Creating a Classroom Museum of Black History

Judy J. Harris

Letters written by the third graders to say goodbye to their preservice teacher were filled with references to the Black History Museum they had created under her direction. One student took three pages to list all of the things she had learned about Black history. Another student wrote: “I’ve enjoyed the last few months you’ve been here. And all the new games you’ve taught us. And I want to thank you for Black History. I’ve learned a lot about it and it brings me up to be so intelligent and so smart. My mom is so proud of me now and it’s all because of you.”

A Biographical Approach

For her field placement, Karen Baugh, a student at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, was assigned to Marge Nabzdykís third grade class at River Ridge Elementary School in Villa Hills, Kentucky. During their initial planning meeting, Marge and Karen realized that Karen would be teaching the class on her own during the month of February, which is Black History Month. A four-week unit of study on Black history was slated for that month, and Karen would have a chance to create the lesson plans and teach.

Marge directed Karen to the state-mandated learner expectations to use as the foundation for planning her lessons.1 As Karen thought about various approaches to teaching this unit, she decided that a personal perspective of history was essential. But how many biographies should be included? Could students have a rich historical perspective if they merely looked at two or three lives? Shouldnít the students have more examples, so as to gain a broader knowledge of Black Americans and their many contributions through a range of fields? Should the unit study be tightly focused or expanded?

Marge encouraged Karen to expand the study, affirming the importance of a broad historical perspective. The study would be organized around nine topics (See Table 1). Depth would be provided by biographies that Karen would write. These would be one-page biographies of twenty-six notable African Americans, exactly one per student. Karenís research led her to university and public libraries and Internet sites. Dr. Kris Yohe, a professor of Black History at Northern Kentucky University, directed Karen to especially useful websites (see Table 2).

As Karen wrote her summary biographies, she tailored the information to the studentsí learning abilities. Marge reviewed the work to insure the reading levels were appropriate.


A Museum Project

Karen thought that working on a concrete project as a class would help motivate the students and reinforce the content they were learning. The idea of creating a classroom Black History Museum appealed to her. One wall of the classroom could be devoted to the display of images and ìartifactsî related to the twenty-six biographies that the students would be studying. Students could help collect and label images (copied from a book or printed from a website) and objects (from home) for display in the museum. Each student could then give a presentation about the person he or she was studying, using the items in the museum as helpful props.

The first lesson in the unit was about museums. Teacher and students discussed the concept of a museum and defined terminology such as curator, artifact, and exhibit. Students learned how curators went about their work, the challenge of creating interesting exhibits, and the need to interpret what was presented. Each student wore a ìJunior Curatorî name badge during the study and concluding presentations.

Karen distributed the biographies, and the students set to work reading and talking about their exhibits in their small groups. What were the important facts of each personís life as gleaned from the biographies? What inspired this person to achieve? What can we learn from studying about this person? How might the information be best shared? What could go into an exhibit about this person? How might the exhibit be organized and presented to the class?

Students worked on their public speaking skills in language arts lessons to be prepared for giving presentations by standing straight, maintaining eye contact, holding notes at waist level, and speaking with confidence. Listening skills were practiced. What do we need to do to receive and remember spoken information? How do we behave as a respectful audience?


Developing Essential Understanding

Work on the exhibitions was scheduled according to a timeline that fit with the nine topics of study. Karen presented the background about the struggles faced by each succeeding generation. Students heard about the Abolitionist Movement; the Civil War; the Emancipation Proclamation; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; Post-war Reconstruction in the South; the Harlem Renaissance; and the Civil Rights Movement.

When Karen had finished teaching about one period or topic, several students had a chance to teach the class about the historical figures who played significant roles. In their presentations, the students used pictures or objects they had acquired for the museum exhibits. They answered questions from other students, with Karen filling in any missing information.

A large marquee held each exhibit title and the names of the junior curators. The student presentations took on a serious and scholarly tone. Students used terms such as ìhead shotsî and ìtag linesî as they prepared the materials for the exhibits. Music from a CD player was used to introduce exhibits about musical contributions.


Assessing Learning

Marge challenged Karen to think ahead about assessment by asking, ìHow will you know what the students have learned? How will you measure their growth during this study? What documentation will you use or collect?î They discussed the range of options for assessment, realizing that the students could exhibit many different types of growth during this unit of study.

The teacher and preservice teacher developed multifaceted assessments to be given at the conclusion of the study. In small groups, the students assembled a Time Wheel with labels provided by Karen. These large poster board wheels were divided into time periods in which students placed labels with the names and accomplishments of the respective African Americans.

