Traditional Biography Reports? Not If Your Students Write Creatively!

The stack of biography reports sits on your desk,on a rainy Friday afternoon, staring you down, eating into the weekend with monotonous grading. Same old style, same old format, same old tired voices in the words. How do you know if your students truly gained anything worthwhile from the required assignment? And why did you give yourself such uninspiring paperwork? What were you thinking? Take it from me! Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt! Instead of a set of five-paragraph essays awaiting your pen, why not try reading and writing imaginatively about those scientists and statesmen, artists and athletes? I can assure you that literature, science, and history will breathe with new life when your kids approach those famous folks in a fresh, imaginative way! Remember that we read (and we have our students read) biography for these reasons:
  • we find the lives of certain people fascinating to us, based upon our own interests
  • we learn more about this person's field of endeavor through studying his or her life
  • we learn to explore our own hidden potential through exploring the lives of others
That said, as you consider specific men and women for study, think of ways to help your students vicariously enter those lives they'll read about. Listed are several ideas and activities that worked for me, engaging my students in avid reading, spirited discussion, and enthusiastic writing. I especially knew the kids were learning important lessons by random comments such as this one, "Stephen Hawking has ALS, but he never gave up! I won't give up, either! Things WILL work out!" Creative Writing Projects:
  • Diary of a person's life. Select three to five events that illustrate major turning points in the individual's life. Imagine that you are now living and breathing as this person during each of these events. Through the use of visual imagery, describe the emotions you are experiencing and provide anecdotes or details that convey the person in action. Here's an example: you have read an account of Lincoln's presidency. Try to view life through this president's eyes. Choose these defining moments: the night before the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, the day of the 1860 election, the moment of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and receiving the news of Confederate surrender. As Lincoln, in your diary entries, write about these moments in as rich detail as possible.
  • Partner projects. Assign two students to read the stories of two men or women in the same field. Have the students jointly pen imaginative letters between the individuals. As an example, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, both theoretical physicists, could write a series of collaborative letters to each other, explaining their latest research. Perhaps aviator Amelia Earhart and astronaut Sally Ride could swap stories about their experiences as women in a man's world.
  • Individual letters. Have students take notes as they read, and then use those notes to create a series of letters to the individual. Pen an imaginative correspondence between student and historical figure.
  • Portfolio projects.Assign students a specific mix of creatively written items: letters, diaries, and poems, based upon the life of this individual.
  • The Out-of-Towner Project. Company's coming, and students will host the men and women of their studies. Plan an agenda for the day! Describe the probable reactions of the historical figures as they participate in a tour of modern life.
  • An illustrated life. Highlight major events in the person's experience, and include written captions to explain their significance.
  • Write a skit or one-act play that focuses on the individual's major achievements.
  • Write a dramatic monologue in which the student acts the part of the person and discusses his or her life, from a first-person viewpoint.
Remember to encourage your students to explore several sources for research: encyclopedias, nonfiction books, Internet resources, multimedia files, periodicals, and biographical dictionaries. Set aside presentation tables for the projects and schedule performance days for any creatively written dramatic skits. Discuss and enjoy each other's efforts! Approaching biography through creative writing beats a traditional report any day!(Especially when the kids keep reading and researching long afterward!) Below are links to instant creative writing activities you can take into your biography studies TODAY:

Written Response Questions
Activity: Cinquain
Activity: The Lottery Winner
Activity: Happy Birthday
Activity: People Change

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