Writers' Workshop: The Biographical Sketch

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Six 30- to 60-minute sessions
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While engaging in the processes of researching, writing, and evaluating short biographical sketches, students can master essential writing skills and enhance their content area learning. In this lesson, fourth grade students discuss standard elements in a biography and examine the characteristics of the genre in a workshop setting. After selecting and researching a contemporary or historical figure using online databases, students practice writing short biographies. They then offer feedback on others' compositions and publish final drafts for reading aloud and displaying in class.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Content mastery is demonstrated through reading and writing, and integrating the two enhances comprehension.

  • Checklists can have a significant effect on students' performance while "writing to learn." Checklists help take the mystery out of writing by providing students with concrete writing goals and identifying the desired characteristics of the finished work.


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.
  • 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.
  • 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

  • Computers with Internet access

  • Blank transparency and markers

  • Overhead projector

  • Scissors and writing supplies (e.g., pencils, notebook paper, heavier paper for Bio-Cubes)




1. Depending on the past experiences and knowledge of your students, you may want to conduct a biography unit in a reader's workshop before beginning this lesson to explore the definition and elements of a biography. The Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site provides a collection of thematic resources for integrating children's literature into a variety of curriculum areas, including Biographies and Memoirs. Several biographies for children are highlighted, along with suggested activities, role-playing, and discussion groups.

2. Visit and familiarize yourself with the Bio-Cube tool. (You will need the most recent version of the free Flash plug-in to use this tool. You can download plug-ins from the Site Tools page.) Bookmark the Bio-Cube tool on the computers students will be using so that it can be easily accessed. If you do not have classroom computers with Internet access, reserve a session in your school's computer lab (see Session 2).  

3. Create your own Bio-Cube. Be sure to use a biography you will not be assigning to students. Note that you will use this sample Bio-Cube in Sessions 2 and 3 as you guide students in using the online tool and also as you model writing a brief biographical sketch.

4. Bookmark the biographical websites listed in the Resources section for students to use when researching their biography subjects. Be sure to familiarize yourself with each site (and any other similar biography sites you choose) so that you can guide students effectively in their research.

5. Explore the biographical sketches at the Writing with Writers: Biography website. Select one or two age-appropriate sketches for your students to review online. You may prefer instead to print your selections and make copies to share with students.

6. Print the Writers' Workshop: Biographical Sketch Sign-Up Sheet and post it on a classroom wall or bulletin board to track the biography subjects students select.

7. Photocopy the Writers' Workshop: List of Possible Subjects, the Writers' Workshop: Biographical Sketch Rubric, the Writers' Workshop: Proofreading and Publishing Checklist, and the Writers' Workshop: Performance Assessment for use in class. You may also want to make overhead transparencies of these handouts for discussion purposes.

8. Consider creating a class writers' workshop banner to display during the lesson to foster students' enthusiasm.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Access prior knowledge by discussing the writing process and the elements of biography

  • Apply prewriting strategies by generating ideas and organizing their writing
  • Improve comprehension by researching a contemporary or historical figure and reporting the most significant information about him or her

  • Demonstrate the ability to write a focused, engaging opening paragraph
  • Apply standard writing processes by creating short, publishable works

  • Analyze content area writing by evaluating and critiquing each other's work

Session 1: Introduction to Biography Writers’ Workshop (60 minutes)

If you have chosen to do the biography activity suggested in the Preparation section (see Step 1), do so before beginning this session.

1. Ask students what they know about biographies and record their responses. Have students brainstorm a list of the types of people usually profiled in a biography, including some common characteristics that biography subjects share. Encourage students to brainstorm their own short lists of contemporary or historical figures, reminding them that a biography might explore the life of a president, musician, author, athlete, scientist-or any real person. Ask them to recall figures from social studies topics or books they have studied in class and to consider any contemporary newsmakers they know something about.  

2. Explain to students that they will be writing very short biographical sketches and that they will need to concentrate on providing the most interesting and significant information about their subjects. The goal is to write something informational that others will enjoy reading. This sketch is to be no more than one page in length, and it should begin with a clear and engaging opening paragraph. Discuss the elements of a good introductory paragraph, tailoring the detail to your students' needs. Stress that the paragraph should:

  • Identify the subject of the biographical sketch

  • State the main focus of the sketch (i.e., include a short, to-the-point description of the subject)

  • Include an interesting hook that encourages the reader to keep going
3. Explain to students that a writers' workshop is a great way to experiment with their own writing and to give and receive valuable writing feedback. Mention that the biographical sketches they write will be shared with each other and eventually published in class. Explain that the workshop will consist of class discussions, in-class writing periods, readings and evaluations of individual works, and the publishing of each writer's sketch.

