Having students write a research paper on well-known figures in the present or past history is a common assignment in schools, but this assignment forces students to look deeper. Many of these people faced difficult obstacles in their lives that might have prevented most people from realizing their dreams, reaching their goals, or becoming leaders in their fields. Those obstacles could include poverty, racial discrimination, social barriers, illness, physical limitation, family problems, failure, financial loss, war, lack of freedom, and more.
The important lesson for students to learn is that anyone can realize their dreams, reach their goals, or become a leader in life no matter what obstacles may face them. Many young people think that only the gifted or affluent people achieve excellence or great things in their lives, but many of the people that biographies are written about had ordinary or even difficult upbringings. What set them apart is that they did not give up; they worked hard and learned to persevere in spite of any obstacles. Students need to realize that they are also capable of doing great things in their lives—that they shouldn’t use any excuse or obstacle not to.
If you want your students to use print sources, ask your librarian to create a list of biographies in your library of people who faced different hardships or obstacles to go on and do great things. If you don’t have someone to do that for you, that could be part of the assignment, too, that your students have to find someone who fits that criteria.
There are many online biographical sources students can use, too, and it’s a good practice to have them use a variety of print and Web sources for their research paper. Leaders still living may not have a biography available, but students can probably find Web sources or even contact the person themselves with interview questions. Some may actually respond.
I've included a list of names of current and historical leaders that can be used for research assignments, but the list is far from complete. I made this list looking at the shelves of my school library, and your libraries will add to this list.
Learning about so many people who accomplished great things in spite of sometimes overwhelming obstacles has inspired me to keep working at the dreams and goals I'd like to accomplish in my life, and I believe this assignment will encourage students to do the same.