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Rethinking Reports

By Melissa Thibault and David Walbert

The "President Report" is a common assignment in social studies classes from second grade, where biography is first introduced, through high school U.S. History. You know what we mean: students are asked to pick a U.S. president and write a biographical report on him. The goal is to help students understand their president in historical context, the influences on him and the legacy of his life and work. And, we hope, students will develop their research and writing skills at the same time.

But all too often, the President Report encourages students not to do thoughtful, thorough research but only to paraphrase basic sources — or, at worst, to plagiarize. So how can we promote real thinking and learning while discouraging quick fixes and plagiarism? Try some alternative assignments!

Why research a president?

Biographical research is easy to do. The encyclopedia provides the important facts, including significant dates, family members, and major events or accomplishments. Many encyclopedias even provide a timeline or a “facts in brief” section that may all by itself answer most aof the factual requirements of an assignment. If the going gets tough, students may need to venture to the Biography section of the library, where they’ll find a book about their assigned historical figure, most likely a series edition with a two-to-four-page summary in the back. It sounds to us like a factual treasure hunt, not research.

So why assign biographical research at all? The life of an individual person — in this case, a president — can be a useful window into the past, a “hook” that gives students something they can relate to, something on which to hang the rest of what they learn about an historical place and time.

Biographical study of a president addresses a wide range of curriculum goals, helping students understand concepts from the development of an individual’s identity in cultural context to checks and balances of power. No curriculum objective demands recall of facts about a particular U.S. president, but studying cultural influences on leaders or the context of a president’s term in office will strengthen a student’s understanding of social studies. The National Council for the Social Studies suggests a number of concepts that researching a president can address:

Time, Continuity and Change
How am I connected to those in the past?
Individual Development and Identity
What influences how people learn, perceive and grow?
Individuals, Groups and Institutions
What is the role of institutions in this society?
Power, Authority and Governance
How is power gained, used and justified?

Alternative assignments

So what will be different about the research students will do with these new assignments?

First, they won’t be able to simply gather facts; they’ll have to work in the context of the time period. While the work might include some of the same facts as a traditional report, the assignment will require a contextual use of the facts that demonstrates understanding.

Second, students will need to use a variety of sources. The encyclopedia’s Fast Facts will not provide the necessary information, and students will need to look beyond the timelines in a biography. To save you time in directing your students to quality resources, we have provided a Presidential Information Pathfinder, a selection of print and online resources that are non-commercial, offer unique elements, and are from highly respected sources.