Mae Jemison

What: First African-American female astronaut

As a young girl, Jemison dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. She also dreamed of going into space. In 1987, she applied to the NASA training program. When she flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavor’s 1992 mission, Jemison took along a poster of the Alvin Ailey dance company. She even “danced” in space. (You can read about this and Jemison’s other adventures in space, as well as her tips for young people on achieving their own dream, on, or visit for resources on space exploration.) Ask students what one item they’d want to take with them if they ever went into space. Have them write an essay describing the item and its special meaning to them. Display the essays on a bulletin board decorated like a space shuttle, or upload them to a class website.

Jackie Robinson

What: First African-American to play Major League Baseball

Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, has written several books about her famous father, the first player to break baseball’s color barrier. These and other firsthand accounts bring history alive for students, so begin by reading aloud one of Sharon Robinson’s books, such as Testing the Ice. Discuss what a primary resource is and its value in researching a topic. Tell students that everyone has a story, and invite them to interview a family member, neighbor, or friend who has overcome some kind of prejudice (racism, ageism, sexism). They can document this with pen and paper, a video recorder, or a voice recorder. Then, ask them to write a story or put together a video presentation to share.

Shirley Chisholm

What: First African-American woman to be elected to Congress

In 1968, Chisholm became the first African-American congresswoman, representing New York’s 12th district until 1983. (She later became the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.) A big part of campaigning is delivering compelling speeches. Discuss how speechwriters rely on things like word choice and sentence structure—note that long, complicated sentences can lose listeners. Next, challenge students to write their own campaign speeches, addressing why they should be the class representative. Remind them to focus on who their audience is. Direct them to websites that offer advice on speechwriting, including Scholastic’s, and discuss the recommendations. After students have practiced and revised their speeches, let the campaigning begin.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

What: First African-American appointed U.S. Air Force general

As the first African-American general, Davis led the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. According to reports, while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Davis encountered much racial prejudice. His classmates didn’t speak or eat with him in the hope that Davis would withdraw from school. Explain to your class that the students’ actions only made Davis more determined to stick it out. Ask students if they can think of anyone who’s been discouraged from trying something or who has been discriminated against. (For example, Temple Grandin was told she couldn’t go to college because she has autism. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, who is five-foot-three, was told he couldn’t play professional basketball. They both prevailed!) Have students research the person extensively. Then, invite students to come to school dressed as their subject, introduce themselves, and interact with others while remaining in character.

Matthew Henson

What: First explorer to reach the North Pole (probably!)

In 1909, Henson traveled with Robert Peary’s expedition to be the first explorers to reach the North Pole. A seasoned explorer, Henson was familiar with the land and the native language and often walked ahead to scout out the best paths. Because of this, chances are high that he was the first non-Inuit to reach the North Pole. Because of the racial prejudice of the time, though, Henson did not receive credit. Explorers often kept logbooks of their journeys. After reading about the race to the North Pole and other anecdotal accounts in books and online, students can create their own day-by-day imaginary account of a trip to the North Pole. Some great resources to check out: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, by Jennifer Armstrong; The North Pole, by Peary himself; and “Who Discovered the North Pole?” by Bruce Henderson, in Smithsonian magazine.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas

What: First African-American to win a gold medal in women’s all-around gymnastics

When she was 14, Douglas left her family and friends in Virginia to train for the Olympics in Iowa. Even though she knew this is what she needed to do to fulfill her dreams, being away from her home and family was hard for her. Invite students to pick an Olympian they admire, American or otherwise. After they’ve read a biography of their chosen athlete, challenge students to imagine themselves as that person—and that they must leave home to train. Have them write a letter home, sharing the ups and downs of training and talking about the new foods, weather, people, or culture they are experiencing.


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