Black History Month Picture Book Lesson Ideas

Black History Month is a time to learn about African Americans who made a difference in our country. In 1915, the history books excluded the accomplishments of African Americans. Carter G. Woodson set out to change that. First, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Then, he launched The Journal of Negro History. Later, in 1926, Woodson established Negro History Week. The week turned into a month, and is now recognized as Black History Month.

Today, we can turn to compelling picture books to learn about Black history. Below are some lesson ideas inspired by children’s literature.

Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch

Saving American Beach begins in the segregated south. Laws prevented Black people from swimming where they wanted. Abraham Lincoln Lewis wanted to change this for his family and community. He purchased beachfront property in Florida and called it American Beach. Lewis opened the beach to everyone.

MaVynee Betsch, Lewis’s granddaughter, loved American Beach. She enjoyed spending her childhood there. As an adult, her job took her away from the beach. It was a long time before Betsch returned to her childhood vacation spot.

Betsch was sad to see how American Beach changed while she was away. Buildings fell apart. Garbage filled the beach. Developers were ready to take over.

It was time for Betsch to take action. She quit her job and gave away her fortune to save the beach. Betsch talked to everyone she met. She shared the history of American Beach and petitioned to save the property. Her relentless work paid off. The beach is now part of the National Park Service and the Florida Black Heritage Trail. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lesson Activities

Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch inspires inquiry. Learners will have lots of questions about the content. Author Heidi Tyline King created an educator guide full of activities. Page 20 has ideas for Black History Month. For another lesson activity, visit my blog Library Lessons With Books.

About the Author

Click here to watch King read her book. Learn what inspired her to write the biography.

About the Illustrator

Readers will love the evocative illustrations by Ekua Holmes. Learn about Holmes before reading American Beach. Watch “Open Studio: Discover The Studio of Artist Ekua Holmes” on the GBH YouTube channel (1:04). Ekua speaks to an adult audience in the video, but you can highlight sections for young learners.

Pies From Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a mass protest against segregation. For 13 months, African Americans refused to ride on segregated buses. This protest was not easy. The movement needed support.

Georgia Gilmore wanted to help. Pies From Nowhere, by Dee Romito and Laura Freeman, tells Gilmore’s story. Gilmore was a talented cook. She started selling her food to raise money. She recruited friends to help. Some were afraid they would lose their jobs if their employers discovered what they were doing. Gilmore found a way to keep their identities a secret. When asked where the money came from, she said, “It came from nowhere.”

Pies From Nowhere demonstrates to readers that there are many ways to make a difference. It starts with joining a cause you believe in and thinking about what you are good at doing. Visit my blog, Library Lessons With Books, to find a lesson idea about contributing to a cause. Included in the post is a recording from NPR about Gilmore.

Click here for an educator’s guide for Pies From Nowhere from Little Bee Books.

Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood shares the work of Tony Hillery. While volunteering at PS 175 in Brooklyn, Hillery noticed a problem. School lunches were full of processed food. Hillery understood that circumstances and location made fresh produce hard to access. He thought a school garden could make a difference.

Nobody knew the first thing about gardening. School children worked together through trial and error to cultivate a healthy space. The garden produced food to feed the children. As an added bonus, behavior issues declined in the lunchroom.

Before Reading

Ask learners what they already know about urban gardening. Invite learners to consider what it takes to grow a garden in a city. Ask why a city dweller would want a garden. After reading the story, record lingering questions about urban gardening. Watch “The Urban Gardening Club” to see a fun cartoon from PBS Kids. Invite learners to brainstorm gardening ideas for your school or library space.

Visit illustrator Jessie Hartland’s website to learn more about her work.

Little Leaders and Little Legends

Little Leaders and Little Legends by Vashti Harrison follow the same book format. Two pages feature one remarkable African American that shaped American history. One page presents an illustration, while the other holds biographical information. Both books are small with pages full of text. Pick a few biographies to read with learners using a document camera.

This year’s theme for Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness. Discuss the theme with learners. Read the biographies of the medical professionals found in each book.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

  • Rebecca Lee Crumpler-Physician
  • Alice Ball-Chemist, Medical Researcher
  • Dr. Mae Jemison-Engineer, Physician, Astronaut
  • Mary Eliza Mahoney-Nurse

Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History

  • Harold Moody-Doctor, Preacher, Lobbyist for Social Reform
  • Charles R. Drew-Surgeon

Show the “More Little Leaders” and “More Little Legends” pages at the end of the books. Read the taglines under the illustrations of the Black men and women. Invite readers to research one of the mentioned historical figures. Show learners how to draw the person they want to research. Follow Vashti’s example at the end of the Little Legends book.

Picture Book Pairings on Knowledge Quest

Knowledge Quest blogger and author Tom Bober pairs picture books with primary sources. He writes detailed lessons with tips and background information. Bober’s lessons inspire learners to ask thoughtful questions and use critical thinking skills to synthesize information. To find books and lessons about Black history, read Tom Bober’s Knowledge Quest posts. Here, you’ll find lessons about the first Black woman in Congress and the Tulsa Race Massacre.

How are you recognizing Black History Month with picture books? Please share in the comment section.


Author: Maureen Schlosser

Author: Lessons Inspired by Picture Books for Primary Grades and Social and Emotional Learning for Picture Book Readers published by ALA Editions
Skillshare Teacher:

Categories: Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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