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


    1) Ask your students if they can tell you what a "timeline" is. What kind of information is given in a timeline, and how is a timeline organized? (Guide your students to understand that a timeline is a chart listing important events in history, organized in the order in which the events occurred in time).

    2) Ask your students if it would be possible to make a timeline that depicted the important events of their own lives so far. (Yes). Ask them what kinds of events might be listed in such a timeline (remind the students that these events should be markers of important beginnings, endings, or landmark changes in their own lives). Make a list of suggestions on the board. Some examples might include:

  • Student's birth

  • Births of siblings

  • Change of residence (moving house)

  • Starting school, or changing schools

  • People joining or leaving the household

  • Starting a new hobby, sport, or instrument

  • Acquiring a new skill

  • Joining a club or organization

  • Parents' or guardians' changing jobs

  • Etc.

    3) Distribute the "My Life, my History" worksheet to each student. Demonstrate how the students should begin constructing their timeline, by recording the year of their birth on the left-hand side of the timeline. In the box linked to the year, the students should write the month and day of their birth, and write "Born." The students may include the location of their birth as well. Direct the students to fill in the rest of the years on the timeline until they reach the present year. (If students are new to timelines, it may be helpful for you to construct a timeline of your own life on the board as an example.) Allow the students time to fill in important events from their lives to complete the timeline. Remind students that they do not need to have an important event for each year; and that for some years they may want to list several important events. Assist students in completing their timelines.

    4) Once students have completed their timelines, remind them that these timelines consist of landmarks in the students' personal lives. Now, ask the students if they can recall any important historical events or developments that have happened during their lifetimes. If needed, remind students that historical events do not usually involve them personally, but are important to the community, the country, or the world. Depending on the student knowledge, you may have them suggest historical events, or provide them with a list. Here are some sample national and world events for the past 15 years (it may be useful to make a timeline on the board documenting recent historical events):

  • 1989 (January) George H.W. Bush inaugurated as U.S. president

  • 1991 (January-April) Persian Gulf War

  • 1991 (December) Breakup of the Soviet Union, end of the Cold War

  • 1992 (April) Rodney King riots in Los Angeles

  • 1993 Birth of internet browsers and the "World Wide Web"

  • 1993 (January) Bill Clinton inaugurated as U.S. president

  • 1998 Internet search engine "Google" is launched

  • 1999 (April) School shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado

  • 2001 (January) George W. Bush inaugurated as U.S. president

  • 2001 (September) Hijacked jets fly into the World Trade Center

  • 2001 (November) Apple releases the iPod

  • 2003 (March) Start of Iraq war

  • 2004 (January) NASA Rover "Spirit" lands on Mars

  • 2004 (December) South Asian Tsunami

  • 2005 (August) Hurricane Katrina makes landfall in Mississippi and Louisiana

    5) Ask the students to think of which of these historical events they personally remember. Ask the students if they can think of any ways that these historical events influenced their personal lives. (Student answers may vary, accept all answers. If students are having trouble thinking of ways their lives were influenced by historical events, you might want to remind them that there are many ways in which their experiences may have reflected the history that took place during their lifetimes. For example, they might make use of the World Wide Web to search for information at school and at home; they may remember public discussion of the American electoral system in the wake of the close presidential election of 2000; they may know somebody who was deployed in the Iraq war, have gone to a protest or organized supplies to support the troops; or their school may have held a food or clothing drive for hurricane or tsunami victims). Allow students time to reflect on the connections between these historic events and their experiences. You may wish to make a list on the board of the connections students create.

    6) After the students have reflected on how the events and developments in their own lifetimes have influenced their experiences, ask them if they think that local, national and world events would have had an effect on earlier generations as well. Would their parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' life experiences be the same as the students' own? (Accept all answers, but guide students to understand that every person's life is influenced by what is going on around him or her in the community, nation, and world). Tell the students that they will now watch a clip showing someone thinking back on how his father's life was affected by trends and developments happening around him.

    7) CUE the videotape 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. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask them "Why did many African Americans move out of the Southern states in the early 20th century?" PLAY the video. PAUSE the video after the discussion of the Great Migration, when the narrator states "They were also escaping the segregation, racism, and violence that defined black life in the South." Review student responses to the focus question (Answers: Many African Americans moved out of Southern states because of the lure of jobs in the newly industrialized north. African Americans also experienced racism in the South and hoped to escape racism, segregation, and violence by moving northward. This movement of African Americans in the early 20th century was the largest population shift in American history, and is known as "The Great Migration.") If necessary, REWIND and REPLAY the video segment to reinforce comprehension.

