High School history biographies should be easy to research and write while at the same time allowing the students to learn more about the research subject and American history. Some of the best research subjects are those which the student thinks they already know lots about. This will help direct the students in their research while giving them an opportunity to change opinions as they learn more.
Try for subjects with controversy. John Adams was a great diplomat and key in forming the new country. Yet as president he signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Let the students explore these controversies. FDR led the country through the Great Depression and WW2, yet interned Japanese-Americans as well as broke precedent by serving four terms and making the federal deficit skyrocket. Controversial figures are great to research because it forces students to form opinions about them.
Look for figures that have overlooked parts of their life. Ben Franklin is known today mostly for electricity and going to France to secure support for the revolution. But do students know of all his achievements in science? Do they know why he was so popular in France? How about his mistresses? All of these things can be discovered in research that students did not know before. Another example is Abraham Lincoln, where the student learns about all the criticism the president took before his death. Many of these subjects are covered only lightly by history books, yet they are important parts of American history.
To be sure that the students are finding out new information make them fill out study guides. Have questions about new information they learned and opinions they formed in their writing. Also ask how this new information changes their perspective on that specific character’s role in American history and history in general. The important thing is not that the student is always exactly right, just that they are learning new things and forming new opinions.
In closing, make sure that the students write about people who have more than one side to their stories. Make the student learn in their research. Many research projects at the high school level boil down to students finding facts in books they already know. Do not accept these types of reports. Make sure to check the students’ progress periodically to force them to learn new things. Above all else in the papers, make sure the student forms an opinion about the new facts that they learn in their research.