CommonLit Secondary Classrooms 10 Stories of Black Women Who Shaped the United States

Celebrate the achievements, contributions, and excellence of Black women as we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month.

CommonLit’s online digital literacy program provides teachers with access to thousands of compelling, free texts and comprehension questions. In this blog post, we will highlight ten biographies and informational texts featuring influential Black American women. These uniquely American stories will inspire your students to achieve excellence while strengthening their reading comprehension skills.

Marley Dias: The 13-Year-Old Author Who Made a Difference” by Barrett Smith (6th Grade)

Reading about characters who reflect students’ experience is essential to spark engagement with texts. When thirteen-year-old Marley Dias did not see herself reflected in books in her classroom, she was inspired to make a change. Dias started her own organization, #1000blackgirlbooks, which distributes books about Black girls to schools across the United States.

Students will be inspired by this young author and activist. Encourage students to make text-to-self connections with Discussion Question 1, “Marley Dias didn't feel represented in the books that she read. Have you ever felt like you couldn't relate to the main characters of books? Why or why not? What type of protagonists would you like to see in books?” We also have a Target Lesson on this text which can be used for targeted reading intervention  on connecting ideas.

Simone Biles” by Marty Kaminsky (6th Grade)

Students may already be familiar with the achievements of Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, but may not know about the perseverance it took for her to reach greatness at such a young age. This biography highlights Biles’ achievements and discusses the challenges she overcame throughout her early life.

After reading, ask students to discuss how success is achieved with Discussion Question 1, “Simone Biles has won various gold medals at the All-Around World Championships and the 2016 Summer Olympics. What do you think contributed to her success? What traits do you think are the most important to success?”

Who is Katherine Johnson?” by NASA (7th Grade)

Katherine Johnson was a Black mathematician whose work at NASA helped put some of the first Americans in orbit.  At NASA, Katherine was soon recognized for her brilliant calculations and as a leader in the field of aerospace engineering.

Consider pairing this text with “The Legacy of Charles R. Drew” in the Paired Texts tab. Charles R. Drew was a Black doctor who made incredible contributions to the field of medicine despite the discrimination he faced. After reading both texts, ask students to discuss the challenges that faced both Johnson and Drew as they strove to accomplish their goals.

Rosa Parks: Beyond the Bus” by Barrett Smith (7th Grade)

Few people know the extent and impact of Rosa Parks’ lifelong work as a famous  civil rights activist. In this informational text, Smith explores Parks’ achievements and questions the narrative we are so often told. Instead, Smith shows that Parks was a strong, vocal woman who dedicated her life to creating change and advocating for peace.

After reading, students can discuss how Parks was able to create lasting and widespread change. We also have a Target Lesson on this text which can be used as an ELA intervention strategy to help students analyze the author’s point of view.

The Women of Hidden Figures” by Jessica McBirney (8th Grade)

Students may have seen the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three Black women NASA mathematicians who overcame sexism and racism in the 1960s. But who were these women, exactly? This text describes the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, whose talents and skills helped them break barriers at NASA.

After students read, watch the “Hidden Figures Trailer” under Related Media. Ask students to discuss how the information provided in the text compares to the video. What obstacles do these three Black women scientists face in the trailer?

Teen girls organized Nashville’s largest protest. They joined a long history of black women activists” by Lena Felton (8th Grade)

After the murder of George Floyd, large scale protests formed across the United States. While many of these protests were organized by civil action groups, a protest in Nashville was organized by six teenagers through social media. This protest became the largest demonstration in Nashville's history.

Women have been central in leading demonstrations to advance their causes throughout United States history. Pair this text with “The Story of Ida B. Wells” to further build students’ knowledge about this lineage!

The Story of Ida B. Wells” by Shannon Moreau (8th Grade)

Ida B. Wells used the power of her written words to raise national awareness about violence and discrimination against African Americans. Wells faced personal tragedy when a good friend was lynched in Memphis. She dedicated the rest of her life to raising awareness about crimes against Black Americans.

This text can be used to start a meaningful discussion about how students can use their voices to stand up against injustice.

Meet the Fearless Cook Who Secretly Fed - And Funded - The Civil Rights Movement” by Maria Godoy (9th grade)

Students may be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, they may not know the story of Georgia Gilmore, the woman who helped these protestors. In this informational text, students will learn about the life and impact of Gilmore, the Montgomery cook, midwife, and activist who fed and funded the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Gilmore’s lasting legacy has inspired many contemporary chefs and activists. Show students “American Freedom Stories: Martha Hawkins – Georgia Gilmore’s Club From Nowhere” under the Related Media tab to provide them with one cook’s story about how she was inspired by Gilmore. After watching, ask students to discuss how Gilmore’s actions continue to impact people today.

A Child of Slavery Who Taught a Generation” by Karen Grigsby Bates (9th Grade)

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D., knew that education is the gateway to success. Cooper is best known for her work as principal of the first public high school for Black students in Washington, D.C. Cooper advocated for classic literature, foreign languages, and advanced mathematics to be taught at the school so that it rivaled the private, all-white D.C. schools in academic rigor.

After students read, have them compare and contrast teaching vocational skills versus college preparation in high school. Ask them Discussion Question 3, “In the context of this article, what is the goal of education?”

Shirley Chisholm’s Presidential Announcement Speech Transcript” by Shirley Chisholm (12th Grade)

Representative Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black woman to run for president as a Democrat in 1972. In this transcript of her candidacy announcement, Chisholm outlines the kind of America she intends to lead, which is one that is united towards change instead of divided by politics. She impresses the necessity of women, specifically Black women and women of color, to run for political office as part of this goal.

After reading, watch the Related Media video “Women In Politics Remember Shirley Chisholm.” In it, many Black female politicians discuss Chisholm’s slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.” Encourage students to make connections between this slogan and the main ideas of her candidacy speech.

Next Steps

Looking to explore more great instructional resources to celebrate Black American women this Women’s History Month and throughout the year?

Check out our Women’s Rights and Black Heritage text sets and our upcoming webinars!