3 Ideas for Student Biography Research Projects Upper Elementary

3 Ideas for Student Biography Research Projects

When the second half of the school year comes around, it is officially biography season in my classroom!

That is because when the second half of the year comes we shift our focus during reading and writing to nonfiction and informative text. The engagement is instant as kids just love to read nonfiction. After we get our feet with reading a wide range of informative texts, we begin to closely study biographies.

Students LOVE to read about real people and the impact that they have had on the world. Every year students are always so motivated during our biography research project time. Our biography project is the first research project of the year, so it is important to me that I support them every step of the way.

Over the years I have found that by breaking down the process step by step for our biography reports students are not only successful when writing their first research essay of the year, but they are able to take the skills that they learned throughout the unit and apply it to future research projects that we do, like studying endangered animals and National Parks

Continue to read to find out how I approach teaching BEFORE I expect students to research and write an expository research essay.

1. Break Down Biographies

Biography Anchor Chart for Upper Elementary

Breaking down the genre of biographies is a great way to kick off a unit on biographies. Since we study biographies during our nonfiction reading unit, I start by connecting biographies to other nonfiction books that we have read. 

Creating an anchor chart together, I am sure to include that biographies:

  • are one person's telling about another person's life
  • can be about people who have died or are still living
  • include basic facts about the person of focus
  • include information about the person's education and childhood
  • usually tell about problems or struggles that they faced
  • describe their major life achievements

Once we have gone over the characteristics found in biographies we get reading so that students can find these characteristics in action.

I start by reading a few short biographies like the ones found in anthologies like this one, Herstory written by Katherine Halligan:

Biography Reading Mentor Text Upper Elementary

We stop and discuss the elements that we listed on our anchor chart. I have students find examples of struggles, accomplishments, and facts.

Once students have listened to a few biographies, I send them off to annotate a biography article

Annotating a Biography for Upper Elementary Students

Students take highlighters and sticky notes and mark up the text, citing where they found elements of biographies. This activity works well in partnerships so that the students can discuss each element with a peer.

At the close of this first lesson on biographies, I send students off with the task to think about a person that they would like to research. While I do like to encourage students to pick someone they are interested in, I do also guide them on who they select.

I tell my students to pick someone who has had an impact on the world and someone who is not a movie/TV/YouTube star. You can make any rules you want to help guide students or set no rules. I have found that spending a few minutes brainstorming appropriate people to research sets the tone for the whole project. That is why before we wrap up the lesson we brainstorm ten people who would be great to research. This brainstorming is just to get students excited and thinking. They do not have to pick from the brainstormed list.

The next day, after students have had time to think, and discuss it with their families, which I like to have them do, they submit their research request. They simply write their name on a piece of paper and the name of who they want to research and why. This is a great way to get students to pick someone intentionally and reduces repeat research projects. I never allow more than two people to pick the same person.

Grab the FREE form I have students use to request a focus person and guide right here.

2. Bring it Through the Writing Process

Writing Process Activities for Biography Research Elementary Kids

It is important to remember to directly teach students how to take notes during their first research project. Before students go off on their own to read and collect information for their reports, I teach students how to take notes. We use T-charts and Boxes and Bullets to help us keep our information organized.

A T-chart is easy to make and easy to use. On one piece of paper, students make a large T. One side keeps track of students' questions and on the other side, the students record the information that they found that answers that question.  Boxes and bullets are easy to use too. Students write the topic or main idea in a box, and below the box, they bullet information that supports that topic or main idea. Whatever note-taking strategy you use in your classroom be sure to explicitly teach students how to use it using any biography mentor text.

Once students have a good grasp on how to collect information, they are ready to work independently. I assign one topic for research each day. This helps the students stay focused on the daily task and make a research project manageable for upper elementary students. The breakdown I use for each day's research looks like this:

  • Day 1: Family Life and Early Childhood
  • Day 2: Young Adult Life
  • Day 3: Adult Life
  • Day 4: Accomplishments
  • Day 5: Other Important and Interesting Information

Sometimes days are combined based on what resources students are using to collect information. Once students have collected information for their report, we pause our research and return to the writing process.

Students know that we use the writing process for all of our writing. However, mini-lessons in certain areas specific to informative writing are necessary to help students write their first research project. Mini-lessons I teach before students write that are specific to informative writing include:

  • hooking your reader
  • paragraph organization
  • citing sources
  • strong closure to wrap up your writing

Teaching students how to take notes and what to do with their notes helps them successfully write their first research project.

3. Get Student Creative Juices Flowing

Creative Biography Project Ideas for Kids

Once students have researched, collected information, written their project that has been taken through the writing process they are now ready to get creative and share what they learned.

Over the years I have done a wide range of presentations from oral reports, to PPT, dressing up as the person they researched, and everything in between.

