Jazz Up Writing Workshop: Writing Biographies of African American Jazz Musicians

2 - 3
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Twenty 20- to 45-minute sessions
  • Preview
  • |
  • Standards
  • |
  • Resources & Preparation
  • |
  • Instructional Plan
  • |
  • Related Resources
  • |
  • Comments


Jazz provides the backdrop for students to learn how to write biographies and organize their work into chapters. Students first gain a strong understanding of jazz by reading biographies of African American jazz musicians and listening to music. Selected biographies introduce the musicians and familiarize students with the format of biographies. Lessons focus on collecting facts, taking notes, and synthesizing notes into biographies organized by chapters. At the end of the unit, the biographies are unveiled at a jazz café publishing party, complete with music and readings.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Teachers should scaffold the teaching of reading and writing nonfiction texts.

  • Models for using nonfiction texts with young students include (1) teacher-directed instruction, (2) scaffolded student investigation, and (3) independent student investigation.
  • Students should be encouraged to write in multiple genres from a young age.

  • Writing workshop lessons should consist of a minilesson that teaches an explicit skill, independent writing time, and time for students to share their writing.

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.
  • 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.

Materials and Technology

  • Lined and unlined paper, pencils, and crayons

  • Children’s books on jazz musicians

    • Dizzy by Jonah Winter (Arthur A Levine Books, 2006)
    • When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Live Oak Media, 2004)
    • Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, 2002)
    • Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford (Henry Holt, 2008)
    • John Coltrane’s Giant Steps by Chris Raschka (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2002)
    • Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Hyperion Books for Children, 1998)
    • Ray Charles by Sharon Bell Mathis (Lee & Low Books, 2001)
    • If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong by Roxane Orgill (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

  • Jazz CDs and CD player, or MP3s and MP3 player

  • Computer with Internet access




  1. Obtain copies of the biographies listed under Materials and Technology.

  2. Print copies of both the Biography Planning Sheet and the African American Jazz Musician Biography Assignment.

  3. Locate or request jazz music to play for students. Ask families to lend jazz CDs, use an MP3 player and download MP3s, or stream music from one of the websites listed in the Resources section.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Learn how to conduct research and take notes

  • Learn how to turn notes into writing

  • Understand the components of a biography

  • Develop an understanding of jazz music and several important jazz musicians

  • Learn how to work in a group to give and receive constructive feedback

Session 1–6: Introduction to Biographies (20 minutes per session)

  1. Introduce biographies to students. Explain that biographies are books that tell the story of someone’s life.

  2. Read several biographies aloud, sharing one each day for a week. List observations that the students notice. Ask questions like, “What is the same in all biographies?” and “What makes a biography a biography?” Your list may look similar to the one below.


    • Tell the story of someone's life

    • Include information about childhood, adult life, family, and career

    • Are nonfiction

    • Contain true facts

  3. Have students explore biographies independently. After about 20 minutes, call the students back to the group to add observations to the chart.

Session 7: Introduction to Jazz (30 minutes)

  1. Tell students that they will be learning about African American jazz musicians. Explain that people of all races play jazz music, but that jazz originated in African American communities.

  2. Introduce students to jazz by playing a variety of jazz music. Ask students what they notice about the music. Students may articulate feelings that the music brings up for them (happy, excited, sad), mention the pace of the music (fast, slow), or compare the music to other music they have heard.

  3. Have students go to their seats with a piece of blank white paper and crayons. While listening to jazz music, have them draw what the music makes them think or feel.

  4. Share drawings as a class. Talk about the feelings that came up while listening to jazz music.

Session 8: Introduction to Jazz Musicians (20 minutes)

  1. Using the books listed in the Materials and Technology section, introduce key jazz musicians to the students (e.g., Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington). Say a few sentences about each musician.

  2. Make a list of the spotlighted musicians. Have each child choose one musician to focus on. Try to arrange groups so two to three children are working on the same musician.

Sessions 9–11: Research (45 minutes per session)

  1. Introduce the Biography Planning Sheet to the students. Tell them that they will use the information they find in the biographies plus information found at PBS Kids Go! Jazz to research the lives of their chosen jazz musicians. Explain that the planning sheet asks them to find some specific facts and include additional interesting information about their jazz musician. Model how to look for specific facts. For example, show students how to look for their musician’s birthday at the beginning of the biographies.