4. Label a piece of chart paper or a list on the chalkboard "A biographical sketch should..." and have students discuss and reach agreement about the elements a sketch should include. Responses should include some form of the following:

  • Describe the life of a real person

  • Use facts from reliable sources to support the sketch

  • Relate the subject's story to other events and people from the same time period

  • Tell the story with the targeted audience in mind
You may wish to conduct a brief review about what constitutes a reliable source, emphasizing encyclopedias, printed biographies, and-of particular interest for use with this lesson-the websites you have screened and recommended for students (see Resources and Preparation, Step 4). Remind students that they will share their sketches with the class, so their peers are the audience. Tell them to keep in mind the types of things their classmates or other kids their age would most like to read about their subjects.

5. Share one or two selected examples of short, student-created biographical sketches from the Writing with Writers: Biography website (see Preparation, Step 5). Highlight examples of clear writing, interesting information, major topics covered, accuracy, good writing style, proper use of grammar and mechanics, and funny or surprising tidbits. Be sure to also point out a few excellent models of an engaging opening paragraph.

Session 2: Project Research (30–45 minutes)

1. Have students use the biography websites to select a contemporary or historical figure. Encourage them to look up two or three people that interest them and select the one they are most interested in writing about. You will want to provide students with guidance about how to select a subject. For example, you can briefly discuss tips such as choosing a person about which they are really interested in learning, a person that others will find intriguing, a person that most people have heard of, a person who is lesser known but unique in some way, and so on. Each student should report his or her chosen subject to you and then enter the selection on the Writers' Workshop: Biographical Sketch Sign-Up Sheet posted in the room. (Allow duplicate subject selections at your own discretion.)

Note: You will want to briefly meet with any students having difficulty making a choice and offer ideas based on your knowledge of those students' interests. You can also refer them to the Writers' Workshop: List of Possible Subjects. You may also wish to make the list available to all students, either by distributing copies or posting it in the room.  

2. Introduce students to the Bio-Cube and walk them through the steps of filling it out. Prompts within the tool ask students to name a subject and then describe the person's significance, obstacle faced, background, and personality. There is also a prompt to add any famous quotations attributed to the subject. Show students the completed Bio-Cube you created in preparation of the lesson (see Step 3).

3. Students should spend additional time before the next session researching their subjects using the online websites recommended. They should summarize what they have learned-and what they want to write about-using the online Bio-Cube tool. Encourage students to focus on including the main points they want to cover in their sketches. The finished Bio-Cube printout should be cut out and folded into a cube shape to be used as a quick reference tool during writing exercises.

Session 3: Writing Practice and Sharing (60 minutes)

1. Spend a minute or two inviting students to discuss their research. What did they learn about researching biographies using the Bio-Cube? What did they learn about what makes an interesting biography subject?

2. Invite two or three volunteers to share their completed Bio-Cubes in class. Ask them to explain briefly how they chose the information they recorded and what they liked about using the Bio-Cube to organize their facts.

3. Discuss the writing process and establish the purpose for the writers' workshop. First, tell students that they will be writing their first drafts using what they remember from their research and the information on their Bio-Cube outlines. Then remind them that this is a writers' workshop. That means they will share their writing with others to receive feedback. It also means that they will need to be ready to give feedback on others' writing. Explain that many professional writers engage in this process both as they learn their craft and as they continue to improve their skills throughout their lives.

4. Discuss some basic expectations for the biography sketch with students: writing to the appropriate audience; providing interesting, relevant information about their subject; and writing to an agreed-upon target length (suggest a length of approximately one lined notebook page). Distribute the sample Writers' Workshop: Biographical Sketch Rubric so that students can refer to it as they write. This rubric reinforces the discussion about writing goals and the elements of a biographical sketch, and it allows students to self-assess their work.

5. Model the writing process by beginning to draft a short biographical sketch of your own. Refer to your Bio-Cube, and think aloud as you write your draft on a transparency. Reread as you go and explain any changes you make. Reasons for making changes may include:

  • Making a mistake with a fact

  • Revising a sentence that sounds awkward

  • Deleting a piece of information that is not very interesting

  • Forgetting an important point

  • Thinking of a better word to use

  • Remembering what the audience might like to know

  • Including information that is not part of the Bio-Cube summary
Remember to keep the writing short-this is just the beginning of the writing exercise. Suggested time for this portion of the session is 10 minutes.

6. Start the in-class writing time so students can write first drafts of their biographical sketches. As students write, walk around the classroom and provide feedback to individuals on the content you see. These miniconferences should take just one or two minutes each; use the time to quickly assess progress and offer encouragement and focused help. Comment on particularly interesting tidbits, ask leading questions as appropriate, and prompt students to refer to the rubric as necessary. Suggested time for this portion of the session is 20-30 minutes.

7. Bring the writing time to a close. Assure students that they do not yet need to have their sketches complete. Have them share their work with a partner, and instruct each listener to tell two things he or she likes about the partner's sketch and also tell one thing he or she would still like to know about the subject. Model this type of feedback before students begin sharing.

