These engaging and diverse biographies for elementary students, all featured on CommonLit’s digital literary platform, share the inspiring stories of Black Americans across history, sports, and more. Reading about these empowering leaders and innovators will surely spark reading engagement from elementary students, launch deep classroom discussions, and support reading comprehension practice. These biographies are great to use as Black History Month lesson plans and throughout the school year!
“Claudette Colvin” by Briannica Kids (3rd Grade)
This biography from Brittanica Kids shares the moving story of Claudette Colvin, an African American teenager who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white person. Students may be surprised to learn Claudette’s actions came before those of Rosa Parks and will have ample opportunity to discuss why Parks is often remembered before Colvin.
After reading, ask students to discuss why Colvin may not have gotten the same credit as Rosa Parks within history with Discussion Question 1, “Why do some people’s stories get told, while others do not? What do you think it takes to become famous or remembered in history? Do you think there are other people we should learn about that we do not talk about a lot? What should we do to tell these people’s stories?”
“Guion Bluford” by Linda Barr (3rd Grade)
This biography by Linda Barr shares details of Guion Bluford’s life and inspiring career as the first Black astronaut.
After reading this text, invite students to think about their own futures with Discussion Question 3, “Guion Bluford was interested in flying from an early age. What is something that you are interested in? How could you turn that interest into something where you feel like your ‘hobby is going to work,’ as Bluford says in paragraph 21?”
“Dancing Towards Dreams” by Sara Matson (4th grade)
This informational article shares the journey of contemporary ballet dancer Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to hold the highest-ranking ballet position at the American Ballet Theater.
Once students finish this text, invite them to explore the Paired Text “Fastest Woman in the World” by Pat Parker. This additional informational text discusses Wilma Rudolph’s journey to becoming a gold medalist in the 1960 Olympics. Ask students to discuss how both women excelled as athletes, what sets them apart, and how both have created positive changes in sports.
Want more content featuring contemporary figures? Check out the interview “A Way with Words.” In this text, former First Lady Michelle Obama interviews poet Amanda Gorman.
“Benjamin Banneker and His Amazing Clock” by Linda Trice (4th grade)
Linda Trice explores the life and accomplishments of Benjamin Banneker, a famous Black scientist whose accomplishments included creating a clock and almanac.
Pair this text with the Related Media video “The Exceptional Life of Benjamin Banneker.” As students watch the video, have them jot down the additional details they learn about Banneker’s activism fighting for equal rights. Ask students how this information deepens their understanding of his life and accomplishments.
“Katherine Johnson” by Brittanica Kids (4th grade)
From Britannica Kids, this biography details the life and accomplishments of mathematician and scientist Katherine Johnson. Students may have some background knowledge regarding Katherine Johnson if they have seen the film Hidden Figures.
After reading this biography, show students the Related Media video “Daughters of NASA Trailblazer Katherine Johnson Remember Her Legacy.” Ask students to share what they learned from this interview and how what they learned adds to their understanding of Katherine Johnson’s “remarkable journey.”
“Ruby Bridges” by Kio Herrera (5th grade)
In this informational text, Herrera discusses Ruby Bridges’s experience integrating a school as a six-year-old and how she became a symbol for the fight for civil rights in America.
After reading this biography, have students read the Paired Text, “We Will Walk” by Sarah Kovatch. This piece of historical fiction focuses on a young girl, Sadie, during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Ask students “How are Ruby’s and Sadie’s actions similar and different? What would Ruby say about Sadie’s point of view on the boycott? How did both Sadie’s and Ruby’s actions lead to change in their communities?”
“The History of Michael Jordan for Kids” by Breck LeSuer (5th grade)
In this text, LeSuer teaches about the life and achievements of famous basketball player, Michael Jordan.
After reading this text, have students reflect on Discussion Question 2, “Michael Jordan believes failure is a part of success. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?” This Discussion Question would also serve as a great morning meeting or journal activity for students, especially for a lesson focused on perseverance!
“Justice for All” by Lynn Rymarz (5th grade)
This informational text discusses an incident in which journalist and activist Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a train when asked to do so because of the color of her skin.
After reading this biography on Ida B. Wells, have students read the Paired Text poem “The Many and the Few” by J. Patrick Lewis. Use the following prompts to help students dive into some cross-textual analysis: “Ask students to discuss how Ida B. Wells’s actions compared to Rosa Parks’? How is Wells one of the ‘Few’ who changed the lives of the ‘Many,’ in terms of J. Patrick Lewis’ poem?”
“Voice for Freedom” by Jodie Shull (5th grade)
This biography by Jodie Shull discusses the life and accomplishments of James Weldon Johnson, a Black American writer and civil rights activist.
After reading this inspiring text, invite students to share their thoughts on Discussion Question 4, “After college, James Weldon Johnson returns home to Jacksonville, but finds that it has changed. Have you ever left a place and then returned later? Was it the same when you returned? If it was the same, how did that make you feel? If it was different, how did you react?” Students may benefit from journaling independently before sharing full-class.