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Notable American Biography Writing

March 8, 2021 | Heather Palmer Welesko

This term, students are biographers. The art of biographical writing relies heavily on learning note-taking skills, so we have spent weeks teaching students the elements of biography: raw information (like birth and death dates), childhood events, early traumas, adult events, major achievements, life challenges, historical context, and quotes. In order to prepare students to write a biography, we needed to look closely at the form; we have studied Alexander Graham Bell, Harriet Tubman, Bessie Coleman, Cathy Freeman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Hilary Clinton, and more. In each case, students have had to distinguish the elements of biography (to establish the traits of the form), and also, how each person was challenged and overcame such challenges.

Here are some notes Cabot and I took on Fanny Lou Hamer.


The biography writing unit is one of the most complex because it unites the skills of writing with the content of who the biographer is. Students must learn both note taking, sequencing, drafting and idea production, transfer of information from notes to sentence form, editing and peer editing, and publishing, and the pertinent details of a person’s life. Third grade students are ripe for the challenge: the love going deep, and they have just enough research skills to execute this giant task. To prepare, students just finished a two-week interview unit wherein they interviewed each other on their family lives and first memories, then practice transferring their interview questions into paragraphs. After this practice writing unit, students are ready to go bigger, and write a whole biography about one person because they have the base-line skills of paragraph writing and indentation.

Here are some of the steps to writing a biography.

First, gather information. They can choose the white graphic organizer or make a timeline, or do both.

Then, they need to transfer what they know to writing, and in order to make this easier, they use a checklist sheet. The first step of writing is drafting, and drafting is always easier if you already know what you need to write about.



Maxfield’s rough draft

Then, they self edit and peer edit, so they can write their second drafts.

Their second drafts receive a teacher conference, before they publish their writing on card stock paper.

All in all, this process takes about two weeks, three weeks if you count the note taking preparation and practice, and five weeks if you consider the interview writing prep unit. By the end, students may have options to do an About the Author page or a Table of Contents. In art, there is usually a project that goes along with the biography, and this year it is portraits or clay puppets.


Notable American study is a giant project, so please congratulate your child on the feats of concentration, learning, and study this takes! To our own young notable Americans.

Heather Palmer Welesko

Literacy and Assistant Teacher, Grades 4 & 5

Heather Welesko has taught at Mustard Seed School for nearly a decade as a literacy and assistant teacher. She has taught literature and writing at Kean University and Harold Washington College of Chicago. Heather holds an MFA in writing and poetry from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA in Leadership and Spiritual Formation from Evangelical Seminary.

Ms. Welesko is enthusiastic about professional development, and has advanced training in the Handwriting Without Tears program; the Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Program, and the Responsive Classroom/ Development Designs Program through Origin. She continues professional develop through The Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She’s passionate about literature, creativity, comprehensive education, and believes strongly in teaching identity and diversity awareness and inclusion.

Ms. Welesko is a poet, artist, and yogi, and is still, always learning.

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