Bio-Graph Lesson Plan

Susan Spangler, SUNY Fredonia


From Theory to Practice:  Donald Graves said that to teach writing well, teachers should know at least five details about the lives and interests of each child they teach (Anderson 72). This lesson helps teachers do that, and it also provides ideas for writing for then entire school year.  In this lesson, students also employ multiple intelligences when they use graphs to express their feelings about the incidents they will write about.

Further Reading

Anderson, Carl. How’s It Going: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.

Gazin, Ann. “Reading and Writing Workshop: Focus on Autobiography.” Instructor 109.5 (Jan/Feb 2000): 47-52.

Holmes, Leigh H. “Linkages of Nonfiction and Selfhood: The Places of Personal Essays.” English Journal 91.4 (March 2002): 64-68.

Leggo, Carl. “The Story Always Ends with Etc.: Autobiography and Poetry.” English Quarterly 29.3-4 (1997): 67-86.


Context:  This activity could be used to generate a number of different kinds of writing activities but lends itself well to autobiographical and narrative writing.  For those reasons, use it at the beginning of the school year when you are trying to get to know students, and let them refer back to it throughout the year for ideas to write about later.  It could also be used to integrate mathematical graphing and writing as well.


Objectives:  During and following the activity, students will:

  1. Reflect on significant events in their lives and consider their influence
  2. Graphically represent important life events
  3. Describe these events and explain their importance through writing


NCTE/IRA Standards:

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.

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.

12.  Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).


Appropriate Technology: 

This lesson uses Microsoft Excel® as an option for the lesson.  This technology is appropriate because it graphs information neatly, just as the lesson asks students to do.  In a way, the technology is an add-on.  That is, one can do the lesson “by hand,” without the technology.  The technology just makes it easier for some students and is an adaptation of the lesson.



Gather graph paper, rulers, and art supplies for displaying the final graphs.  Secure computer access if doing the high tech version and work through the instructions to familiarize yourself with the program.



  1. Ask students to brainstorm (in writing) a list of the most important/influential events in their lives so far.
  2. Have them choose 10 and give each one a rating (from -5 to +5, with +5 being extremely positive) as well as estimate what age they were at the time.
  3. Give each student a piece of graph paper and have them graph the 10 events, with the rating going on the vertical axis and their age (or year) going on the horizontal axis.  Tell them to join the 10 dots with straight lines.
  4. Tell students to transfer this graph (which is a rough draft) onto the construction paper.  Beside each graphed event, have students write a short phrase describing it.  They can also include some illustrations. 
  5. When the graph is done, brainstorm with the class what writing options they could have as a result of making the graph.  For example, they could choose two of the events and write a short description of that event (maybe one paragraph) and how it has been influential in their lives.
  6. If time allows, students should share or at least display their bio-graphs.
  7. As a high-tech alternative, the graph could be made using Microsoft Excel (see details below).



§         Students could interview each other and then do the graph for the person they interviewed instead of for themselves.  In this way, students would learn more about each other, especially if you do this at the beginning of the school year.

§         As a book report alternative, students can create Bio-graphs for specific literary characters and plot events.

§         Biographies of famous people (politicians, entertainers, sports figures) are available on the Academy of Achievement Web site. Students could complete a Bio-graph of a famous person from history, entertainment, sports, or popular culture.


Plan B/adaptations:

If computer access is not available, then students definitely use the graph paper.  Depending on the level, more thorough instruction on how to make a graph may be warranted.


Technology Support for “Graphing Your Life”

Directions for Graphing on Excel*

I.        Open Microsoft Excel


II.     Enter Data

A.     Type in year of the event in Column A. (Chronological order doesn’t matter now; we’ll sort later.

B.     Type in the event name in Column B.

C.     Type in the rating (+5 to -5) in Column C.


I.        Sort Data

A.     Highlight the table by clicking and dragging over it.

B.     To put in chronological order:

1.      Click on “data” on toolbar.

2.      Scroll down and click on “sort.”  A dialogue box will appear that should be defaulted to “Column A” and “ascending.”  If not, change to those settings.

