I’ve been a big fan of the Who Was books series for a long time. For younger kids especially, historical events can feel distant, sometimes boring, and unrelated to their current lives of video games, YouTube, and whatever new thing is capturing the attention of kids at the time you’re reading this. That’s where a good biography comes in! Students not only learn about the person, but also the historical context in which they lived. Topics become much more relatable and students can start making connections to our past. My favorite biography series for making this magic happen is definitely the Who Was/Who Is series! I’ll be sharing some of my favorite activities to accompany the books in this post, including a free Who is Michael Jordan flipbook!
What is the Who Was books series?
First published in 2002, the Who Was series profiles a very diverse group of historically and culturally significant people such as Amelia Earhart, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey. You’ve probably seen them in bookstores. But you might refer to them as another name such as “big head biographies” or “bobblehead bios” because of their recognizable covers. The books are incredibly popular with students because they’re relatively short (each one is just over 100 pages!) and feature lots of engaging illustrations. They’re also very popular with teachers because most books in the series only cost around $4.00!
The publishers have expanded the Who Was series into other topics with their What was?, Where is?, and What is the Story of? series as well, meaning there are 250+ books to choose from! There’s even a fun Who Was? Activity Book that has puzzles, mazes, quizzes, and other games based on the series. They’re constantly adding titles, and about 20 new books get published each year. You can find an updated list of all of the books in the Who Was biography series here!
What are the Who Was books reading levels?
The recommended reading levels vary for each title, but they typically fall within these ranges:
- Scholastic Reading Level: N-S
- Lexile®: 620-900
- Ages: 8-12
- Grades: 3rd-7th
If you have a particular book in mind, I recommend just searching the title using the Scholastic Book Wizard. You’ll be able to find Scholastic, Lexile®, grade equivalents, and DRA levels all in one place.
Why are the Who Was books perfect for integrating social studies and language arts?
The Who Was biographies are fun to read and packed with history and culture. Unlike some history textbooks, the writing is fun and brings each person’s story to life. More than that, though, the books also make connections between historical topics and our current lives. Each book begins with a chapter that provides context and sets the scene for the person’s life. Most of the books are excellent for teaching and supporting growth mindset, and readers are encouraged to explore their own potential for changing the world.
While the series remains upbeat and positive, they’re also not afraid to dig into tougher topics like racism, religion, extramarital relationships, drug use, sexual orientation, and death since these issues are often central to the stories of people featured in the series. You can’t write a book about Harvey Milk, for example, without discussing issues of homophobia and gay rights. And you can’t tell the story of Rosa Parks without also discussing racism, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and the history of violence against Blacks in America. Despite the difficulty of these topics, the series as a whole manages to find a balance between the facts and knowing how to present them for young students by tying them into the biographies and providing necessary context.
Incorporating Social Studies Skills
The Who Was books also provide supplementary information that is great for incorporating social studies skills. Each book comes with not only a timeline of the person’s life, but also a timeline of the world during the same eras. Bibliographies are always included, and sidebars throughout the book give more information about related topics. A sidebar in Who Was Ida B. Wells?, for example, talks about Reconstruction and the three civil rights amendments passed during this era.
What are some Who Was books activities that I can use in my classroom?
Who Was Book Reports
One of the easiest ways to use the series is to have students complete a book report. You can assign a particular person, or just let students choose someone they’re interested in! I also love the idea of choosing a theme, letting students choose a person that fits within the theme, and then having them share what they’ve learned with each other.
For example, let’s say you were doing a unit on explorers and exploration. Students could be divided into groups and choose to learn about Jacques Cousteau, Ernest Shackleton, Sally Ride, Ferdinand Magellan, or Sacagawea! Groups could partner up and complete Venn diagrams showing how their explorers were similar and different. Since there are so many books in the series, there are a ton of possibilities for themes including artists, scientists and inventors, famous African Americans, Founding Fathers, presidents, athletes, writers, influential women, musicians, and more!
If you go the book report route, I highly recommend giving students a graphic organizer or trifold brochure template to help them focus their research and keep track of notes as they read. Younger students especially need a framework for taking notes and helping them pick out the most important information. This is also a great idea for scaffolding how to write a short essay. My graphic organizers are specifically meant to accompany the Who Was book series, and they make great book report templates. If you’re looking for digital activities for distance learning, I’ve got you covered with digital graphic organizers and digital trifold brochures too! Each set comes with templates for 108 (that’s right, I said one hundred and eight!) people featured in the Who Was series, and I make regular updates to add more people whenever I can.
If you’re looking for a more interactive and engaging option, I just finished creating a few different sets of Who Was flipbooks for as many people in the series as possible. I started with this free Michael Jordan flipbook, and the following sets are also available. Remember that each individual flipbook is also sold separately in my TpT store!
Once you get your kids hooked on the book series with your biography unit, consider following it up by having them begin writing an autobiography of their own! This fun, interactive journal gives kids prompts to help them record their own life stories and write down their dreams for the future. It includes space for a family tree and areas to record information about best friends, pets, favorite foods, hobbies, and other important things students will enjoy writing about.
Who Was Netflix Series
Did you know there is also an entire Netflix series about the Who Was books? Well there is! I’ll be honest, as an adult with somewhat decent taste, I couldn’t even make it through one episode. BUT, we all know how our students like things that we can’t stand. There are 13 episodes, each featuring two people from the series and a particular theme for how they’re related. For example, the Wright Brothers and Pablo Picasso were paired as free thinkers, and Amelia Earhart and Isaac Newton are in the same episode for both being innovators. There is an educator guide for the Netflix series that includes some quick teaching tips you may find helpful.
Speaking of teaching tips, the WHO HQ website also has some resources dedicated to teachers with a special page for educators. The site allows you to create your own checklist of books from the series and provides quizzes, activity sheets, and an episode guide to support the Netflix show. You can also learn more about The Who Was? History Bee, a trivia competition for kids in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades where the winner earns $10,000 and a set of books for their school library. Fun!
Who Was? Adventure App
If you’re looking for some digital activities to use with the Who Was books, students will also love the Adventure app! It’s free and can be installed on Apple devices. The app includes over 5,000 questions about the famous people in the books. Players can progress through 100+ levels as they use timelines and learn new facts. The app would be a great early finishers activity. And if you have enough devices in your classroom, would also make for a fun indoor recess!
Clearly there are a ton of ways to use the Who Was books series in your classroom. Did I forget any fun activities? Do you recommend any particular titles from the series? Tell me about your experiences and ideas in the comments below!