Beating Back Boring Biographies

Hack a common assignment to make it more powerful and meaningful for learners.

I doubt that I’m alone in often being frustrated by the differences between my students’ ideas of a biography and my own. It seems that for many of our students, “writing” a biography simply entails searching for the person on wikipedia, highlighting all of the text, copying and pasting it into a document.

The plagiarism is a huge concern here but I’m honestly more bothered by how boring the students’ work turns out to be.

One of the solutions that I came up with is to ditch the biography and instead offer students the ability to be an Investigador Privado (Private Investigator). The role of a P.I. is different than that of a Biographer. For my class, students were tasked with addressing three questions:

  • Who hired you?
  • Why did they hire you?
  • How will you convince them that they got their money’s worth?

An Example

One student decided that she was investigating singer Enrique Iglesias on behalf of a private Catholic school that wanted to vet Enrique to make sure he would be a suitable speaker for their graduation ceremony. She took screen shots of his social media posts, copied song lyrics, provided pictures from tabloids and links to some of his more racy music videos. Ultimately, she suggested to the school that he would not be a wise choice for them.

Like with a traditional, boring biography, most of the content the student supplied was copied from the internet. But the commonality ended there as she then took on the higher level thinking tasks of processing what she had found.

She had to curate her information in a way that would suit her report for her client. She had to analyze and synthesize information. She was forced to engage with the texts and actually think about what it all meant. Despite doing a whole punch of copying and pasting from the internet, did she learn more about Enrique than she would have if she’d done a biography? You bet she did!

Most of all, she had fun. She was engaged. She even put a coffee stain on the manilla folder in which she submitted her report because, in her mind, the private investigator was of the noir variety and would be prone to doing that.

Can you see Investigador Privado being a positive alternative for you and your students? What awesome activities do you have to beat back the boring biographies?