3.      Click on ok.  The table should now be in chronological order.


II.     To make a graph:

A.     Click on the “Chart Wizard” button (it looks like a bar graph) on the toolbar. (Table should still be highlighted.)  A dialogue box will appear.  You can play around with styles, but I’m going to use a line graph.

B.     Click on “line” and then click on the chart sub-type you’d like.  You can press and hold the button to see a sample before you decide. 

C.     When you do decide, click “next” in the dialogue box.

D.     Leave the data range as is and the “series in column” button depressed.  Click “next.”

E.      Give your chart a title, such as “My Life.”

F.      Category (X) axis is the horizontal line.  Name it “events” or something else appropriate.

G.     Value (Y) axis is the vertical line.  Name it “value” or “rankings.”  Click “next.”


III.   To place chart

A.     For a whole page on its own, chose “as new sheet.”

B.     To view the table along with the chart, chose “as object in sheet 1.”


IV.  To print

A.     Click on the print icon on the toolbar.

B.     This will print the chart on a separate sheet.


V.     If you’d like to, save your document.


*I used Microsoft Excel version 2003 in creating these directions.  Other versions and programs may vary, but just experiment until you get the results you like.


Student Assessments/Reflections

  1. Students will obviously be reflecting on how the chosen events have influenced their lives through writing. They could also reflect on the effect that the graph had on their perceptions of the events. Did making a graph of the life events show them a pattern of incidents?  Writers can also reflect on how the graphing affected their writing process and the difficulty (or ease) of recounting their life events in interesting and appropriate ways.
  2. The teacher can assess informally for students’ completion of the graph of important life events.
  3. In assessing this piece, use the Bio-graph Rubric to consider drafting processes (including interviewing and graphing), the finished piece, and student reflections on their writing.


Teacher Analysis of Methods: 

This lesson was designed as a pre-writing, heuristic activity for students to refer to throughout the school year for ideas for writing.  It was meant to engage students in writing and thinking in multiple ways.


Using Cambourne’s model of learning to analyze the lesson, it is easy to see how the lesson functions to increase student literacy.  During the lesson, I demonstrated how to use the Excel® graph so that students would easily be able to complete the graph.  I communicated expectations clearly to students through step-by-step (and written) directions so that students would be able to complete the activity.  They didn’t have to guess at what I wanted.  Students were empowered to make decisions about what events to include on their graphs, the rankings they associated with them, even the number of events they included.  Thus, they showed responsibility in their choices.  In addition, they could also choose the type of graph and colors on the graph.  The lesson had built in time for students to use the graphing program, thus enhancing their ability to learn it.  I gave students time to experiment with different graph styles and background colors before saving and printing them.  Approximation is a major part of this lesson, in that students were free to take risks, experiment, and revise their work.  Because the computer makes it easy to “undo” choices the students make, there really is no such thing as “making a mistake” in this lesson.  Finally, there was much opportunity for response to students’ work as I circulated during the lesson.  I was able to encourage students and offer opinions and assessments of their work throughout the period.  Overall, the lesson immersed students in thinking and writing.



The lesson also used many of the recommendations of National Curriculum Reports on best practice in teaching.  The graphing lesson was a hands-on lesson during which students engaged in active learning, “doing, talking, and collaborating.”  They openly discussed their progress in the lesson with others, at times becoming interdependent with each other.  I was also able to play many roles during the lesson:  I coached students, modeled appropriate responses to the writing prompt, and demonstrated how to complete the graph.  The graph itself compelled students to engage in higher order thinking skills.  They had to synthesize the information into one document and evaluate the events in order to complete the graph.  Both these skills are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.  The use of the graphing program, and even the graph itself, validated students who may not feel comfortable expressing every thought through the written word.  The lesson values varying cognitive styles.  Students had the opportunity to graph information as well as to expand on selected events through writing. 


Reflection on Lesson:

After teaching the lesson, I found that students were have a very hard time doing the graph on paper but were very comfortable working on the computer.  Some of them even knew how to change the background colors on the chart to make it more interesting.  The next time I do this lesson, I will skip the paper graph altogether and go directly to the computer graph.  Or, maybe I should help students learn to do paper graphs so they feel more comfortable.  Maybe I’ll say something to the math teacher!