Not Just Your Run-of-the-Mill Biography Unit Study

A NOTE FROM STACEY: Everyone deserves to have a biographer. To have one’s life story generously documented and told by a professional writer is a gift. However, biographers usually chronicle the lives of historically significant people and celebrities. As a result, Noor Shammas’s students thought biographies were only written about “famous people.” She set out to reconstruct a biography unit of study so it would focus on the lives of ordinary people from the community. Noor shares the way she reimagined a biography unit of study for her fourth graders so that community members could have their very own biography.

It all started with a simple write-around in my classroom. After studying biographies for a week, I wanted to know what my students knew about the genre. As I was reading over each group’s write-around, I was excited to see my students enhancing their group members’ thoughts and asking their peers questions. I also noticed students were correcting their group members’ misconceptions of biographies. The biggest misconception my students had was that all biographies are written about famous people. I began thinking, “How can I show my students that biographies can be about everyday people without just telling them?” I wanted my students to understand a biography can be about a friend, a teacher, a parent… anyone! After brainstorming with a colleague, I determined how I would create a meaningful experience for my students based on their needs. Once we had talked about the possibilities of this project, I went home and started working on my unit plan.

The very next day, I launched our biography writing project. I began by telling my students I noticed each student had an understanding about what a biography is, but many students wrote in their write-arounds that biographies had to be about famous people. I pulled out a biography about our school principal, written by another teacher. My students immediately began asking, “Is she famous?” and “Who wrote a book about her?” I explained, of course, that biographies can be about anyone! After reading the biography, students started asking if they could write their own biographies about her. I responded, “Well, actually I was thinking we could write biographies about people from our community such as a firefighter, a sports coach, a doctor, etc. What do you all think?” (By the way, I love when they walk right into our plan, don’t you?) And so the “Community Member Biography Project” began.

My students and I created a list of many community jobs and people of interest. I chose twelve community member jobs of people I knew:

  • the superintendent of our school district
  • a principal from the junior high most of my students will attend
  • a firefighter
  • an FBI agent
  • a restaurant owner
  • a small business owner
  • a dentist
  • a volunteer
  • a stay-at-home mom
  • a swim coach
  • a teacher from a different building
  • an author.

The students “partnered up” and chose a community member who they wanted to write about.

Next, students researched the community member. At this point in the year, students had already written a research paper; they knew how to conduct research from a text. However, you can’t always research a community member in an encyclopedia, in books, or even online! So, we decided we needed to conduct interviews since interviewing is another form of research writers do.

My writers, in their partnerships, wrote a letter explaining the biography project and inviting the community member to come to our school for an interview. (I emailed each person to see if they were available before my students sent the letter.) While we waited for their responses, my little writers, with their partner, started researching online for general information about their person’s job. For example, the students who were writing about the firefighter researched about the firefighter’s job, training, and responsibilities to give them schema about the job.

After students had enough general background knowledge, I taught a mini-lesson on how to write meaningful interview questions. Again, in pairs, the students created their own interview questions to ask their community member. Partnerships interviewed their community member and used an iPad to record the interview for later reference. (Please note: before interviewing the community member, my students practiced interviewing by interviewing staff members in my school.)

Before my students started the writing process, they wrote thank you notes. I taught a mini-lesson on the difference between a formal letter (the invitation letter they wrote) and a thank-you note. Students included a personal anecdote from the interview. At a retirement dinner, our district superintendent, talked about the thank you note and read it aloud to the audience. He talked about how these particular students put his day in perspective and made his day better. As a class, we had a valuable discussion about how their words, even at nine years-old, have value to everyone, even an adult!

My students began the writing process independently by planning and then drafting a biography about a person in our community. I modeled by writing my own biography about our P.E. teacher, who I had also interviewed and researched, all in front of my students. The students drafted their own biographies by including facts from their research and quotes from their interview (another mini-lesson). Students revised, edited, and peer-revised and edited. As my students wrote, I conferred with each student several times.

As a class, we published each biography using our school publishing center. Each community member will receive a hardcover book of both biographies (in one book) and each student will receive their own copy of the book. Students have written dedications, a table of contents, a description of the biography unit study, and about the author pages (again all mini-lessons). My students are getting excited to present their community members with their published biographies. I am excited because my students have used many different skills to write these biographies.

Students read biographies and often write their own biographies about a famous person. I used this unit of study to reach many of the Common Core State Standards. But I think this unit went much deeper than that. I am hopeful this project will be something my students are proud of for years to come!

Permission was granted by the students’ parents and the person who this is about to share the following:

Noor Shammas is a fourth-grade teacher at Southbury Elementary School in Oswego, Illinois. She’s a candidate for Master of Education in Literacy from Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. She already has a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction: Instructional Technology from Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. She’s an avid reader and is becoming an avid writer. She teaches using reading and writing workshop to meet her students’ needs.