Biography: Experiences that Determine Greatness

10 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately by researching biographical information about the speaker.

Big Idea

The experiences that define us: Recognizing significant life events that determine success.


This lesson begins the research part of the assignment Great American Speeches.  The purpose of this assignment is to merge American history with American literature.  Students will examine a speech in the same context that they examine a literary work.  They will also note the biographical and historical information that influenced the context and content of the speech.

The lesson begins with a fictional speech from The Greatest Dictator, the 1940 movie that mocked the Nazi regime just prior to American involvement in World War II.  I use this clip primarily to illustrate to students the power that words can yield in making an audience respond to the overall message.  Chaplin makes an emotional appeal in demonstrating the power of goodness to overcome evil.

Events that Lead to Greatness

70 minutes

In this section of the research project, students will choose a speech by a great American politician or cultural icon on the website  This website lists the top 100 American speeches.  I have students choose a speech to their liking to ensure that they are interested in the material.  However, no two students choose the same speech.  I have students email me their choices on a first come, first serve basis.  

Before we begin our research I play the following speech to demonstrate to students that sometimes greatness is manifested through raw honesty and a strong desire to better the human condition.  This speech is from the Charlie Chaplin move The Greatest Dictator, where Chaplin plays an Adolf Hitler look-a-like.  In a general discussion, I ask students to predict the types of biographical experiences that the Chaplin character would espouse to inspire him to deliver such a powerful speech?  Would it be education, family, sense of country, etc.  Secondly, what type of persuasive appeal is Chaplin making during the speech?  What is his message? Would this speech be applicable in the twenty-first century? Why or why not? And lastly, based on Chaplin's attire and appearance, how does the historical context fit into the message? I will ask students to write responses in their notebooks, and I will randomly call on students to offer their opinions.

Students readily identify that Chaplin is imitating Adolf Hitler.  They conclude that his speech is a response to the events of World War II.  At the time of the movie, Hitler's despotism was infecting all of Europe.  Chaplin through this character presents an antithesis to Hitler in revealing a leader who espouses the rights of the people over the needs of a dictator.

The first leg of the project requires students to research the speaker on reputable online sources such as,, etc.  Students will find 10 pieces of biographical information that provide an answer to the following question:  What were the top 10 events in the speaker's life that were most influential in providing a path to greatness and why?  Students will note their answers in their notebook and save the information for when they write their paper.

All online sources will be added to a Working Bibliography template that is provided as a resource.