Activities & Lessons
Illustration (featured from left to right): James Baldwin, Amy Sherald, Katherine Johnson, Kimberly Bryant, and Stevie Wonder
Black history should never be relegated to a date on a calendar. It is too intricately woven into the meaning of America. What would the United States be without the muscle, skill, and innovative thinking of its Black citizens?
Inventor and agricultural scientist George Washington Carver said, “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” This quote captures the theme of a year-round focus on Black history in my fourth grade African-centered classroom. My students and I spend time marveling at the ingenuity of countless Black people who have faced, and continue to face, all too common dehumanizing circumstances and yet continue to rise.
I pose the question, “How are people who look like you overcoming problems in their daily life?” My students and I ground the question in three ways. First, we identify, research, and interview innovative people we know locally (caregivers, family members, friends, business owners, city officials). Then, we research national celebrities and other prominent figures. Finally, we explore the presence of Black ingenuity and innovation on a global scale.
Black History Month for my classroom is simply a time to recommit to the Black historical legacy of ingenuity and innovation in the face of racism and other systems of oppression. I hope these Black history writing prompts help you do the same with your class, in February and all year round.
Black History Month Journal Prompts
Introduce your students to the Black innovators highlighted here. Think of their experiences and perspectives as a springboard for students to write about their own lives. Note that the structure of each prompt asks students to do three things: delve into the life and accomplishments of a Black innovator; talk over a quote by or about the person; and finally, tackle a related writing prompt. Each prompt guides students into a particular type of writing, such as personal narrative, informative, or persuasive.
Black History Writing Prompt #1
Spotlight On: NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Text Type: Personal Narrative
Background: Tell students that Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was a mathematician for NASA. She calculated rocket paths for space missions. Her work was critical to the success of several human spaceflights, including the Friendship 7 mission that made astronaut John Glenn the first American to orbit Earth. Glenn’s flight marked a turning point in the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (today, Russia). In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work. The 2017 movie Hidden Figures tells the story of Johnson and two other unsung heroes of NASA’s early days.
Talk It Over: Tell students that in 1962, astronaut John Glenn requested that Johnson double check the computer-generated trajectory of Friendship 7’s Earth orbit. “If she says the numbers are good,” he declared, “I’m ready to go.” Ask: How do you know Glenn had confidence in Johnson? Do you think she had confidence in herself? What makes you say that?
Writing Prompt: Think about a time in your life when someone had confidence in you to solve a problem or complete a task. That person might be a family member, friend, teacher, coach, pastor, or even a stranger. Write a personal narrative about the experience. Be sure to describe the task and the effect that person’s confidence had on you. Include sensory details and an organized story structure.
Black History Writing Prompt #2
Spotlight On: Author James Baldwin Text Type: Persuasive/Opinion Writing
Background: Tell students that James Baldwin (1924–1987) wrote novels, essays, plays, and short stories that forced readers to confront racism in America. Baldwin lived during a time when our government wrote laws to keep Black and white people separated in public places, like schools, restaurants, and churches. The impact of racism drove Baldwin to move to France. His 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain is considered an American classic.
Talk It Over: Read aloud this quote by Baldwin: "I knew I was Black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn't know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” Ask: Why do you think Baldwin says he didn’t know if he could use his mind? (Baldwin is saying that racism tries to make Black people feel like they aren’t smart. He eventually used his mind to become a great writer who fought against racism with his words.) How can we apply Baldwin’s quote to education? How might racism affect what we’re taught in school? What effect might it have on the way students learn?
Writing Prompt: Write a five-paragraph persuasive essay arguing for ways to improve your least favorite or favorite subject. Be sure to explain how the change will help improve your motivation and thinking. When you are finished editing and revising, send the essay to your parents, teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board.
Black History Writing Prompt #3
Spotlight On: Actor/Writer/Producer Tyler PerryText Type: Informative Writing
Background: Tell students that Tyler Perry (1969–) is the mastermind behind popular plays, movies, TV shows, and New York Times bestselling books. He portrayed his most famous character, Madea, in plays that eventually made the leap to the big screen, with the franchise grossing more than $500 million. Popular TV shows like The Walking Dead and blockbuster movies like Black Panther were shot at Tyler Perry Studios, in Atlanta, Georgia. But Perry’s success belies a difficult childhood that almost destroyed him. His father often beat him, which Perry says led him to attempt suicide. In his early 20s, he saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in which Oprah described the therapeutic effect of writing. Perry started writing down everything that happened to him. He believes writing saved his life.
Talk It Over: Read aloud this quote by Perry: “My biggest success is getting over the things that have tried to destroy and take me out of this life. Those are my biggest successes. It has nothing to do with work.” Remind students that Perry uses writing as therapy. Ask: Do you agree with Perry’s idea of “success”? Explain.
Writing Prompt: Think about a hobby or interest that brings you calm, such as cooking, coding, dancing, or drawing. Write an informative essay, create a brochure, or design a PowerPoint presentation that describes the benefits of the activity and how it affects your state of mind.
Black History Writing Prompt #4
Spotlight On: Artist Amy SheraldText Type: Poetry
Background: Tell students that First Lady Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald (1973–) to paint Mrs. Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery shortly after Sherald won the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Mrs. Obama described an immediate connection upon meeting Sherald, feeling "blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter.” But not everyone likes such bold paintings. Sherald received quite a bit of flack for the portrait. Her vision of how to paint the first African-American First Lady wasn’t typical, and this is partly what makes her an innovator.
