Standard Lesson

A Biography Study: Using Role-Play to Explore Authors' Lives

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Seven to ten 50-minute sessions
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Dramatizing life stories provides students with an engaging way to become more critical readers and researchers. In this lesson, students select American authors to research, create timelines and biopoems, and then collaborate on teams to design and perform a panel presentation in which they role-play as their authors. The final project requires each student to synthesize information about his or her author in an essay.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Role-play is one technique that has the potential to generate excitement and engagement as students explore the past.

  • The process of studying a person's life story and performing as if one were that person is rooted in the institution of Chautauqua. The Chautauqua institution began as an adult education movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

  • The role-playing technique used in this lesson is an excellent introduction to Chautauquan tradition, as it uses a similar, but less arduous process of historical investigation and presentation of biography.
  • Biographies can provide role models for learning new attitudes and behaviors. They can help promote an appreciation of diversity, giving students a renewed inspiration to promote equality and justice.

  • Biographies provide an interesting way to practice interpreting data for biases, embellishments, or deletions. Students learn to assess the quality of a biography by noting if it has sufficient and trustworthy references, a balanced portrayal of the subject, and an explicit identification of which parts are true and which parts are fictionalized.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology




1. Bookmark the ReadWriteThink Timeline Tool on school computers to assist students in creating their timelines. Ensure that the program is running and printing properly. (If you experience difficulty, make sure that computers have the most recent version of the Flash plug-in, which can be downloaded for free from the ReadWriteThink Technical Help page.)

2. Bookmark and review the essays on the U.S. Literary Map Project website, which includes essays written by students. Although the website is no longer accepting submissions, you can still use it as a model for your students' essays.

3. Prepare a student sign-up sheet for students to use when selecting their authors to research. Each student will need to select a different author; this sheet will help to avoid duplications.

4. Bookmark the Research sites on the computers, and confirm that they are available and appropriate for your students (see Resources). In addition, screen and bookmark any other websites that provide information about the authors your students will be researching.

5. Preview the various Student handouts available with this lesson, and modify them to meet the needs of your students (see Resources).

6. Preview the sample questions for the author mixer discussion, and prepare any others that you would like to use during that session (see After Reading, Author mixer).

7. Preview the Assessment rubrics available with this lesson and modify them, as necessary, to meet the needs of your students (see Resources). Access Rubistar and Bridging the Gap: Group Work Rubrics and Checklists to find or create other assessment rubrics to use with this lesson.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Learn about important American authors by researching their lives and sharing research with peers

  • Develop research and inquiry skills by researching an author's life, examining the impact of culture on the author's life, and evaluating biographical material for bias, embellishments, or deletions

  • Improve their communication skills by presenting an author to the class, listening to other students present their authors, and working collaboratively in groups to plan panel discussions

  • Enhance their use of technology by using the Internet to research an author, post a written report, and prepare supplemental visuals to complement their panel presentations

  • Improve their critical reading skills by evaluating websites and resource materials for accuracy and selecting information to include in their presentations

  • Improve their writing skills by researching an American author, writing a brief report, and peer editing and revising their work

Before Reading

1. Have the class brainstorm a list of American authors from your prior readings, along with any other American authors that they would like to include.

2. Ask each student to select one author to research. Be sure that there are no duplications within a class. As students make their selections, have them sign-up on your master list.

3. Have students visit the school library or media center to find and select biographies on their authors, or provide a list of preapproved biographies from which students can choose.

4. Direct students to begin a K-W-L-S Chart, filling out what they know about the author and what they want to know. [While reading the biographies and researching their authors, they will continue filling out this chart with what they learned and what they still want to know.]

5. Hand out and discuss the American Authors: Biography Assignment Sheet, previewing the project and supplying dates for the author mixer and panel presentations.

During Reading

1. Instruct each student to keep a log while reading the biography to include important details about the author's life, interesting incidents, and at least five favorite quotes. [Logs should be collected and reviewed three times during the time allotted for reading the biographies.]

2. Remind students to continue updating their K-W-L-S Charts with information they learned and still want to know while reading.

3. Direct students to create timelines of the authors' lives. Distribute and review the Timeline Rubric to make sure that students understand your expectations for this part of the project. They should begin by taking notes on key events, and then use the interactive Timeline Tool to arrange the information on a graphic organizer. The finished timeline should be printed and brought in on the day of the author mixer.

4. Each student will need to create a visual display for his or her author. While reading, they can begin working on this part of the project by reviewing the Biography Project Suggestions and beginning to compile their materials. The visual display will need to be completed and used as part of the panel presentation.

5. Students should begin thinking about how they will portray their authors with costumes or props during the author mixer and panel presentation.

6. Students should begin supplemental research on their authors using the Internet. Depending on the students' technology level, this research may be done at home or in the media center or computer lab with guided assistance. Possible websites to explore include:
  • Distinguished Women of Past and Present. This site includes biographies of women who contributed to our culture. Searching by subject, students can narrow the list to women known for their "literature and poetry."

  • American Collection: American Writing Gateway. Students can access a collection of teacher-reviewed websites on a select group of American writers.

  • By searching for "American writer," this site provides a selection of close to 300 authors.

  • Brain-Juice. This site features slightly longer biographies and a section on each subject's most notable works or milestones. Students can browse "Literature" to find a selection of writers.
Students can also use other print resources to supplement their biography research. As they are working, they should complete the Critical Evaluation of a Website form to verify the accuracy and credibility of each source, and refer to the Notes and Source Card Handout to gather and organize their notes.

