Famous Americans and historical figures are an important part of the first grade curriculum, but teaching non-fiction biographies to lower elementary students can be very challenging. The text is usually heavy and difficult for students to understand. It was important for me to figure out a way to introduce these important historical figures to my class in a fun and engaging way. Through my years of teaching, I have tried many different things. Some with great success and some that were total flops. Today I’m excited to share with you one of my favorite activities for teaching primary students about famous Americans.
I love to teach the famous Americans unit in the Spring because my students have developed foundational skills that work well for this study. By this point they have a good reading and writing foundation and are ready to dive in and put everything that they have mastered together.
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I’m excited to walk you through how I taught famous Americans with my firsties. The starting place has to be deciding who to teach about. I know there are many states and districts that give a list of who should be taught, and others that leave that up to the discretion of the teacher. Either way, start here and choose the famous Americans that will be included in your unit.
Before beginning the unit, I prepare a poster about the famous person we will be learning about. I like to have it posted on my front whiteboard before beginning the lesson. To open our class discussion I usually create and complete a KWL chart on the board with my students. This gives me great insight on what information, if any, that they already know and where I need to head in my lessons and our discussions.
After completing our chart, we review the historical figures life using a PowerPoint presentation. This visual activity not only provides the students with lots of facts, but they get the pictures and visuals to go with it that helps to increase their comprehension and understanding.
The perfect next step is for students to have their own Little Book about the life of our famous American. This is the PERFECT little reader for students to gain information about the person, while also being a resource that is written on their reading level. These Little Books are designed for primary students and include age appropriate information. I love to read it aloud together as a class, and then have my students reread it with a partner. But it doesn’t stop there, they read these books over and over again!
the basics of research
Next, it is time for my students to record key facts and information that they have learned. I love to use graphic organizers for this. At the primary level this is the very basic level of research and note taking. There are four different graphic organizers I choose from: a circle map, tree map, fact recording sheet, and flip facts. The Flip Facts activity is always a class favorite! It is a favorite of mine too because I love to see them having so much fun while learning!
Fun with Famous Americans
Once we have a general understanding of the person, we can really have some fun! What better way to teach timelines than by implementing them into your lesson about a famous American? I love to print and laminate a Giant Timeline that we complete together as a class. It’s a great interactive activity that really helps students. Timelines are such great tools for students to use when ordering events. Once we have completed our timeline anchor chart, my students are then able to create their very own timeline with two fun activities as they cut, paste, and sort the events of our person. This digital version of the timeline activity is a hit during our technology center or with at home learning.
past and present
Another important standard that we teach in first grade focuses on how life is different today from in the past. This unit on Famous Americans is a great way to connect these standards. I always incorporated some activities that relate to the time period our famous American was alive. The Long Ago and Today worksheet activities are a favorite because the students love coloring, cutting, sorting and gluing! The kids use pictures and words to compare and contrast what life was like for the famous person and what it is like now. They don’t even realize that they are practicing important skills because they are having so much fun. This activity is also a great informal assessment to gauge their understanding of these topics.
Teaching famous Americans also lends itself well to reviewing character traits. The character trait graphic organizer makes it easy to point out and discuss all of the great attributes of our famous American hero. I love the discussions that happened as we dug deep into the character of each person. In addition to learning about character qualities there are lots of new vocabulary words too!
Writing about Famous Americans
I’m a firm believer that you you can’t have a well rounded cross-curricular unit without writing! Connecting social studies and writing is really quite easy. It is time to break out those graphic organizers that the class completed earlier in the unit to use a guide for the writing activity. Students will love writing about the life and contributions of the famous Americans using this digital activity or paper and pencil.
While each historical figure writing is perfect on their own, I love to compile them into a book as a great keepsake for the students. It’s also fun to pull one writing from each student to make a class book about famous Americans. I don’t know about you, but class books have always been some of the most loved books in the classroom library!
Extra Resources for teaching Famous Americans
With all of the technology we have at our fingertips, there are no shortage of resources available for teaching about famous Americans. Sometimes there is too much! Here are some of my Go-To resources that are perfect for kids.
- Brainpop Jr.
- Liberty Kids Videos
- Library Books
- You Tube (just be sure to watch the videos first)
- Virtual Museum and Historical Site Visits
One more tip when it comes to searching for resources: When I do a Google or You Tube search, I always add the words “for kids” to the end. This really helps to narrow down the options so that I don’t spend hours searching through sites that just aren’t age appropriate.
Historical Figures Bundle
I have had so much fun and success teaching about historical figures using this method that I decided to put it all together to help our other teachers. While I know that you could find many of these items on the internet or create them, I also know that as a busy teacher you might not have time. If you are looking for some standards-based activities that will save you time without sacrificing the quality of the lesson, then you are at the right place.
This awesome Historical Figures Bundle includes all of the activities described in this post (and more) for six different famous Americans and historical figures. Your students will love learning about these famous Americans:
- Benjamin Franklin
- George Washington Carver
- Lewis and Clark
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Thomas Jefferson
- Ruby Bridges
The resources and activities come in both print and digital formats, so they are perfect for in school or distance learning. In my resource bundle your students will learn about famous Americans by using graphic organizers to record notes and key facts, timelines to order events in history, compare & contrast then and now, write informational paragraphs, and much more! These resources are just what you need to cover all of your standards and save yourself lots of prep time!
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