Black History Month Research Project - scaffolded to help 3rd grade and 4th grade students write a successful essay, complete a timeline, and fill in a map.

A Black History Month Research Project

Every year in February, I would do a Black History Month Research Project with my 3rd grade students. It was one of my favorite projects of the year – and one of my students’ favorite projects as well!

Black History Month Research Project - scaffolded to help 3rd grade and 4th grade students write a successful essay, complete a timeline, and fill in a map.

For this project, students would research a famous African American. Using the information from their research, my 3rd graders would write an essay about their famous person, create a timeline of their life, and fill in a map that showed where important events in their person’s life had taken place.

This was a very comprehensive project that took most of February to complete, but my students remained engaged and were always very proud of the outcome.

The entire process I followed to complete this Black History Month Research Project is below.

Choosing a Person to Research

In January, I would ask my librarian for enough African American biographies for each student in my class. I was lucky enough to have an amazing librarian that did a great job picking out a huge range of African American biographies on a level that my students could read.

Originally I just had students choose a famous African American that they wanted to learn about, but I found that the majority of my students would focus on the same people – Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barak Obama.

In order to get my students interested in OTHER famous African Americans, I would give them a chance to do a quick “book tour.” With pencil and paper in hand, I had my students come sit “class meeting style” (in a circle) on our rug. Then, I passed out one of the books to each of my students.

The students had 45 seconds to look at the book in their hand. They could read or just flip through and look at the pictures. After 45 seconds, if they thought they might be interested in studying that person, I asked them to write that person’s name down on their notebook paper. If they weren’t interested, they didn’t have to write anything. Then, everybody would pass their book clockwise. Everybody would get a new book, and the process would repeat again. And again. And again. Until every student got a chance to look through every book.

Each student was required to write down at least 5 names. After finishing, I would look through everybody’s choices and assign each student their famous African American and give them their book to use as research for their Black History Month Research Project.

This process accomplished 3 things:
1. Every student felt like they had a say in the person they would research, making them much more excited to complete the project.
2. Students were introduced to other famous African Americans that they weren’t familiar with before.
3. I could choose a book that was suitable for my students’ reading levels so they wouldn’t get frustrated when doing the research (or get a book way too easy for them).

Black History Month Biographies for Kids

Finding biographies that are kid-friendly can sometimes be a challenge. My librarian did most of the hard work for me, but if you're not as lucky, here are some authors that have written several different biographies on famous African Americans in a more kid-friendly way. Click the books below (affiliate links) to get more details about the books or to buy.

You can also find some of my favorite black history month biography read-alouds here.  

David Adler

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack

Jon M Fishman

Completing the Project

The first year I did this project, I learned a lot. Like how my students had NO idea how to research a topic. And how my students thought it was ok to just copy paragraphs from their book. And how my students didn’t know how to organize a research paper. And how my students hated writing and would do the bare minimum required. And how my students didn’t know how to create a timeline. And how my students couldn’t identify the majority of the US states on the map.

Like I said, I learned a lot.

We completed the project, but it took a LOT of time and a LOT of individual attention with my students.

The next year, I had a much better, thought-out plan to help my students be able to successfully complete this project more independently.

First of all, I modeled the entire project to my students, using Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example (so none of my students could choose him to research). Then, I created a research page to help my students organize their research and know exactly what to look for. Finally, I created scaffolding to help them organize their writing. (This is similar to the scaffolding I use when having students write a compare and contrast essay.)

The difference these changes made was absolutely astonishing. Although I still provided support as needed, my students were able to finish this project much more independently – and they did a great job, too!

If you think this scaffolding would be beneficial to your students as well, then you might like my Black History Month Research Project – Essay, Map, and Timeline Resource.   It includes everything I used to help my students be successful – even a model using Martin Luther King, Jr. so you can show students what is expected of them!

The teachers that have joined my membership have access to this resource anytime they want it. Feel free to check out my Members Area to see what all is included.

Presenting the Project

I have experimented with several different ways for students to present their research. None of these are really better than the other – it just depends on how much extra class time you have for presentations.

Some years, I had limited class time to spend on these. So, I would simply have students turn in their essays, maps, and timelines.

Other years, we had extra time for students to create posters using their research material. I would hang these as a display outside, or have students present their posters to the class.

Other years, my entire 3rd grade team would complete a similar project, and we would have a Living Wax Museum, which is a lot of fun. We would invite parents and other grade levels, and everybody loved it! The Teacher Next Door has a great blog post explaining this event here.

This project is a great way to celebrate black history month and introduce students to some amazing people in history!

Never Stress Over Sub Plans Again!


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