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Death to the biography book report

no_booksWe all remember doing book reports in elementary school. It was fairly standard. You read a book and you write a summary on it or do some type of creative project. This past spring, I assigned a biography book report. I followed the normal prescription: choose a book about someone you’re interested in, and write an essay. What was unusual this year was the pushback for reading a biography book. The internet offered more information and recent content than reading an outdated book. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to find books that were at students’ reading levels on people they wanted to read about. Additionally, some of my students chose people who may not have books written about them. One student wanted to research a fashion designer from a reality TV show!

I had to concede and become flexible about the “book” part of the book report. I encouraged my students to read multiple easier books and to research online. I encouraged them to stay away from Wikipedia as a primary source and to cite all other websites used. In the case of the fashion designer, this student managed to conduct an interview when he came to town for Fashion Week (yes, really!).

I’m not sure what I’ll do this year for the biography book report. I really like the creative project tied with it, it encourages reading outside of school, and the students enjoy choosing and researching a person of interest. However, there is an imbalance of work — some kids are researching minimally online and turning in an essay compared to other students who read and research a lot more. The writing and information quality is very different and I want to figure out a more equitable system.

Until then, it may be the death of the biography book report and the rise of the biography report.

Briana Chan About Briana Chan

Briana Chan is an elementary school teacher in California.



  1. Brianna, you could try a poster presentation instead. There are templates available online that would help you level the playing field.

  2. Anonymous Librarian says:

    Probably you’ve thought of this already, but at my school, the teachers come down and check out a huge pile of biographies for the classroom–two or three times as many as will actually be used. Then children are allowed to browse among the books until they’ve chosen one that they’d like to read. This also serves to make them aware of famous people they may not have encountered before.

    We have a lot of recently-published books that look to children like picture books–they are thin and they have color illustrations–but they are also substantive.

    Our librarian likes using to illustrate the dangers of trusting internet sites.

  3. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    There’s an interesting comment to this post on our Facebook page. I encourage readers to go find it.

    When Briana sent this post in, it surprised me at first. It poses a question for our field. We know there are some terrific biographies available, but what has happened to support of school libraries? If there IS a library and a professional librarian, there may not be enough of a budget to allow them to stock all those superlative biographies. Too often, series nonfiction rules the roost.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is how I’ve been pitching the biography book report makeover to teachers and librarians. Rather than having kids read a single 100 page book report, have them read three picture book biographies of the same person, and then their project incorporates these responses: 1. How are these books the same? How are these books different? Rank these books from best to worst and justify your ranking. Even though the pages read are the same, it will take them far less to read the three picture books, but they will spend more time thinking. When they read the hundred page book they spend more time reading, but they typically do some type of regurgitative summary which is not intellectually challenging.

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