7. Student will write biopoems about their authors (see the How to Write a Biopoem sheet) and complete the Biography Project Discussion Questions for use later in the lesson when meeting with their groups about the panel presentation.

After Reading: Author Mixer

1. When the biography readings, timelines, and logs are complete, remind students of the author mixer.
  • Instruct students to come to class dressed as their authors in costume or by having an appropriate prop to suggest who they are. This prop/attire should be unique to each individual author.

  • In addition, direct students to be prepared to share information about their authors with their classmates. Students may each prepare one 3" x 5" note card to prompt details and quotes, but information should NOT be read!
2. Have the class meet in a room with plenty of space for students to walk around and mingle. Remind students to stay "in character" throughout the session. As they greet each other, they should introduce themselves as the authors, and then either quote a few significant passages or give brief information about their authors. [Note: Birth and death dates or other "dry" data should not be used during the author mixer.]

3. Allow students to mingle in this way for a few minutes and then call "freeze," at which time students should pair up with another author and discuss one or more of the following questions:
  • Explain how your birthplace and date (i.e., time period and culture) influenced your life and writing.

  • What are your most significant personality traits?

  • What is your most famous work? Why? Did you consider it your best?

  • Who was your most important influence as a writer?

  • What event in your life was the most traumatic?

  • What awards were you given? How did that affect your life and writing?
[These questions have been prepared in advance, but you may also have students brainstorm a list of questions to use during the author mixer instead.]

4. After each author has shared for 1 to 2 minutes, students can begin to mingle again until they are told to "freeze." Each time the class "freezes," students must find a different author partner.

5. Allow a full session for this activity, or as long as it takes for students to "meet and greet" all of the other authors.

Panel Presentation

1. After the author mixer, instruct students to gather in groups of four to five students each (depending on class size), with other authors that they would like to learn more about or that their authors would find intriguing or controversial.

2. Have students in each group read aloud their biopoems and use the previously completed biography project discussion questions and timelines to share additional information about their authors. [Collect and display the biopoems and timelines on an "author wall."]

3. Distribute the Author Panel Presentation Rubric and review the expectations for this part of the project. Ask students if they have any questions before beginning work in their groups.

4. Students should work together in their groups to prepare scripts to use during their panel presentations (see the Guidelines for Preparing a Script for the Panel Discussion). Scripts will be collected after the presentation.

5. Assist groups in developing questions or topics that their authors can respond to during the panel presentation. Groups may elect to focus their discussion on a single issue such as "freedom and slavery" or the "American dream," revealing each author's attitude toward that topic. Other possible themed panel topics include:
  • Women's rights
  • Love
  • Death and the afterlife
  • Writing
  • War and peace
  • Male and female roles
  • Growing up
  • Success and failure
6. Have each group designate one author as the host for the "show," with the other authors appearing as guests.

7. On the day of the presentation, students should bring their costumes or props to again portray their authors. Set up desks at the front of the room for the presenting authors to sit, and ask the "audience" to take notes on each author as the presentations are given. For further involvement, you may have students in the "audience" use a graphic organizer to compare and show relationships between authors and ideas. In addition, have students display their visuals on the "author wall" or set up an area for students to arrange their projects so that others can see them.

Author Essay

Have each student write a brief biographical sketch about his or her author. The essays on the U.S. Literary Map Project website can serve as models for students' work. Allow students to explore the site, but also provide them with guidelines for their assignment (i.e., the Essay Rubric), since the online samples vary in length and content. You might ask students to write their essays as if they were going to submit them to the site.

While writing of the essay can be done for homework, set aside part of one class session for peer editing. Students should use the Peer-Editing Sheet and the Essay Rubric to guide their evaluations. A final copy of each essay should be submitted both electronically and as a hard copy. After you review the essays and have students make any further revisions, as needed, upload them to the website per the instructions provided.


As extensions to this project, you can have students use the online Bio-Cube tool to summarize what they have learned about their authors. They can then:

  • Write a more formal research paper on the author

  • Present their information in other dramatic ways, such as by acting out an exciting scene in the person's life or telling the story dressed as the person

  • Prepare a slide show or PowerPoint presentation on the author

  • Read and report on a book written by the author

  • Write a poem or song about the person's life

  • Script a news program about the person's life

  • Write a letter to the editor persuading the public about an issue that was significant in the person's life

  • Write a children's version of the person's life

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Use the Timeline Rubric, Essay Rubric, and Author Panel Presentation Rubric to assess the student's work during the lesson. Several rubrics are available at Bridging the Gap: Group Work Rubrics and Checklists for assessing group work. Rubistar can also be used to find or create rubrics for this lesson.

  • Periodically evaluate the reading logs, K-W-L-S charts, and notes to ensure that students are completing the project as expected.

  • Teacher observation should also be a part of the assessment for this lesson. Watch to see that groups are working equitably on their panel presentations and are not wasting time. You will also want to observe students during the author mixer to gauge their interactions with one another and knowledge of the authors they have been researching.

  • Self- and peer-editing should be used for the written essay (see Peer-Editing Sheet).


Lawrence B. Crowell
Preservice Teacher
This is a worthwhile resourse to bookmark. I will need to review this again.
Lawrence B. Crowell
Preservice Teacher
This is a worthwhile resourse to bookmark. I will need to review this again.
Lawrence B. Crowell
Preservice Teacher
This is a worthwhile resourse to bookmark. I will need to review this again.

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