I have found the best projects and presentations come when students are given choices. I do require students to create a scrapbook as if they were the person of focus which gives them a deeper understanding of who they studied.  By creating a scrapbook filled with illustrations, tokens, and writing students truly get to know their focus person.

In addition to the scrapbook activity, students can select one of the following to share what they learned:

  • design a PPT presentation
  • create a tri-fold handout to teach others
  • create a puppet of the person
  • design a poster
  • prepare a speech as if they were the focus person
  • allow students to come up with an idea for their presentation. I have to approve their idea based on the resources and materials we have available in the classroom.

When students present their projects in my classroom, dressing up as the person they researched is completely optional. Since the entire project from start to finish is completed in the classroom, students' projects are truly their own. They have worked on the entire thing and have a huge sense of accomplishment. These are for sure the best projects of the year! 

When biography season comes around in your classroom, be sure to follow these tips for success! By breaking down biographies, using what students already know about the writing process, and allowing creative choice when it comes to project displays your students will be engaged, motivated, and write the best biography research projects you have ever seen.

You might be interested in reading:

Looking for more high impact writing resources? Click the HERE.

Writing Posters and Anchor Chart Bulletin Board Display Elementary

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Biography Project Ideas, Tips, Templates, Lessons Upper Elementary

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)


4 Groundhog Activities for Upper Elementary

 4 Groundhog Activities for Upper Elementary

Groundhog Day is one of those "burst of fun holidays" that offers a nice break from the day-to-day work of the long winter season.

This holiday offers so many opportunities for bringing rigor into the classroom disguised as fun holiday celebrations. Really, there is no better way to add instant engagement in the upper elementary classroom than by bringing the holidays into your lessons.

When it comes to February in my classroom, we dive deep into all things groundhogs in all areas of instruction: writing, nonfiction readingscience, and even test prep.

Read on to find out how easy it is to engage students in all things groundhogs!

1. Debate it Out!

4 Groundhog Activities for Upper Elementary

Holding classroom debates is a great way to help students put their opinion and persuasive writing skills to work!

So when the calendar flips to February, I turn the classroom into a courtroom and hold a debate focused on whether or not there should be more winter or early spring. Activities like this provide students with practice in participating in argumentative discussions in a safe, structured environment.

Read more about how I run debates in my classroom HERE.

2. Let's Read Nonfiction

groundhog life cycle activity for the classroom

Nonfiction and animals are ALWAYS an instant motivator for students when it comes to reading. Why not focus on reading everything there is about groundhogs

These little marmots have a lot of  "cool facts" about them that hook students in! Did you know that groundhogs were born blind and hairless? My students LOVE reading about these little guys, their unique burrows, their interesting life cycle, and the history of everyone's favorite groundhog: Punxsutawney Phil!

All of this is easily tied into our nonfiction reading unit as we focus on:

       Nonfiction Structure: how the informational text is organized {think: cause and effect}

       Nonfiction Text Features: features found in the text to help students digest the information they read {think: captions and headings}

       Nonfiction Reading Strategies: reading strategies that help students understand the text more deeply {think: questioning and visualizing}

By incorporating the holiday into the nonfiction standards we are already working on, there is no loss of instruction time. #teacherwin

3. Make Science Connections

hibernation and groundhog activity for the classroom

While studying groundhogs and hibernation is a great way to use classroom time to tie in Groundhog Day, go beyond the groundhog! They are not the only animals that hibernate!

Studying hibernation is a great way for students to make connections between animals in the animal kingdom. Students work together to collect information about animals that hibernate. But it is important to remember that mammals are not the only ones who prepare for winter and go into a deep sleep. Snakes, alligators, and spiders all have their own version of hibernation. In fact, animals prepare for difficult living conditions like extreme cold, extreme heat, and extreme droughts.

That is why we focus on learning and making connections between:

  • hibernation
  • brumation
  • estivation

By using nonfiction articles on these topics, having students research and gather their information, and practice close reading strategies we are able to tie together informational research, science, and close reading standards...all while engaging students with a little fun.

4. High-Interest Informational Videos 

groundhog day videos for the classroom

While I hate to admit it, yes I am required to do some test prep in the winter to get ready for the spring standardized testing. It is definitely not on the top of my favorite things to do in the classroom, which is why I do my best to make it fun.

And thanks to Groundhog Day, we can sneak in a little test prep.

Since my class always needs a little help collecting information from multiple sources to write expository essays, we use the topic of groundhogs and Groundhog Day to practice. By mixing in informational articles and high-interest short videos, students are able to gather a lot of information on the same topic.

I collected all of my favorite and FREE educational videos about Groundhog Day that I use with students and compiled them HERE for you to use, too!

Grab the free organizers below for your students to collect information as they watch the videos. Once they have all of the information in note format, have them write an informative essay about groundhogs or the history of Groundhog Day.

I love using the holidays in my classroom to engage students and take a break from the day-to-day! When you use holidays in meaningful ways students are instantly motivated, participation increases, and authentic learning takes place!

