Matthew Henson: Heroic Explorer Who Conquered Racism
- Grades: 6–8
- Unit Plan:
Explore the concept of "courage" with your class by reading a biography about Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who overcame hardships and obstacles to accomplished something no one else had done before: He co-discovered the North Pole in 1908.
- Use a variety of strategies to read, understand, and appreciate a biography
- Understand the organizational structure biographers use in telling a story
- Analyze characters
- Express opinions through writing and speaking
- Gain a better understanding of the challenges that faced blacks in the 19th and early 20th century
- Copies of biography Matthew Henson at the Top of the World by Jim Haskins or another biography of your choice
- Paper and pencil
- Reproducible timeline
Set Up and Prepare
Distribute copies of the biography and time line for each student
- Introduce the lesson by writing the names Christopher Columbus, Leif Erickson, and Ferdinand Magellan on the board. Ask students what these people had in common. Probe for the response, “They were all explorers.” Ask students what they think it takes to be an explorer. What traits does an explorer probably possess? Among the responses, guide students to recognize that an explorer is a person who is probably brave, courageous, or adventurous.
- Ask students what a biography is. Probe for responses such as: "A biography is the story of a person’s life that is written by another person." Ask students where a biographer gets his or her information. Discuss that a writer may use books, interviews, diaries, and letters to gather information. Tell them that they will be reading a biography titled Matthew Henson at the Top of the World by Jim Haskins.
- Allow students to preview the selection by looking at the title, subtitles, pictures, diagrams, and terms in bold print.
- Ask students what they think the biography is going to be about?
- Explain to students that in 1908, Matthew Henson joined Commander Robert E. Peary’s expedition. Their goal was to be the first people to reach the North Pole successfully. Henson demonstrated great courage during his Arctic exploration and in his daily life as an African American.
- Ask students what type of problems or dangers do they think Matthew Henson and the crew faced? Remind students that the technology we have today was not available back then. Tell them to think about what they know about the North Pole (means of transportation and communication, and basic needs to survive such as clothes, food, and shelter). Write their responses on the board.
- Explain to students there is no land at the North Pole, but for most of the year the ocean is frozen solid, providing a surface for travel. Robert E. Peary and the members of his expedition traveled by dogsled. You may even show students the area on a map.
- Provide students with some background knowledge about the history of the United States during the late 1800s. Remind them that this was a time of turmoil in which African Americans and whites dealt with slavery, the Civil War, the Ku Klux, and Reconstruction. Explain that Henson was discriminated upon and treated differently from other members of the North Pole expedition because of his race, and he faced a number of hardships.
- Explain to students that a biography is packed with many facts and opinions, which can create confusion. Students may experience difficulty determining the most important points in the biography and sorting out the many details. Tell them it is important to figure out the writer’s most important ideas/points by identifying the main idea, or topic, of each paragraph.
- Allow students to begin reading Matthew Henson at the Top of the World. Depending upon the reading levels of your students, you may read it with them or have them read it independently. I allow my students to read half of the biography in class and half at home. I prefer for my students to read half of the story, and we then discuss. I think it is too much to digest in one sitting.
- After students have read approximately half of the biography, have a discussion session with them. This is a wonderful piece that lends itself to deep thought and exchanging of ideas. Some possible questions are:
- Can you imagine being homeless at age 14, like Henson?
- What type of person do you think Matthew Henson was? Think about character traits and evidence from story to support those traits.Why do you think so many people helped Matthew in his life such as his uncle, Janey Moore, and Captain Childs?
- What does this statement by Henson mean: “I recognized in Peary the qualities that made me willing to engage myself in his service”?
- Have students read the rest of the biography for homework and complete a timeline indicating the most important events or have students create a graphic organizer with the titles “early childhood,” “young adulthood,” and “adulthood.” The graphic organizer can be written on notebook paper. This will help students organize all of the information and help their comprehension with the story.
- When students return the next day, have them take a piece of paper and fold it in half the long way. On one side, students should write the title “Hardships” at the top and on the other side “What happened because of those hardships?" This is similar to a cause-and-effect chart. For example, Matthew’s mother died and his father was unable to take care of him (hardship). He was sent to live with his uncle temporarily (result).
- Conclude the lesson by having another discussion session and asking the following questions to guide discussion:
- What does this powerful quote mean: “Henson, my faithful colored boy, a hard worker, and apt at anything…showed himself ….the equal of others in the party”?
- Peary and Bartlett were awarded gold medals by the National Geographic Society; Henson was not. How would that make you feel? What would you have done?
- Allow students to demonstrate what they have learned by choosing one of the following written activities:
- Matthew Henson was finally invited to join the Explorers Club in 1937; write an acceptance speech.
- Imagine that you have been overlooked for an honor that you truly deserve. What would you do? How would you react?
- Sometimes making the right choices takes courage. Think of a time you chose to do something totally different from what your peers wanted or expected. What happened? Write a description of your decision.
Supporting All Learners
Students are provided with choices throughout the lesson, which allow the lesson to suit their needs and abilities.
- Have students compare Matthew Henson with another courageous character in another piece of literature. How are they similar and different?
- Show students the movie about Matthew Henson and have them compare/contrast the movie and biography.
Tell students to share what they have learned about Matthew Henson and his life journey with their parents. I am sure it will spark a good discussion.
- Students should:
- Read the biography
- Complete a timeline
- Complete a "Hardship Chart"
- Complete a chosen writing activity
- Did student participate during class discussions?
- Did student complete reading assignment?
- Were graphic organizers complete? Did they display an understanding of the reading and the points of discussion?
- Create a rubric for the writing activity to measure student performance.