Hero or Not? Close reading of Biography to Support an Argument

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SWBAT use key details from a short biography to prove that a historical figure is a hero.

Big Idea

Congratulations! You have been selected to choose the world's next hero. Let's see if you have what it takes to choose wisely.


This is the first of a 3 day lesson that pulls together all of the common core informational text standards for 5th grade. I had the pleasure of working with my district ELA specialist, Lara Crowley, on this lesson, so I certainly cannot take the credit here. During this lesson, students will be completing a close read of a biography (chronological text structure). This lesson hits on so many standards, but the students primary focus will be on CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.3 (Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text).

Students will read about a Japanese man who helped Jews escape from Lithuania to Japan by issuing transit visas.  They will work to prove he is a hero by using evidence found in the biography. The two lessons that follow will ask students to repeat the procedure using an article and then state their opinion in writing using all resources they read during the lessons. We'll hit on bias since the biography is written by the historical figure's son and valid resources, as well.


5 minutes

To build background for all 3 days of this lesson, students will brainstorm a list of characteristics of a hero.

First, I'd like you to think of 4 characteristics of a hero. Once you have those, you will get into pairs to narrow your total list of 8 down to the 2 most essential.

Even when I ask students to brainstorm independently, I try to work in the opportunity for peer collaboration at some point to keep them motivated and comfortable. Ask students to share out their ideas and write these on the SMART board or chart paper. I always keep these on my SMART board so I can save the ideas in my notebook files for next year or for us to refer back to through out the lesson.

Who do you think of when you hear the word "hero?"

Use the numbered heads strategy to carry this out. My students are numbered each time I make desk changes.

1s tell 2s who is a hero in your eyes. Then 2s tell 1s who is a hero in your eyes. 2s share out. 

I use this a lot to hold students accountable for discussions and to help them use their listening skills when conversing with partners. Students will most likely share ideas like superheroes, family members, and specific people in their lives. Show them the Hero Activating pictures of possible heroes.

Do you think heroes can be ordinary people who do amazing things?

Allow students time in their groups to discuss and then pick sticks or call on students to share something a peer at the table said.

Many times heroes can be people like Dr. Martin Luther King or military troops because they fight for a noble cause or just simply do what's right. Today we are going to read a few texts about a person who did something similar, and you will be left with the task of deciding if there is enough information to prove this man is a hero.

Before moving on to the story, I also use this time to show students a picture of Lithuania and Japan and their location in relation to the US. My students were familiar with the Holocaust, so I didn't need to set up much background here. Decide whether your students need a brief recap of those events and then use the map to tie it all together.  I've included my Passage to Freedom notebook example layout.  There are maps included in it as well.



5 minutes

Before reading, it may helpful to review the words diplomat, refugee and visa.

You will run into a few words throughout today's reading that may give you some difficulty, but are essential to understanding the story. In order to understand those words, you will be using a graphic organizer to collect clues to the meanings of each of them. You will talk with your table partners to see who may have heard these words before.

I like to use more than 2 students in a group for this so students have access to more thoughts. In this situation, I'm not looking for students to know the answer, I just want to give them some exposure to possible definitions. If a student doesn't share at this point, I'm okay with that and prefer them not to feel embarrassed in front of the whole group by calling students out to share what they know.

Now you'll get a Passage to Freedom vocab foldable. We will stop reading when we find these words and collect evidence of the meanings. While reading, we will write down the clues we find on the top flap. We'll stop along the way to discuss possible meanings and record these on the bottom flap.

Here's a student example of the inside of the foldable.

In 5th grade, I try not to front load all vocabulary that my students may struggle with. I use authentic, daily use of context clues strategies to find the meanings of new words. When I give students pieces to read for close reading, I do let them know ahead of time what words I'd like them to look out for. These are words that connect directly to the understanding of the text. Simply seeing the word ahead of time and having a brief discussion with peers, helps to prime the brain for learning. I usually pick no more than 5 words for these lessons. There could be countless words my students may struggle with, but they know to use the question mark while reading to annotate the text. Those words we might discuss at a later time or if my students are reading independently and cannot find helpful context clues, they are able to grab the dictionary and find the meaning.

