Book of the Week: Dear Benjamin Banneker

Every Monday, I highlight a book from our school bookroom along with lesson plan suggestions. I hope you find this useful, and please leave a comment with any suggestions or additions!

Dear Benjamin Banneker, by Andrea Davis Pinkney

You can preview this book on Google Books.

I wanted to highlight this as a book of the week because I know many grade-level teams have planned a unit highlighting interesting and inspiring Americans, and I wanted to make sure we have enough resources to support this unit.

Benjamin Banneker was a freed black man living in the late 1700s who ran a successful tobacco farm, published a successful almanac, and told off a young Thomas Jefferson for his hypocrisy in owning slaves.

Well-known books like this already have a bunch of full lesson plans available online, so there’s no real need for me to redo them. If you’re looking for a more in-depth project, you might want to take a look at:

Additionally, this book used to be an SFA text, so 30 copies are available for use as a shared text. If you use multiple bags of books, please make sure you check out each bag from the bookroom. There’s also an SFA teacher’s guide with vocabulary and comprehension questions.

We have enough of a collection of books by Andrea David Pinkney / Brian Pinkney that you might want to consider an author’s study of their work. See me if you’d like help putting this together!

There is a CAFE menu included with this mentor text, and I’ve highlighted these as suggested lessons:


  • Recognize literary elements (theme). Especially if this is part of a larger unit on inspiring Americans, you might want to explore some of these universal themes:

    • Persistence in the face of challenges
    • Standing up for what you believe in
    • A full life is well-rounded and allows you to develop your passions
    • Privilege plays a role in what individual determination can achieve (how would Banneker’s life be different if he hadn’t been born to a freedman? If he had been born closer to the civil war? If he was born in the South during the civil rights movement?)

  • Compare and contrast within and between text. The SFA skill focus for this book is compare and contrast. Please refer to the teachers’ guide in the book bag for more details.


  • Use the pictures… Do the words and pictures match? More complex words like observing, plotted, astronomy, and eclipse make sense in the context of this book. It would also be interesting to use this book with the Astro Adventures science kit, because students would already be primed to be more aware of sky-and-space related terms.

Behaviors that support reading

  • Select and read good-fit book. Benjamin Banneker taught himself astronomy! Amazing. The level of self-motivation he must’ve had is amazing. Our students need to strive to find topics and issues that interest them so they too can be motivated to take a lead role in their own successes. Use this book to reinforce the strategy of IPICK.

Please add any lessons or supplemental materials to the book bag so future teachers can utilize your good thinking!

Comments and constructive feedback are always welcomed. Please let me know if these lessons were useful in your class!


“Deep, deep thoughts.”

Today I was catching up on our Letters to Ms. Houghton, a weekly homework assignment that I stole from Mrs. Chan where my students write to me on Tuesday and then I write back.

Letters to Ms. Houghton

One student wrote, in response to my question of what teachers could do to become better at their jobs, that we should talk with our kids about their “deep, DEEP thoughts.” Rather sage advice from a well-spoken third grader.

I am fortunate enough to have learners who are willing and eager to tackle tough conversations that include their deep, deep thoughts. When I embarked on our first themed literature unit, I hoped we’d be able to just touch the surface of issues of civil rights and standing up for yourself. I had no clue that we’d be having discussions about

  • Why so much time passed between Lincoln and MLK — my students thought that they were contemporaries.
  • Why the North didn’t “need” slavery
  • Why it took so long for black public officials to be elected
  • How Chicano-Latino Americans and Asian Americans were being treated during all of this.
  • the Emmett Till murder and trial
  • the librarian of Basra, Iraq, shuttling 75% of the city’s library to safekeeping
  • Busing — When black kids wanted to go to traditionally white schools (circa Brown vs. Board of Education), did white kids want to come to black schools? (!!! X, thank you for your insight on this one!)
  • Who judges are, and what they do
  • How people of color were able to learn and be taken care of when they were sick if they weren’t allowed into certain schools and other public places. And then how black people became teachers and doctors if they couldn’t go to traditional colleges. (!!! This one blew my mind, my kids are SO SMART)
  • The role of power, money, and religion as being at the core of most conflicts.

My kids have been incredible. They are able to apply these questions to the text we’re reading and the activities we’re doing, so it’s not like we’re spending all our time going off on birdwalks. They are interested when we watch grown-up documentaries and talking-heavy historical footage.

They know that some parts of the past were awful, but they’ve been incredibly mature in not seeking out super-gory details. I firmly believe they understand that the intent of our work together is not merely to discover shocking facts, but to learn from our history and see how we can apply its lessons today.

There are a few more books we’ve related to our theme that I didn’t initially expect we’d use:

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni
The Librarian of Basra, by Jeannette Winter

My kids also asked that I include this one, because Dan and Amy stand up for themselves even when other family members play dirty, and even when their own aunt gave up on them:

The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan

Who knows what else we’ll learn in the next week before the month is over! I can say that I’m definitely ready for something a little less heavy. So our theme for next month might be something along the lines of, “Curiosity leads to discovery.” Discussing inventors and scientists and nonfiction texts…


Ben Franklin myths

We talked today about the idea that Ben Franklin’s famous key and kite experiment was not actually struck by lightning. Instead, he felt a small zap of static electricity that was not enough to harm him, but was enough to prove that lightning was related to electricity.

We talked about the fact that nonfiction means not fake, but you still sometimes need to double check information, especially if the book is old. We then saw the Mythbusters video showing that Ben Franklin’s kite experiment was not quite what it seemed.