. When I was writing the questions to accompany the book last summer I found an article called “Why did Mary Ingalls go blind?” on the CNN website. Almost 150 years after Mary went blind, researchers were able to use primary documents to conclude that it was because of a virus, not because of viral meningoencephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain and the meninges. (Almost every week someone or something we learned in Who Was? is reinforced in our daily school activity.)
  8. Think big, but start small. Copies of our 23 independent novel studies are free for the asking. Simply email me. You can begin your Who Was? experience by picking three or four books that you know your class would be interested in.

This year I incorporated other Who Was? novels in my monthly book report system.  Many Who Was? Stories complement the Social 6 and Science 6 content we’re covering. These include the Wright Brothers (Air and Flight); Mahatma Gandhi (Government); Amazon (Trees and Forests); Galileo (Sky Science); Neil Armstrong (Sky Science); and the Hindenburg (Air and Flight).

You might also want to see my related blog article “Teaching Students to Write Novel Study Question,” which goes through the rationale for how the questions should be written.

Following are the Who Was? novel studies we’ve used in our classroom:

  • Albert Einstein
  • Anne Frank
  • Babe Ruth
  • Bill Gates
  • Daniel Boone
  • First Thanksgiving
  • Great Depression
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Harry Houdini
  • Henry Ford
  • Helen Keller
  • Jane Goodall
  • Johnny Appleseed
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Malala Yousafzai
  • Marco Polo
  • Martin Luther King
  • Milton Hershey
  • Mother Theresa
  • Roald Dahl
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Sacagawea
  • Underground Railroad
  • World Series

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