When the Time Wheel was completed, students moved to two learning centers within the classroom. The students matched each African American with an appropriate object or ìartifactî (Table 1) by providing answers on individual work sheets.

The final test was called ìShow What You Know.î Students created a time line by placing suggested dates under the names of events or eras. A second section of the test required students to match people with passages taken from their biographies.

Karen also included an open-response question in the final assessment. Each student wrote the name of the exhibit and the person he or she studied, described that personís contribution, and supported his or her statements with examples.

Marge saw growth not only in the academic knowledge of her students, but also in their emotional strengths. She said, ìKaren used an approach that built the studentsí self-confidence...They were proud of their work, and the sense of ownership was strong. The collection of ëartifactsí created a familiarity and reality that other teaching approaches miss. Students will be reminded of this study when they see peanuts or tubes of Cortisone cream or hear certain music.î

The students made connections with current events. Several weeks after this unit of study was completed, the students were discussing a recent television news report on racial profiling. Someone commented that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was mentioned in the report. The students immediately began talking about W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of the NAACP. The student who had provided the research for that museum exhibit reprised his report for the class. Students speculated: What would DuBois have said about the current controversy?

Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of the study was the collection of letters that students presented to Karen on her last day of student teaching. The students had not only mastered the content, they had also seen the historical significance and modern relevance of what they were studying.



1. Kentucky Department of Education, Teaching to Proficiency and Beyond (Frankfort, KY: KDE, 2001),


Judy J. Harris is a supervisor of student teaching at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights.

Table 1. A Classroom Museum of Black History
Items in this museum were pictures that the children downloaded from websites or photocopied from books and then wrote captions for. Many “artifacts” (mostly items brought in by the preservice teacher), such as a saxophone, a tube of cortisone cream, peanuts, or a toy space shuttle, were also part of the museum.

Museum Exhibit Biographical Figure Artifact(s)
Harriet Tubman Photo of passengers, map of underground railroad
Frederick Douglass
North Star newspaper reproduction
Sojourner Truth
Advertisement for one of her lectures
W.E.B. DuBois NAACP logo
Booker T. Washington Photos of his laboratory
SCIENTISTS George Washington Carver Peanuts, microscope
Percy Julian Cortizone
Dr. Charles Drew History of American Red Cross book cover
Ragtime & Jazz
Scott Joplin Title pages to Maple Leaf Rag, The Sting
W.C. Handy Photos of Handy performing
SPORTS Jackie Robinson Baseball card, photos
Wilma Rudolph Gold medal replica, photos
BLACK (HARLEM) RENAISSANCE Langston Hughes A few of Hughes’ poems
Aaron Douglas “Window Cleaning” photo
Marian Anderson Lincoln Memorial photo
Modern Jazz, R&B, Soul
Charlie Parker Parker CD
Dinah Washington Washington CD
Otis Redding Redding CD
Martin Luther King, Jr. Newspaper headline, “I Have a Dream” speech
Rosa Parks “On the Bus” picture
Thurgood Marshall A gavel
Lorraine Hansberry Raisin in The Sun book cover
1970’s to PRESENT Mae Jemison Book, space ship, Kennedy Center.
Bill Cosby TV family
Colin Powell Picture w/George W. Bush
Oprah Winfrey “O” Magazine

Table 2. Websites about Black American History
The Africana Blackboard is an interactive catalogue of lesson plans to accompany the Encarta Africana 2000, an encyclopedia of Black history and culture, and its print version, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Working under the guidance of Harvard professors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., teachers nationwide are collaborating to create lesson plans and related resources for the site.
This site, sponsored by CNN for Black History Month, includes a commemorative stamp gallery, resources, a timeline, personality profiles, and a quiz.
This site is an entry to vast resources at the Rutgers University Library, which include primary documents. Specific destinations could be bookmarked for students, but teachers will want to browse the many links before making recommendations for student visits.

Black Heritage Stamps

In 2002, the United States Post Office celebrated the 25th anniversary of its Black Heritage stamp series, which salutes outstanding African-American activists, theorists, writers, educators, and leaders. This year it decided to print a stamp which commemorates the life of poet and writer Langston Hughes. To see the other commemorative stamps with short biographies, go to the Postal Service Web site at Under News and Events, select Philatelic News, then click on the Langston Hughes press release. At the bottom of this page is a link to the 25 stamps in the Black Heritage series, which includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and many more.