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Student Biography Assignment

This post was originally published June 3, 2014.


In July, I will begin teaching an online section of Technical Writing. The course takes place completely online. I’ll never meet with the students in a face-to-face classroom, and there will be no set meeting time for the class. Students will log in whenever they like and access resources on the course website and in Virginia Tech’s CMS.


These classes are usually made up of students who are off campus for the summer, often working or doing an internship, and who are taking the course in their spare time. There is also the possibility of international students who are out of the country for the summer and military students who are serving somewhere. I expect to see some similarities among the group. In particular, I believe most of them will be splitting their time between the course and some other major activity (like an internship).


The biggest challenge I see is building community among this group of students. They are likely to have some common experiences, but these students probably don’t know each other and are  not likely to connect with one another beyond completing the activities for the course. After all, logistics are against them grabbing coffee after class or meeting at the library to work on an assignment together.


I decided that I wanted my first writing assignment for the course to work on two goals: to help students get to know one another and to work on a writing task that fits the focus and objectives of the course. There are hundreds of online icebreaker activities I could try, but I wanted to find something that was appropriate to the kind of workplace writing the course focuses on.


After some research, I decided to try a professional bio assignment. I’m still working on the details, but generally, students will imagine that they have taken a new position with a company and have been asked to provide a short biography statement for the company newsletter or the team section of the company website.

While the textbook I use doesn’t address the genre specifically, I found quite a few useful webpages that students can read and compare, including the following:



My plan is to ask students to review those articles and chat in an online forum about issues of style, audience, and purpose. After their exploration, they will write their own bios, choosing a style and format that is appropriate for a job they aspire to have. I’ll ask them to share their bios in the online forum as well, and I’ll have them provide one another feedback.


By the end of the unit, I hope they’ll know each other a little better, understand a bit more about the basics of technical writing, and have a bio they can use in the future. Once I finish designing the assignment, I will be sure to share it here. For now, I need to get back to planning that course. It’s just a month away!



[Photo: Cinderella's Using WiFi by David Goehring, on Flickr]

Once you have your students hooked on reading biographies, they’ll be itching to share their newfound biographical knowledge with each other and the world. Fact-filled biography research lends itself to a wide range of creative projects. Perhaps the greatest challenge is teaching our students how to focus on just the “important stuff”! Here is a sampling of the biography projects and lessons I’ve tried with my class. Last week I shared an annotated list of my favorite biographies, and stay tuned for our culminating biography project next week!


Phase 1: Meet the Books Biography Sorting

When beginning our biography unit, I build excitement by dragging out a big cardboard box stuffed with biographies. I offer to clear off a couple of bookshelves and provide baskets, however it is up to the students to come up with a logical plan for sorting and storing the books in our classroom library.

To solve this authentic problem, the students work in small groups. First they peruse all of the biographies, discussing their observations: there are different series, formats, subjects, and sizes. While sifting through dozens of books, the excitement builds, and soon enough, students are shouting to friends about their finds. Students always want to begin reading their favorites right away, and I have to put them off — they have a mission to finish!

Each group charts a proposal for categorizing the biographies and presents their plan. After the students vote on the organization schemes, they finally sort the books according to the winning plan, and at long last the biographies are available for reading (insert raucous cheers!) Yes, it’d be faster if I just sorted the biographies myself. However the sorting process familiarizes the class with the range of biographies and it challenges them with higher order thinking, all while tempting students with new books. 


Over the years, my students have sorted the biographies by time periods, alphabetically by subject name, and based on the subjects’ main contributions.


Phase 2: Research Time Determining Importance for Note-taking

I’ve noticed that my 3rd graders really struggle with distinguishing the important biographical facts worth saving from the cool, but random facts they read. When their biography research notes quickly fill up with minutiae, I know that it’s time to introduce the “determining importance” strategy.

We begin by talking about a yearlong voyage in space, and I ask which ten items they would choose to bring for the journey. My students sketch the contents of their intergalactic suitcases, deciding on the ten most important items to bring. Then I extend this suitcase metaphor to their research. We discuss their process of choosing items for their suitcase, and then think about which of these criteria also apply to researching.

Finally, I have my students practice coding research notes on a graphic organizer, using symbols to mark the most important information and the facts they would excise. I take notes about a biography read-aloud for the students to use, since they are less attached to my notes than to their own. After doing their own research, my students repeat the same process of coding the most important facts.


Phase 3: Share What You Learned Biography Projects

Now that your students are experts about certain biography subjects, they are eager to share what they’ve learned. I’ve tried all of these projects in my classroom. Some of the projects were required, while others were options that I created using a biography menu. The projects range from very simple, single-period activities to more involved experiences.

Sentence Strip Time Lines

This is a quick and easy one. Students use a sentence strip (or two taped together) to create a long time line of key events in their subject’s life. I use this Printable time line template for students to plan their final time line. While teaching about chronological time lines, I squeeze in a bit of testing language that builds on the idea of sequencing.


Biographical Poetry

In addition to acrostic poems and clerihew poems (which I wrote about in my previous blog post about Abraham Lincoln,) my students enjoy writing odes and diamante poems about their biography subjects. ReadWriteThink.org has a template for very structured biography poems. Here are templates for three biographical poem formats, excerpted from 30 Biography Book Reports by Deborah Rovin-Murphy, and available through Scholastic’s Teacher Express.


Dear Diary

Many of my students love the Dear America and My Name is America series, both of which focus on first hand accounts of American history told through the journals of young Americans. With these favorite chapter books as mentor texts, my students already have a strong background in fictional historical diaries, and they are eager to try writing their own historical diaries from the point of view of their biography research subjects.


To the right, a student's diary, written fictitiously by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bio Sculpture Museum

After visiting a wax museum with my class, my students proposed creating a wax museum of sorts back at school to share information with other classes about their biography research subjects. I couldn’t get my hands on enough wax, but I had plenty of air-dry and modeling clay, so the students created clay sculptures instead. They wrote biographical placards, much like those they saw at the wax museum, and then set up museum exhibits around the classroom. Student curators decided on logical arrangements of sculptures, and they led students from other classes through our “museum,” sharing information about each person during the tours.



The Avatar Says It All

My students’ favorite biography project was creating short animated movies using the website, Voki. Students decided to create movies in the character of a biography subject, or they created a narrator character to speak in the third person about their biography subject. They tried to pack as many facts as they could into thirty-second “commercial” time slots.

Voki has an education oriented portal that allows each student to have their own username and password, while the teacher manages the assignments and can view each of the students’ products.



Rowan and Chloe's voki avatars briefly tell you about Gail Devers and Marco Polo.

Even More Biography Project Ideas!

My teacher role model and fellow blogger Genia shared a fabulous idea for creating organized and attractive biography reports in her blog post, Black History Month and Presidents' Day Biography Reports. I plan on trying out “biography people” with my students next year!

Check out Beth Newingham’s description of the “living wax museum” the students create at her school to celebrate Black History Month.  

Fact-web posters help my students organize their biography research.

For updates on my future blog posts, you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter, and stay tuned for our culminating biography writing project next week.

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