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The Celebrity Interview
Five students from Grand Island, Nebraska, tell us about a new way to do a biography report: the Celebrity Interview.
By Alicia M. Bartol


All of us have experienced the biography report, whether we wrote one ourselves or assigned one recently. As teachers, we hope kids will choose role models for these projects, and often the most effective role models are those who are still living. Although there's nothing wrong with writing about historical figures, the kids we spoke with this month have a good argument for researching the living . . . they can write back! In recent years, students in Grand Island, Nebraska have been researching famous celebrities, sending their reports to the celebrities themselves, and receiving responses in many cases! We spoke with Cody, Malinda, Megan, Andrea, and Ross, who told us about the Celebrity Interview Project they completed last year at Barr Middle School. Their teacher, Jennifer Van Winkle, started the project a few years ago, modifying it to incorporate current computer technologies in schools. Megan said, "I thought it was a pretty big challenge, and [that] it was going to be a pretty hard project."
     According to Malinda, the assignment was to: "pick a celebrity . . . and to think of questions you would ask them if you had a chance to interview them face to face. Then you'd have your questions checked by Miss Van Winkle, and then go on the Internet and try to find answers to them."
Megan really enjoyed doing the Celebrity Interview. She said, "I loved it! It was fun."
Megan said that after finding the answers, students would "put it down in an interview format." Each interview had 20 probing questions that revealed information about the celebrity's career, personal life, ideas, heroes, heroines, trials, and triumphs.
     Malinda added, "You'd put the answers in your own words, so it really sounded like the celebrity was answering you."
     Malinda and Megan both researched female athletes. Malinda "interviewed" tennis star Monica Seles, and Megan interviewed gymnast Dominique Moceanu, the United States' youngest Olympic gold medal winner. Miss Van Winkle encouraged the students to consider their choice of celebrity carefully. The celebrity should ideally be a role model. Andrea explained, "She wouldn't let us do [just] anybody, like Beavus and Butthead. Our parents would have to approve of it, and she would also." Andrea chose Lisa Leslie, gold medal Olympian and current leading scorer for the WNBA's LA Sparks.
In some cases though, teacher approval was based on time constraints rather than role-model status. Some celebrities are so popular that the amount of available information would overwhelm students. Ross said, "I chose Michael Jordan, but Miss Van Winkle thought that Michael Jordan was too broad, so I looked around. I just picked Harrison Ford . . . he turned out to be really good."
     Creating a successful celebrity interview required the students to hone their researching skills, both in the library and on the Internet. Most of the students had never used the Internet before. Cody said, "I thought it was gonna be hard; I really didn't know much about the computer or anything."
Andrea, who had never used the Internet before, researched basketball star Lisa Leslie.
Andrea agreed. She said, "I wasn't quite sure what we were going to do. But once we started getting into it, it was fun 'cause I'd never really got to look on the Internet before, and I didn't really know how to use it." Andrea and others worked hard to learn how to use the Internet quickly for research; after all, they only had a few weeks to complete the entire project. Andrea said, "It took me forever to find my stuff. I'd get something copied down on the computer, and then I'd come back and it'd be gone! I saved it too!"
     Megan was also fairly new to the Internet. She said, "At first, I kind of got confused, and I was a little lost on what to look up to find certain answers, but I figured it out pretty quickly." One of the most important lessons she learned was how to recognize legitimate sites that could be used for her research. She said, "A lot of times, you can tell by what the site is, if it's by some person, or if it's by maybe a magazine or more of a business-type sounding [site]. And you can look at the answers, and if they don't match up with other answers you've found, then you know that probably some of the other stuff is not going to be true."
The Internet was not their only resource however. Even though they were researching current personalities, they also used print materials from the school library. Malinda explained: "We had Current Biography books in our library, and magazines, and oh just about anything that you could think of. . . . The Current Biography really helped because you just looked up the year that you wanted . . . like there [were] two different years that I could look up for Monica Seles, from when she had her stabbing and then when she came back into tennis."
Ross liked working on the computers and learning how to use the Internet.
After spending time learning to research online, students thought that print materials were definitely more difficult to use. The use of Internet search engines like Metacrawler, or hierarchically sorted indices like Yahoo has really made certain types of research very easy. These directories allow students to search for info in a whole new way, especially when current events and personalities are involved. Although bound bibliographies often have their own indices, these books do not always exist for living celebrities. The Current Biography reference series is an obvious exception. That leaves magazines and newspapers, which are often difficult to sift through, especially if students do not have access to recent periodical guides, or if the school library does not have access to certain publications. Malinda said, "The hardest part was looking in magazines." However, including a non-Internet resource requirement helped the students learn what types of resources were available. Malinda explained, "Some books were specially made, like if you had a basketball person. The people that were [well-known] had books on themselves.  . . . We had a lot of different resources in our library that we could use."
The greatest strength of this project however was simply the independence it offered students to direct their own learning. Andrea said she most enjoyed "looking through all the information that was given to [her], since [she'd] never used the Internet before." She said, "I think it helps because it allows the kids to research and find out stuff that they don't know about, on a person that they look up to or admire."
     Malinda had similar praise. The thing she enjoyed most about the project was answering her own questions. She said, "It was a lot different [from other projects]. It was a lot more fun. I don't know what made it different; it was just something that you're really interested in. [The teacher] didn't give you a certain person and say, 'Look . . . write a paper on them.' It was more of [having] to use your imagination."
Cody chose to research Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. The thing he most enjoyed about the project was searching on the Internet.
Cody, Ross, and Megan especially enjoyed using the Internet for their research. Ross said, "This is way different, we never did anything like this before. . . . It allowed me to learn how to use the Internet. It was new to me, and it really helped me."
     Megan said, "I liked it 'cause it was fun just getting on the Internet and being able to search and be independent and not having them tell you specific sites to go to. You got to choose what areas you wanted to explore and find out about that person."
     Despite the scope of the project, which often had students working in computer labs during their free time, every student finished their interviews on time. Malinda said, "It went really fast. [Miss Van Winkle] made sure that our time was used wisely. You had dates to make sure you were done by this time so you couldn't put it off."
Still, experience is the best teacher, so the students gave the following advice for students who undertake the celebrity interview project in the future:
  • Ross: "Don't pick a person that's too broad."
  • Andrea: "Don't forget to save your project!"
  • Cody: "Don't choose well-known people, because there are so many sites you just don't know what to do."
  • Megan: "Keep [your] chin up, and if [you] don't find information right off . . . just keep looking for it. Just keep working at it and don't give up."
  • Melinda: "Just pick a person that [you're] really interested in. . . . Pick somebody that you want to know more about, because it's more fun. . . . Just use your imagination and have fun with it."

Malinda enjoyed learning about Monica Seles, who beat the odds and rose to the top of the tennis ranks after a stabbing in Hamburg in 1993.
The students at Barr Middle School definitely have fun with this project. Perhaps one of the most unusual benefits is the celebrities themselves: when the students send off their interview projects, celebrities often reply in some fashion. Megan sent her interview to gymnast Moceanu and received an excellent response. "She sent me back a magazine that had an actual interview in it, and then a postcard of her modeling for 5-7-9 [magazine], and she wrote a little bit. She sent me a picture, autographed also. It was really exciting. A lot of people were really excited, especially if someone that they admire sent back stuff to even another student. We all kind of shared the excitement. It was fun to see them actually appreciate what you did."

     To read Miss Van Winkle's story and see handouts for the Celebrity Interview Project, visit this month's Teacher Testimony.

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