In this Stenhouse Summer Series blog post, Annie Syed writes about how to use bio-poems during the first week of school to help teachers and students get to know each other for a successful year ahead.
It’s the first week, but no longer the first day. You have done the seating shuffle, learned almost everyone’s names, and reviewed the syllabus and rules with your secondary students. Now you wish to get to know the students, but you also want this experience to be
- utilize core literacy skills of speaking, listening, and presenting, and
- for the whole class to know each student beyond a pair-share activity.
Although back-to-school games can be fun and effective for elementary school, they can be a little awkward for secondary school students. If you are like me, you can still recall your middle school (or even high school) experiences where you would do anything to avoid “introducing” yourself (okay, maybe even as an adult!). Hearing yourself say your name aloud is enough as it is. Where does one begin to describe themselves? Do you talk about your favorite color? How can you mention just one book or movie that you liked? Is it appropriate to mention claustrophobia? What’s a teacher to do to help alleviate that stress some students might feel?!
I first learned of bio-poems through Professor Jon Olson and he accredits these to Ann R. Gere’s Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. A Bio-Poem is a short biography that describes an individual in eleven lines. Students interview one another through the provided prompts, take notes, and then introduce each other to the entire class. It’s also an opportunity for the teacher to get to know the many dimensions of each person, beyond the measurable data.
An important aspect for the exchange is peer-feedback. At this point the student being interviewed offers suggestions or corrections for the poem so they can feel it is an accurate representation of them. This establishes the peer-review process and student agency.
Here is an example by Mikaela. When her partner introduced her as a “relative of books” several other students smiled, and I recall that I interrupted the introduction because I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm: “So am I!” Another student chimed in, “We must be related then!” We learned that reading was important to many students in this class, as compared to the student filling out a private survey where they share only with me, “I love to read,” which may not be information a student volunteers in the first week to begin with.
These exchanges also gave me insight into other aspects that are important for a teacher’s planning. For example, I had a student reach out to me after class to share that the person they were interviewing told them to “just write whatever.” I used this as an opportunity to participate with this pair the next day to reframe the prompts for the student who felt “there wasn’t much” to share about him. As the year progressed, this student presented academic and social-emotional concerns, but our interactions were always buffered by this authentic exchange from the beginning of the year.
Bio-poems can also segue into an organic discussion. When Nicole’s partner introduced her and shared that she feared cats, her class period began sharing their irrational fears and one student who loved cats exclaimed, “How can anyone fear cats?!” I proceeded to share a story about going on a walk with my husband where this cat started following him everywhere.
The scaffolded exchange creates purpose-driven socializing for the entire class period as students chime in when they overhear exchanges echoing their experiences. Additionally, some students ask if they can have a few minutes to practice reading what they have written aloud since they are presenting information about another person! The Bio-Poems activity allows students to interact with one another, get creative, and alleviates the pressure of “introducing” oneself.
While the exact process for writing and sharing bio-poems will vary across different contexts, this is how I usually present the activity.
- Day 1: After 15 minutes of instructions and examples, allow 30 minutes for the interviewing process, including feedback.
- Day 2: Students introduce each other to the class and thereafter return the poem to the interviewee who then files it away in their writing portfolio folder. The students can end the activity with a writer’s notebook or an exit ticket reflection on the process—these can be shared aloud as well. You can add an extra day for introductions depending on the size of each class.
These are the directions I share with my students.
- Step One: Pair up with someone in the room, interview each other for twenty minutes according to the handout. (Students can be paired randomly or strategically; if there is an uneven number, groups of three work as well or a student can pair with a teacher.)
Begin by asking your partner their first name, then ask the questions from the lines on the handout. After you have taken your notes, draft a bio-poem about your partner that follows the formula in the handout. After you introduce your partner based on the bio-poem you have written, your partner will be turning that paper in, so write neatly. (20 minutes total)
- Step Two: Exchange drafts (so each person has the poem about themselves) and revise as desired. (10 minutes total)
- Step Three: Give your finished poem back to your interviewer so they can introduce you by reading it aloud to our class.
Line 1: First name
Line 2: Four traits that describe person
Line 3: Relative of (brother of, sister of, and so on) _______
Line 4: Lover of _______ (list three things or people)
Line 5: Who feels _______ (three items)
Line 6: Who needs _______ (three items)
Line 7: Who fears _______ (three items)
Line 8: Who gives _______ (three items)
Line 9: Who would like to _______ (three items)
Line 10: Resident of _______
Line 11: Last name
I have found this activity to set the tone for the kind of classroom environment I wish to create for the rest of the year, one where students are engaged with content and have student agency; and, where reading, writing, thinking, listening, speaking, and being respectful of our differences and celebrating our commonalities are part of the learning journey.
At the end of the year when students were reviewing all the materials in their ELA folders for their writing portfolio reflections, a student expressed that she is no longer the person in that poem and wishes she could go back and revise the poem to better reflect who she is now. I plan on doing exactly that at the end of the next school year with my new group coming this Fall.
About the Author
Annie Q. Syed is a writer-teacher who passionately believes real educators and writers never cease learning. Her fiction and essays have been published in various anthologies. She is a recipient of many awards, the most recent being the Golden Apple. She tweets @so_you_know and shares reflections at her personal blog at www.anniesyed.com. She collects excerpts from latest literacy research at her class website.