    8) Explain to the students that before moving to the North during the Great Migration, most African Americans did not live in cities. Instead, they lived in rural areas of the South. Ask the students if they can think of the kinds of jobs African Americans might have had in these rural areas? (Student answers may vary, but guide them to understand that, at the time, most African Americans in the South worked in the agricultural sector farming the land and assisting in farm households). Tell the students that most of the African Americans who left the South during the Great Migration moved to cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. Ask the students if many people who live in cities work as farmers? (No, most farmers do not live in cities). Ask the students how they think the farmers' lives might have been different once they moved to these cities? (Student answers will vary, accept all answers).

    9) Tell the students that they will now see an example of what life was like for an African American family who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. This experience comes from the family history of music producer Quincy Jones. FAST FORWARD the videotape to the segment discussing Quincy Jones' mother's move to Chicago. This segment begins when a black and white portrait of Quincy's mother, Sarah Frances Wells, is shown on the screen, and the narrator states "Quincy's mother started life on the run." Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask them "What was life like for African Americans in Chicago in the 1930s?" PLAY the video. STOP the video when the narrator says "strangers in a most strange land." Review the focus question with the students. Ask the students what they learned about housing conditions, living conditions, and safety in 1930s Chicago. (Answers: African Americans lived in high-rise buildings on the south side of Chicago, in the biggest black ghetto that existed in America at the time. There were many gangs and a lot of violence and crime. The city was segregated, and it was rare to see white people in black neighborhoods.)

    10) Ask your students to compare the experience of moving from one place to another during the Great Migration to doing the same thing today. Would the experience of moving be the same today as it was during the early twentieth century? Why or why not? (Student answers will vary).


    1) Explain to your students that the conditions of segregation that were featured in the video clip they just saw were typical of a period of American history when laws existed to segregate black Americans from other Americans. The laws were known as "Jim Crow" laws after a popular 19th-century minstrel song that stereotyped African Americans, and the period itself is known as the "Jim Crow Era."

    2) Tell your students that they will now be using Web resources to examine how the historical conditions of three different periods in United States history influenced the experiences of people who lived at the time. In this activity they will be focusing on three periods that were characterized by markedly different conditions for Americans of African descent: the period of slavery; the Jim Crow Era; and the Civil Rights Era.

    3) Write "Slavery," "Jim Crow Era," and "Civil Rights Era" in a list on the board. Draw a blank timeline on the board and ask your students to help you place these three historical periods on the timeline in the correct chronological order. If needed, review a few main points of each era with the students to help them determine the correct order (for example, you could explain that during slavery, African Americans were considered the property of their masters; during the Jim Crow Era African Americans were free, but laws upheld the segregation of facilities for whites from those for blacks; and that during the Civil Rights Era segregation laws were struck down and blacks and whites started using the same facilities). Add "Slavery," "Jim Crow Era," and "Civil Rights Era" to the timeline and then have the students assist you with associating dates with each period (Slavery persisted in America from approx. 1619 to 1865; the Jim Crow Era dates from the 1870s to 1950s; and the Civil Rights Era from the 1950s to the 1970s).

    4) Divide the students into groups of two or three and direct each group to a computer. Distribute a "Historical Memories" worksheet to each group. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to use the worksheet to determine what the conditions of daily life were like for the people featured in the narratives. Direct the groups to visit the following three websites containing personal narratives given by African-Americans who lived in different periods of U.S. history:

    a) Slavery and the Making of America's "Slave Memories" at site contains text as well as audio files - the audio enhances the interactivity of the Web feature, but if you feel that the sound will be disruptive in the classroom setting, you may want to mute the student computers before beginning the exercise);

    b) The History of Jim Crow's "Eyewitness to Jim Crow: Edith Veitch Ferris Remembers" at; and

    c) African American World's "History: My Story" at

    5) Allow your students time to examine all three Web sites. When they have finished examining the Web sites, ask them to report back to the class what they learned about the experiences of the African Americans featured in the narratives. Ask your students what surprised them about the different narratives. How do the different experiences reported in the narratives compare to life today? The worksheets may be collected for assessment.


    1) By now, the students have learned how local, national, and world events influenced the experiences of African Americans living in different periods in U.S. history. To relate the study of history to their own lives, the students will now interview family and/or community members to explore how the historical, cultural, and technological developments of the last century have affected their experiences. Depending on the students' readiness, you may choose to have them work individually or in groups of two or three to arrange, conduct, and interpret the interviews.

