From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 14|No 5|June|2005
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Questions of Import:
Biography Maker 2.0

By Jamie McKenzie

About the author.

© 2005 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Image © 2005, J. McKenzie
Was Captain Matthew Flinders
worthy of a statue?

School reports on famous people can easily slide into trivial pursuit.

If we pose more powerful questions about the person's life, we can transform the ritual into something more worthy.

Biography Questions of Import

  1. In what ways was the life remarkable?
  2. In what ways was the life despicable?
  3. In what ways was the life admirable?
  4. What human qualities were most influential in shaping the way this person lived and influenced his or her times?
  5. Which quality or trait proved most troubling and difficult?
  6. Which quality or trait was most beneficial?
  7. Did this person make any major mistakes or bad decisions? If so, what were they and how would you have chosen and acted differently if you were in their shoes?
  8. What are the two or three most important lessons you or any other young person might learn from the way this person lived?
  9. Some people say you can judge the quality of a person's life by the enemies they make. Do you think this is true of your person's life? Explain why or why not.
  10. An older person or mentor is often very important in shaping the lives of gifted people by providing guidance and encouragement. To what extent was this true of your person? Explain.
  11. Many people act out of a "code" or a set of beliefs which dictate choices. It may be religion or politics or a personal philosophy. To what extent did your person act by a code or act independently of any set of beliefs? Were there times when the code was challenged and impossible to follow?
  12. What do you think it means to be a hero? Was your person a "hero?" Why? Why not? How is a hero different from a celebrity?

Biography Maker 2.0

Ten years ago, flush with the optimism that was typical of the early stages of Web development, I created an online resource to help students look at important lives in ways that would pass the test of "So what?"

The first Biography Maker offered the questions listed above and made a serious effort to direct students to worthwhile biographical materials on the Web. This proved to be a daunting task at the time, often requiring as much as an hour to find a single reliable and rich source for each important person listed.

At the time I blamed the scarcity of biographical resources on the infancy of the Web. Surely, I reasoned, the choices would grow and improve with time.

Ten years later, the Web still offers little of substance and depth with regard to biographies. Sketches abound, but many of them are amateurish or suspect. Carefully researched, reliable biographies are available primarily in printed books. To answer the kinds of questions listed above, the Web will generally prove inadequate.

When I agreed to revise the first Biography Maker which has always resided at the Bellingham Public Schools Web site, the district allowed me to share a copy here at the FNO Web site at

The first version's Web links and resources had pretty much rusted beyond repair so while creating the new version I stripped the links away and made no effort to point students to Web resources, suggesting instead that they turn to print resources as their main strategy.

Try the New Version

Just what is a biography?

The story of someone's life?
A tale of accomplishment?
A tale of woe?

Or is it a boring list of facts
that nobody cares about?

A good biography brings
the person to life . . .
makes us care

about what she or he did
with time and opportunity.

Who wants to read
another boring biography?
Who wants to write one?

Certainly not you!

Back to June Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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