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Celebrity Interview Projects
A reading teacher at R.J. Barr Middle School in Grand Island, Nebraska has updated a classic activity to suit the needs of today's students.
By Jennifer Van Winkle
For some teachers, the challenge of teaching with technology is how you can use it with your favorite activities, the ones that have withstood the test of time. You don't want to push aside the best parts of your curriculum simply because they do not incorporate technology. However, a classic activity can often benefit from the creative inclusion of technology. The Celebrity Interview Project is one such activity. For this project, students research a famous person and compose a celebrity interview, complete with answers.
The Celebrity Interview Project became part of my class curriculum two years ago. A veteran teacher, Geri Marshall of Grand Island, was gracious enough to introduce me to the idea. She had used the project with her students before the Internet existed in classrooms, and consequently, she had fewer options to work with. Her idea was adapted and modified into what I use today.
     To begin the Celebrity Interview Project, I first had a discussion session with the students about the characteristics of, and the need for, good role models. Then I asked them to choose a celebrity that possessed these qualities. Once they made a selection, I sent home a letter explaining the project to the parents who, in turn, needed to approve their student's choice. This element is important for two reasons. One, it is impossible to know all of the celebrities . . . some who might be very bad choices for a role model. Two, it makes the student commit early and gets them off to a good start.
Then we had a day of explanation. On this day, I went through all of the requirements, expectations, and necessary elements of the paper. Next, our media specialist came in and gave them tips for searching on the Internet. She also spoke about the importance of documenting the sources that each would use in their paper.
     The students were then given three weeks for searching, composing, and editing. At the end of that time, they handed in a rough draft of their project, complete with a cover page, the interview, and a bibliography. They needed to ask their celebrity twenty questions and then answer the questions as if they had actually spoken to their star! I did not allow the use of direct quotes; this forced the students to practice paraphrasing and writing in their own words.
"In recent years, many of the students have received some sort of correspondence back from the stars, and they are always excited to share these goodies with their peers."
After I handed back the rough draft with suggestions for improvement, they were given two or more days in class to make the corrections. Each student had received a grading sheet at the beginning of the activity, so they knew what elements were most important. I graded the projects with a tinge of pride. They were fabulous, and they get better every year! I recently finished the project again, and am very proud of what the students accomplished. So are they!
     Once the students complete the projects, we mail them to the celebrities with a letter explaining the project, and requesting some form of response. We include a self-addressed, stamped, manila envelope and hope for the best. Of course, we're prepared to receive nothing, but often we were surprised.
     In recent years, many of the students have received some sort of correspondence back from the stars, and they are always excited to share these goodies with their peers. Tim McGraw sent the interview back . . . autographed! Conan O'Brien, Harrison Ford, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Rosie O'Donnell replied with autographed photos. Dominique Moceneau sent her student-interviewer a packet full of information and a Sports Illustrated for Kids. Ahmad Rashad and Tom Osborne returned personal letters! Jerry Lewis returned his interview corrected! Some students received nothing, but all of them enjoyed the display of goods that were sent.
These weren't the only rewards however; we always experience all sorts of gratification from completing this project. Personally, I observe immense growth in a majority of the students. They learn to be independent as well as interdependent. Students work to help each other; often a student will bring a magazine article to school that pertains to a peer's project!
      These projects really bring out the best in many of the students. It forces them to set new standards for themselves. They have the satisfaction of handing in a professional looking assignment that they enjoyed working on, and although the students are only in eighth grade, I often read material from them that would blow the socks off some high school students. Finally, after some long hours, a lot of headaches, and a few panic attacks, the students swell with pride as they hand in their final copy -- a success story in itself!
One student, upon handing in his final copy, said that this was the first project he had ever finished. Sometimes, a student has to decide whether to turn in a project late or be late to basketball practice. No matter what choice they make, the consequence will be severe . . . but to watch them weigh their options is remarkable. Every student finished a project though, an accomplishment that is even sweeter for the students identified as having special needs. This year, these children made up fully one-third of my classes. Even though their instruction is modified, they too meet the requirements and finish their projects.
     Of course, every project has its obstacles. One ongoing problem is the amount of lab time required to run this project. I always feel a little guilty signing up for that length of time, however I know it is well worth it! There are also the unexpected computer glitches, which sometimes become overwhelming. I will continue to do the project, but some of the sites are getting progressively worse. There is more smut than ever, and it is really too bad. I stress the importance of good judgment and student responsibility; however, it is inevitable that students will come across bad sites sometimes.
Additionally, some students are disappointed with their final projects because they chose someone who had limited material available. Similarly, some students choose such famous celebrities that there is too much information to sift through, which can exasperate the student. That is how it works sometimes. As you can see though, the good outweighs the bad, and the teaching opportunities are endless.
     As you can see, there are pros and cons for the students and teachers involved. I'll be honest: it took me hours upon hours to grade the 96 interviews I had this year. It took somewhere between 15 and 20 hours for the final copies alone. The project also requires a teacher who is able to assist students with the technological realm, and significant support from your media people! They are so valuable.
"Many of the things I have learned about what makes kids tick, I have learned from doing this project. You learn who they admire, and why they look up to them."
Additionally, when it comes down to choosing celebrities, it helps to be open-minded about the student's choice, though parents should still approve the topic. Some of the best interviews I saw were written about some of the very celebrities at whom I privately scoffed. Many of the things I have learned about what makes kids tick, I have learned from doing this project. You learn who they admire, and why they look up to them. You learn how they think and process information, and whose parents are willing to put in extra hours to help the kids.
     You also begin to understand why some of them have a difficult time with organization and who can be pushed more academically. You watch them learn a lot about themselves. Mostly, you will learn that, when given the opportunity to be engaged in something worthwhile, the results will be phenomenally humbling as students surpass your highest expectations.
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