Close Reading

35 minutes

For this 3 day lesson, I will be using the biography "Passage to Freedom" by Ken Mochizuki from the Reading Street anthology and an article. If you do not have access to the Reading Street story, here a few options:

  • Check out the book at the library or purchase and then read aloud using the document projector. You could make copies of the necessary pages that you want students to independently read to annotate and interact with.
  • Use the Youtube Video of the anthology version of the story. You could play the story on the SMART board and stop where you want students to interact with the text.
  • You could also look online for articles such as this one. The idea is to have students use two texts to complete a close reading and to use to find evidence to support the argument that Sugihara is a hero. The article you choose would be based upon the readers in your classroom and what you think they can handle in terms of text complexity.


I like "Passage to Freedom" for a few reasons. One is because it's written by Sugihara's son, so it let's me start the discussion on bias and validity with my students. I also like this text because it's a blend of chronological and descriptive text structures, so it gives me some ways to review the structures. The lexile level of this text is a 670, so students should have very little trouble reading independently.

My plan is created using my anthology's page numbers. To guide students through this close read, you will give students a series of  tasks. Anytime my students read, they always use the question mark to signal places where they may be unknown words or confusing concepts, but today they will have some other annotations as well. If you don't use this text, you could use the same ideas, just change the page numbers to paragraph numbers or alternate page numbers. 

I gave the students a series of tasks throughout this close read to break up the reading and let them practice different reading strategies throughout the story. There are many ways to do a close read, so I try to give my students those opportunities as much as possible, especially in the start of the year.


Guided Discussion

10 minutes

In this section we'll use the Character Trait Chart to gather the annotations that students recorded throughout the reading. Since the text I used is in the anthology, I want the students to have all of their information contained in the interactive notebook. Also, the use of graphic organizers helps the students see the connections between the information thy record. 

Turn back to the beginning of the biography. Refer to your sticky notes for places where you found characteristics that proved Mr. Sugihara was a hero. It's okay to find new evidence while doing this.

I try to model finding the first piece of evidence and recording the information on the chart with the students so they have the expectations before starting this on their own. When modeling, it's helpful to list the character( in this situation students are only focusing on Mr. Sugihara), the trait you are thinking and the page number where you found the evidence. You can have the students write out every detail, but since my lesson spans a few days, I let them write the page number and a few words from the place on the page. Here are two student examples  of the trait chart just to get an idea. 

With the group I have this year, my students will complete the chart independently and then will break into groups to complete a "Give One Get One" activity. I like this strategy because it allows the students to have a focused discussion of the traits and evidence they found and to share something with one another.

Now that we've finished the Give One, Get One, let's review the chart and fill in any missing information that you should have.

Discuss in depth all of the reasons students have for believing that Sugihara is a hero.

Who wrote this biography?  Take a minute to look back in the text and then discuss in your teams.

Help guide them to the fact that Sugihara's son wrote the biography.

How valid is this information if it was written by someone who loved Sugihara?

Show students this Powtoon video I made to briefly introduce bias. I'll be teaching this more in-depth in later units, so this covers what I want my students to understand for now.

Should we look at another piece of text to confirm or deny our thinking?

Discuss and tell students that we will be looking at an article on day 2 of this lesson to decide if Sugihara really is a hero. 


5 minutes

Students will complete a collaborative $2.00 Summary of the biography. The idea is to use only 20 words (.10 per word) to create a summary. Students will work on a large sheet of paper to write their own summary on a small part closest to them. Then all students will read each others summary and choose the best parts of all of them to create one group $2.00 summary. Ask groups to share out the collaborative summary.

I like this summarizing strategy because it keeps the students focused on finding only the most relevant material to add to the summary. With a maximum of 20 words, the students must be efficient with the language and think deeply about what information to included and how to combine information to "get the most bang for your buck." I also find that my students enjoy trying a summary on their own and then combining their ideas with other group members. They seem to feel relieved when they have the support of a group.