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.
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