Talk It Over: Read aloud Sherald’s response to those who didn’t understand her painting style: “Some people like their poetry to rhyme. Some people don’t; that’s fine. It’s cool.” Ask: What is Sherald saying about people’s taste in art? How does Sherald view art? What do you think about the portrait of the First Lady? What do you think people objected to?
Writing Prompt: Write a poem of three or more lines, rhyming or not, that captures an emotion in vivid detail. Think about a strong emotion you’ve experienced lately. It could be how you felt when you saw Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, or the feeling of learning how people reacted against it. If you’d like to write about something more personal, consider writing about how you felt on a recent Zoom call, or when a parent or caregiver reprimanded or praised you. What emotion did you feel? Close your eyes and try to visualize what you remember.
Black History Writing Prompt #5
Spotlight On: Electrical Engineer Kimberly BryantText Type: Textual Analysis
Background: Tell students that Kimberly Bryant (1967–) is an electrical engineer who worked in biotechnology for companies including Genentech, Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, and Merck. In 2011, she founded the nonprofit Black Girls Code to teach basic programming to Black girls who are underrepresented in technology careers. Bryant has been listed as one of the "25 Most Influential African-Americans in Technology."
Talk It Over: Read aloud this quote by Kimberly Bryant: “You can absolutely be what you can't see! That's what innovators and disruptors do.” Ask: What makes Bryant an innovator and disrupter? How could you be an innovator and create solutions to the problems you see around you? How could you disrupt unfairness that you see? Could you use a hobby or talent to innovate and disrupt?
Writing Prompt: Visit the Black Girls Code site. Scan the homepage and write down the following:
- Company slogan
- One-sentence summary of the company’s vision
- The headline of one article that appears on the site
- A summary of the article’s central points
- A description of the article’s purpose (i.e. entertain, inform, persuade, examine/explore an issue, describe/report, instruct), along with evidence from the text to support your claim
Learn code or create your own website that highlights the thing you love to do and that makes you different from everyone else. You might consider using the website as a way to innovate or disrupt. Keep the website updated weekly.
Black History Writing Prompt #6
Spotlight On: Singer/Songwriter Stevie WonderText Type: Research Writing
Background: Stevie Wonder (1950–) is a pioneer in the music industry who never let his blindness stop him from achieving anything he wanted in life. To date, the singer-songwriter has picked up 25 Grammy Awards and an Oscar, sold over 100 million records worldwide, and has been inducted into the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame. The release of his song "Happy Birthday" in 1980, followed by tireless campaigning, led to the establishment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1986. A tech-savvy musician himself, Wonder has pushed for advancements that make technology accessible for blind and deaf people.
Talk It Over: Read aloud this quote by Stevie Wonder: “Do you know, it's funny, but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being Black as a disadvantage.” Ask: Does this quote surprise you? Why or why not? Why might some people see being blind or Black as a disadvantage? How might technology help address disability or racism?
Writing Prompt: Think about the problems we face today—from racism to blindness to COVID-19, cancer, global warming, bullying, over-policing, you name it. Choose one of the problems and conduct research to answer these questions:
- What is the problem? Describe it.
- Who is this problem affecting most?
- Who are the experts trying to solve the problem?
- What technology are they creating to solve the problem?
- What are the pros and cons of the technology?
Black History Writing Prompt #7
Spotlight On: Rapper Kendrick LamarText Type: Interview
Background: Tell students that Kendrick Lamar (1987–) has won 13 Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, five Billboard Music Awards, a Brit Award, 11 MTV Video Music Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Academy Award nomination. In 2015, he received the California State Senate's Generational Icon award. Three of his studio albums have been listed in Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (2020)."
Talk It Over: Share this quote by Lamar with your students: “It took a long time for people to embrace us (rappers)—people outside of our community, our culture—to see this not just as vocal lyrics, but to see that this is really pain, this is really hurt, this is really true stories of our lives on wax.” Ask: Why do you think people like different genres of music? Why do you think some people, after 50 years, still don’t view rap as real music?
Writing Prompt: Think about three people you know who are different in some way. Their differences can be based on demographics like race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ability. Choose one demographic (age, for example) and interview three people based on that demographic (a child, an adult, an elderly person) using these two questions:
- What is your favorite genre of music?
- What do you think about rap music?
Record your interview and type your transcript. Present your findings to the class in the form of a newscast using a video recording app. Your newscast should be pre-recorded. Finally, record 30 seconds at the end talking about how each interviewees’ perspective is similar and different.
Black History Writing Prompt #8
Spotlight On: Science Fiction Author Octavia E. ButlerText Type: Science Fiction Writing
Background: Tell students that Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) wrote science fiction novels that blend mysticism, mythology, and African American spiritualism. Her work has garnered numerous awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation award, or “genius grant,” and in 2000 she won a PEN Award for lifetime achievement. In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Talk It Over: Read aloud this quote by Octavia Butler: “If you want a thing — truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you…” Ask: What does she mean when she talks about wanting a thing the way you need air to breathe? What is she telling us about the things that drive us?
Writing Prompt: Imagine that it’s 30 years in the future. Will people be living on Mars? Will we have flying cars? Will there still be poverty, or racism? Write a one-page fantasy story in which the Earth is threatened with certain destruction. You as the main character must use your superpower to save the world. Your superpower is whatever you are passionate about—music, debating, helping people, athletics, acting, writing, designing, or something else entirely. You can do things with your superpower that are unreal. The human race is counting on you. Good luck!
More Ideas for Black History Writing Prompts
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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