8. When everyone has shared, ask a few volunteers to talk about what they liked about the session. Then encourage students to reflect on what they might like to accomplish during the revision process. Tell them to think about it on their own and be prepared to share goals at the beginning of Session 4.

Session 4: Revision and Reflection (60 minutes)

1. Begin this session by modeling the process of editing and revising a draft using the sketch you wrote during Session 3. Display your draft using the overhead projector. Read aloud your writing to students. Reread it a few times, stopping to make changes (and explaining them as you go, using the same think-aloud technique from Session 3, Step 5). Make your revisions to create a new draft that is close to final form.

2. Have students begin revising their sketches. Tell them to reread their drafts, pick up the writing where they left off, incorporate their partners' feedback, complete the writing, and then reread and revise until they are satisfied that the writing is clear and the sketch meets all the criteria on the Writers' Workshop: Biographical Sketch Rubric. Ask them to check off each item on the rubric list as they prepare their final drafts. As students work, conduct another round of miniconferences to help guide and encourage them. Suggested time for this portion of the session is 30 minutes.

3. Bring the writing time to a close, and model for students how to give positive and supportive feedback on others' compositions. Briefly comment on two or three student pieces, being sure to pick out elements from which everyone can learn. For example: "Listen to the first line of Ben's biographical sketch of Christopher Columbus-it will really catch your attention." Or, "Kaylee gave a great description of Jeff Gordon's childhood." For each element on which you comment, be sure to ask the student author to read aloud the corresponding line or passage.

4. Have each student select and read aloud a favorite line or short passage from his or her sketch. After each reading, invite one audience member to offer positive feedback.

Session 5: Proofreading and Publishing (60 minutes)

1. Tell students that this session will be spent proofreading and publishing final versions of their biographical sketches.

2. Emphasize how important proofreading is to the writing process and that it must be completed before they can publish their final drafts. Distribute copies of the Writers' Workshop: Proofreading and Publishing Checklist so students understand the tasks. Explain that they need to read through their sketches looking for the types of minor errors listed on the sheet. They should note corrections on their drafts. Tell students that you are available to answer any questions they have as they proofread. Have students turn in their checklists as they complete them.

3. Show students how to publish upon completion of the proofreading process. This entails neatly writing their biographical sketches on heavy writing or construction paper. Remind them that their published works will be displayed in class and hint that they will also use them for the final workshop session.

Homework: Before the next session, students who did not complete the publishing process should finish. Also, all students should conduct a practice reading of their finished sketches.

Session 6: Author Readings and Celebration (60 minutes)

1. Welcome students to the final session of the writers' workshop. Ask students whether they have ever seen an author reading at school, the public library, or a bookstore. Have a few volunteers briefly share their experiences. Explain that each "author" in the class will give a reading of his or her published biographical sketch.

2. Have each student read aloud his or her sketch to the class. For the readings, consider arranging students' desks in a circle and having the authors present from behind a podium. As time permits, allow audience members to pose a question or two to each author. Be sure to encourage applause at the end of each author's reading.

3. Once all authors have given readings, post the published sketches in the room. You may wish to invite a younger class to come in and view your authors' work.

4. As a final reflection, have students complete the Writers’ Workshop: Performance Assessment.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Teacher observation and coaching during in-class writing and revision exercises

  • Monitored student feedback during workshop sessions

  • Writers’ Workshop: Biographical Sketch Rubric: Collect the rubrics to ensure that students have completed the self-assessment task.

  • Writers' Workshop: Proofreading and Publishing Checklist: Collect students’ checklists to ensure that they have completed the proofreading and publishing tasks.

  • Writers’ Workshop: Performance Assessment: Collect students’ assessments to ensure they are complete. Add any comments you have on the back for student review.

  • At the end of the writers’ workshop cycle (e.g., immediately following or one day after Session 6), invite students to share reflections on the experience in a class discussion. Pose some or all of the following questions:
  • What did you learn from this workshop?

  • What was the most enjoyable thing about our workshop?

  • What was the most surprising thing?

  • If you could change one thing about the workshop experience, what would it be?

  • How did using the Bio-Cube help with your writing?

  • Why is it important to start a piece of writing with an interesting opening paragraph?

  • Why is getting peer feedback on your writing helpful?
K-12 Teacher
I love this idea. I am going to use this with my 9th graders as they read Of Mice and Men, and I'm going to have this as a task in one of my centers, something I've never tried before, but I'm developing ideas to make this happen with this unit.
K-12 Teacher
I love this idea. I am going to use this with my 9th graders as they read Of Mice and Men, and I'm going to have this as a task in one of my centers, something I've never tried before, but I'm developing ideas to make this happen with this unit.
K-12 Teacher
I love this idea. I am going to use this with my 9th graders as they read Of Mice and Men, and I'm going to have this as a task in one of my centers, something I've never tried before, but I'm developing ideas to make this happen with this unit.

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