  2. Have students work in groups of two to three to research and answer the questions on the planning sheet. If students are stumped on a question, you may need to look online to help them gather any missing facts. Model how to identify interesting facts. After completing all the required information, ask students what else they know about their jazz musicians. This information should be included in the Interesting Facts section of the planning sheet.

  3. Students should work on gathering information for three days, making sure that they have answered all the questions on the planning sheet.

Sessions 12–16: Biography Writing (45 minutes per session)

  1. Explain to students that their biographies will consist of three main sections: Early Life, Career, and Interview Questions. Tell students that every section will focus on one of these specific topics.

  2. Model how to organize notes into these sections.

    • Explain that the Early Life section will cover the time from when their musician was born until he or she started working as a musician. This section should contain their musician’s birthday, birthplace, and family information, as well as any additional information.

    • The Career section should cover the time from when their musician began working as a jazz musician until his or her death. This section should include information about how the musician learned to play his or her instrument (if not included in Early Life section), how the musician’s career began, and major career accomplishments.

    • Explain that the last section, Interview Questions, will be questions that the students would ask their musicians if they could meet. Refer to the African American Jazz Musician Biography Assignment for detailed descriptions of each section.

  3. Have students use the information they gathered on their Biography Planning Sheet to help them write biographies of their jazz musicians. This writing should take place over the course of five full sessions. You may want to structure the writing process so that students spend two days writing the Early Life section, two days writing the Career section, and one day writing Interview Questions.

  4. While students are working, circulate around the classroom and confer with them about their writing. Make sure they are including appropriate information in each section and that their biographies contain true facts. If students need help locating information, teach them how to scan their biographies to find the information they are looking for. Check to make sure that students are not plagiarizing the books they are reading, instead putting information in their own words.

Sessions 17–18: Revision (45 minutes per session)

  1. Ask students to read over their completed biographies and check that everything makes sense.

  2. During Session 12, require students to find at least three things to add or change in their biographies.

  3. During Session 13, have students read their biographies aloud to each other in groups of two to three. Students may return to their original small groups. After each student reads his or her biography, encourage the other students to ask questions or suggest changes. For example, students may ask, “Did Dizzy Gillespie have any brothers or sisters?” or “Can you explain how Ray Charles learned to play the piano even though he was blind?”

  4. After everyone has received peer feedback, give the students time to revise their biographies.

Session 19: Editing (45 minutes)

  1. Ask students to read over their biographies once more, this time looking for incorrectly spelled words and incorrect or missing punctuation.

  2. Require students to find at least three words they can spell better.

  3. Have students add correct punctuation and capitalization to their biographies.

Session 20: Jazz Café (45 minutes)

  1. Throw a publishing party. Set up a Jazz Café in the classroom—play jazz music, dim the lights (if possible), and bring in juice for students. Invite parents or other classes to join your students at their celebration.

  2. At the Jazz Café, ask your students to pick a portion of their biographies and to take turns sharing excerpts.

  3. After everyone has shared, make the biographies available for others to read on a class bookshelf.

  4. Congratulate your students (and yourself!) on a job well done.


  • Add chapters to the biographies. This will give students an opportunity to do additional research and include more information in their biographies.

  • Add an artistic cover to the biographies (using paint, oil pastels, etc.). Encourage students to add details to demonstrate what they have learned about their musician’s life. The covers can serve as an assessment, enabling you to find out what information your students are remembering about their jazz musicians.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe how students take notes on their Biography Planning Sheets and make sure students are taking notes in their own words instead of copying facts directly from books.

  • Observe how students are working in groups. Make sure students are helping each other but that each child is completing his or her own work. During the revision sessions, take notes on whether students are giving constructive, helpful feedback.

  • When students are done with their biographies, evaluate each biography using the African American Jazz Musician Biography Rubric. Observe how students converted their notes into writing, included detailed and focused sections, and demonstrated their knowledge of jazz music. Read each section of the biography carefully and fill out the corresponding section of the rubric.

Add new comment