African American Lives
Analyzing the Evidence
The Science and the Investigators
Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Sharing Stories
For Educators
About the Series

For Educators
Intro Lesson Plan 1 Lesson Plan 2 Lesson Plan 3
  by Ashlinn Quinn
  • Overview
  • Procedures for Teachers

    Research into the family histories of the nine prominent African Americans, featured in the PBS series AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES revealed many connections between the lives of family members and major events in U.S. and world history. By connecting periods of history to the experiences close to us, the stories and recollections of family and community bring "home" the study of history, highlighting the relevance of historical events and developments to the experience of daily life.

    In this lesson, students will develop an understanding of how individual experiences are shaped by larger events and trends in history. Using their own life histories as an introduction to the study of timelines, students will first chart major dates and events in their lives. They will then proceed to use segments of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES to discover how specific events and trends in history were experienced by the PBS series' featured guests and their families. They will also use web resources to research the experiences of African Americans during different periods of history. As a culminating activity, students will conduct research into their own family and community history, learning how the experiences of relatives and neighbors connect to local, national, and world events.

    This lesson can be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, or as an independent lesson for the social studies/history classroom.

    Grade Level: 6-8

    Time Allotment: Three 45-minute class sessions (excluding out-of-class time for the Culminating Activity)

    Subject Matter: Social Studies/History; Language Arts


    Students will be able to:

  • Create a chronologically accurate timeline

  • Understand that political, scientific, cultural, and technological developments affect the experience of everyday life

  • Recognize key periods in African American history

  • Arrange and conduct an oral history interview with an older relative or friend

  • Summarize and report information learned from an oral history interview


    From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12, available online at

    STANDARD 1: The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to :

  • Interpret data presented in timelines by designating appropriate equidistant intervals of time and recording events according to the temporal order in which they occurred

  • Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration in which historical developments have unfolded, and apply them to explain historical continuity and change.

    STANDARD 3: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to:

  • Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.

  • Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.

  • Hypothesize the influence of the past, including both the limitations and opportunities made possible by past decisions.

    STANDARD 4: The student conducts historical research. Therefore, the student is able to:

  • Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

  • Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.

  • Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.


    From the National Council of Teachers of English K-12 Standards for English Language Arts, available online at:

  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

  • Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.



    AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, Episode One, "Listening to Our Past"

    Click here to purchase a copy of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES at PBS Shop for Teachers.


    For the class:

    TV and VCR

    Blackboard or whiteboard

    For each group of 2-3 students:

    Computer with internet access

    For each student:

  • Pencil and paper

  • "My Life, My History" worksheet (download here)

  • "Historical Memories" worksheet (download here)

  • "Interview Tips" worksheet (download here)


    Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites (listed at the end of the lesson) and video clips used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. Make enough copies of each of the worksheets for the students in your class.

    CUE the tape of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, Episode One to the point where Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says "So, my friend, Bishop T.D. Jakes, this is your family tree" and a picture of the Jakes family tree appears on the screen.

    When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

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