You might be interested in reading:

Looking for more high-interest winter activities? Click the HERE.

winter activities for the classroom

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4 Groundhog Activities for Upper Elementary

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)


Strategies for Teaching Nonfiction Summary Writing

 Summarizing Tips for 3rd, 4th, 5th graders

One sign of strong comprehension skills in students is the ability to summarize what was read using their own words.  This reading comprehension strategy is one of the hardest to teach students, especially when it comes to nonfiction summaries. Often times students want to just write fact after fact after fact and call it a summary. While paying attention to facts found in nonfiction text is important, it is not the basis for writing nonfiction summaries.

Grab the FREE nonfiction summary resources below. Then read the tips below to help you successfully teach your students how to summarize any nonfiction passage, book, or article they read.

Before jumping into summarizing nonfiction there are a few lessons that I teach prior to writing nonfiction summaries. Read on to see how I teach nonfiction summarizing in my classroom, breaking it down into different lessons that help students understand how to summarize informational text.

1. Distinguish Interesting VS. Important

summary writing graphic organizers

Interesting VS Important lessons truly help students avoid writing just a list of facts and calling it a summary.

My students always benefit from lessons on distinguishing the difference between interesting and important information. This is critical when they are writing nonfiction summaries

Begin by simply discussing the difference between what makes something interesting in the books that they read and what makes something important.

Here is how I explain the difference:

Interesting: Something new that I did not know that piqued my curiosity. 

Important: Something that I read that supports the main idea of the reading.

I go one step further to call students' attention to the N in interesting. That helps us remember that interesting is usually something New to us.  Looking at the word important, I call attention to the M. That reminds us that it supports the Main idea. This simple trick makes a huge impact on students' understanding of interesting and important.

A great book to use for a lesson on determining importance is Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine.  As we read, we chart information into an Interesting vs Important Tchart. This book and activity helps students distinguish the difference, and improve their summary writing as they focus on only the important information.

2. Connect Summarizing with Main Idea...Start with Oral Summaries

summarizing nonfiction anchor chart tips

The best way for students to understand what to summarize when it comes to nonfiction texts is to connect it to their understanding of finding the main idea.  We begin discussing summarizing by simply practicing oral summaries. Since we have already had several lessons on main idea and supporting detail it is an easy way for students to pull out the important parts of the informational text to include in their oral summary.

When teaching fiction summary writing, one strategy that I use is the SWBSA frame. You can read about that HERE. Since my students love this frame and strategy I wanted to offer them a similar frame and strategy for nonfiction summary writing. That is why I came up with the idea and organizer for a concept I call TSMIDS.

TSMIDS simply stands for topic sentence, main idea, and details that support.

I use this frame to show students how to write a quick summary. This is a good format to use when students are discussing sections of a nonfiction book or article. This is also perfect for students to summarize what is going on within their book when you meet with them for reader’s workshop group time and conferencing. Once students master this format, I expect them to add more to their summaries.

3. Model Summary Writing with Mentor Texts

summarizing nonfiction with mentor texts

When introducing summaries, I like to use informational books or articles that we previously read. I model summary writing with a book that we have already read in class or even informational magazines like Time for Kids. Since we read the Moon Book during our science unit it is a great one for us to revisit as readers who are writing summaries.

Teacher tip: Be sure to grab the free resources above to grab the modeled example for a nonfiction summary using the Moon Book.

Once I have modeled my expectations, we write a few nonfiction summaries together, again using books that we have already read as a class. I like to use books and articles that we have already read because I know students already understand the main idea in the books that we have read and discussed as a class. This allows them to focus on writing a summary with important information, rather than reading the book for understanding.

Informational texts and authors that I like to use that have been previously read include:

Just go to your bookshelf and find an informational book that you have already read with the class and start from there! Even better if it is a book that you read during a science, health, or social studies lesson.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

summarizing nonfiction activities for independent reading

Now that you have taught students everything from determining importance to the TSMIDS strategy, students are ready to head off and practice summarizing nonfiction texts.

The key here is to have them practice, practice, practice. You can have them practice in isolation by using task cards and short passages. Another great way to practice is to have students summarize each section under one heading within a nonfiction passage.

An engaging way that I like to have students practice summaries of informational text is to use my mid-workshop break. When our break comes, I have students meet up with their reading partners and share an oral summary of what was read. Remember that students should practice BOTH summarizing orally and summarizing in writing. The more they share summaries in oral form, the better their written summaries will be.

Summarizing nonfiction does not have to be difficult for you to teach or for your students to grasp. The more specific your instruction is the easier it will be for students to summarize. Once they get the hang of it, don't stop. Have them practice, practice, and practice some more!

You might be interested in reading:

Looking for more reading activities that will make a big impact in your classroom? Click the HERE.

how to make inferences anchor chart for yapper elementary

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Strategies for Teaching Nonfiction Summary Writing

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)

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