    2) Tell the students that they will be conducting interviews with older relatives and friends to find out how local, national, and world history influenced the life experiences of people in their community. Arrange students into their interview groups. Explain that each group will choose an interviewee. Since older people have experienced more history than younger people have, they should ideally try to find a relative or friend who is over 60 years of age to interview (though younger adults can be interview subjects if no older adults are available). The interviewees should also live locally and be known to the students. Ask the students to think of people they might be interested in interviewing and to bring the names of potential interviewees to your next class meeting (the students may want to consult family members for ideas). Assist the students in making their choice of a potential interviewee.

    3) Distribute the "Interview Tips" worksheet to each student. Review the worksheet as a class to strengthen students' interviewing skills.

    4) Assist students as they prepare for their interviews: set deadlines for the project; have the students check in periodically to see where they are in the interview process; and facilitate practice interviews in the classroom. The History Channel's Guidelines for Oral History Interviews, available at, has additional tips and worksheets that may be useful for your students.

    5) To help students create questions for their interview, you may want to direct them to print and online history resources. Several useful websites with interactive timelines are provided at the end of this lesson. You may also want to provide some sample questions for younger students. Sample interview questions include:

  • What was school like when you were growing up?

  • What is most different about the way people live now, compared with when you were young?

  • What historical events that happened in your lifetime were most memorable to you? How did they affect you?

  • Do you remember when [insert event] occurred? How old were you and what were you doing when that happened?

  • What kinds of political issues do you remember being important in the [insert decade]?

  • What challenges did you face during your lifetime?

    6) After the students have completed their interviews, ask the class to complete a culminating assessment activity that sums up what they learned from their interviews. You may choose to have the class contribute to one project, assign different projects to different groups, or let the groups decide which kind of culminating project they will complete. Here are some sample culminating projects:

  • A class book of essays addressing how the life of each interviewee was influenced by historical developments in their lifetimes.

  • A banner-sized timeline of the twentieth century that includes major historical events discussed in the interviews. Fanning out from the timeline are narratives written by students about how the event or development was experienced by an interviewee.

  • A biographical and historical play in which the students act out scenes from the interviewees' lives.

  • A series of songs, poems, or drawings that document the changing historical circumstances of life in the twentieth century, as experienced by the interviewees.

  • Comparative essays that address how different themes -- school, technology, housing, politics -- were experienced by the interviewees versus the students themselves.



    Ask your students to imagine what their own lives might have been like if they lived during the period of slavery, in the Jim Crow Era, or in the Civil Rights Era. Ask students write a fictionalized narrative of a day in their life during one of these periods.


    Instruct the students to take photographs of their interview subjects. Using photographs, quotations from each interview, and art materials, make a collage of the experience of history as told by the various individuals.


  • Invite a representative from a local historical society or museum to your class to discuss the institution's oral history collections.
  • Prepare a book of the students' oral history work to leave in the school library for future generations.
  • Have the students create year-by-year family scrapbooks that include family and world events.
  • Visit a senior center or retirement home with your class to develop partnerships between your students and local seniors.



    This interactive feature contains actual audio recordings of former slaves recalling their lives under slavery. Text is also given to chronicle some of the conditions mentioned by the former slaves (this site contains text as well as audio files - the audio enhances the interactivity of the Web feature, but if you feel that the sound will be disruptive in the classroom setting, you may want to mute the student computers before beginning the exercise). This site requires the Flash plug-in, available for free download at

    THE HISTORY OF JIM CROW: "Eyewitness to Jim Crow: Edith Veitch Ferris Remembers"

    A white woman recalls her memories of Jim Crow in the American South in this first-hand narrative.

    AFRICAN AMERICAN WORLD: "History: My Story"

    Six-year-old Ruby Bridges Hall became the first black child to desegregate an elementary school, in 1960. Her experiences during that year are recalled in this narrative.

    History Channel's Guidelines for Oral History Interviews

    The basics of conducting an oral history interview are covered in this workbook for students, including checklists and worksheets for student use. Event Index

    Important events in science, politics, and culture are organized by decade in this interactive timeline.


    Starting from a broad outline of themes and trends in history over the twentieth century, this timeline allows the user to "zoom in" on each theme, providing specific dates and events related to trends in history.

    Find more teaching aids at PBS TeacherSource.


    Ashlinn Quinn is a lesson plan writer for AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES. She holds a Master's degree in Anthropology, and has been involved in producing educational content for museums, arts organizations, and educational media since 1997. She joined Thirteen in 2005 as an Outreach Producer in the LAB@Thirteen, the station's Educational and Community Outreach department.

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