Famous Person: Benjamin Banneker

Related Topics:



Black History

Grade Level: 4th/5th

Author: Melissa Metcalf



Background Information





Appendix A: Reading Material for Jigsaw

Appendix B: Worksheet / Quiz for Jigsaw

Appendix C: Turn-2-Think Question Cards

Appendix D: Turn-2-Think Answer Cards


Background Information:

Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731. He was the son of Robert and Mary Bannaky. His mother was the daughter of an Englishwoman and an African slave. His father was a former slave who had his freedom purchased from slavery. They lived on a farm along the Patapsco River approximately 10 miles from Baltimore. The farm was known as "Bannaky Springs" because of the fresh water springs on the land. Benjamin grew up helping his family raise tobacco crops.

As a child, Benjamin learned to read from his grandmother. She taught him using her Bible, which was the only book she owned. Later Benjamin was able to attend a Quaker school for boys where he learned how to write and do simple arithmetic. It was also at this school that the spelling of his name was changed. It was Benjamin's schoolmaster who changed his last name from Bannaky to Banneker. Benjamin had obtained an 8th grade education by the age of 15. It was then that he took over the family farm. He spent most of his adult life as a tobacco farmer.

When Benjamin was 21 years old, he saw a patent watch. He was fascinated with how the watch worked so he took it apart. By studying the pieces he created similar pieces that he carved out of wood. Benjamin used the pieces he carved to build the first clock to ever be fully assembled in America. His clock kept accurate time for over 40 years.

Later in life, Benjamin became interested in astronomy. He borrowed some books on mathematics and astronomy as well as some instruments for observing the stars from his neighbors and friends George and Joseph Ellicot. Using these materials Benjamin taught himself astronomy and advanced mathematics.

Using this knew knowledge Benjamin began to keep notes about what he observed in the night sky. Through careful observations, he learned to predict the weather. He was also successful in predicting a solar eclipse on April 14, 1789. His predictions contradicted forecasts of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of his day.

In January of 1791 Benjamin was asked by George Ellicot's cousin, Major Andrew Ellicot, to help survey the "Federal Territory." Major Andrew Ellicot was known as one of the finest surveyors in the United States. Benjamin worked on a three man team with Ellicot and Pierre L'Efant, the architect in charge of planning Washington D.C. In doing so Benjamin is remembered as the first Black American to receive a presidential appointment. By looking at the stars Benjamin helped plan the layout for our nation's capital city. Before the plans were finished Pierre L'Efant was dismissed from his position because of his temper. When L'Efant left he took the plans with him. Benjamin was able to recreate the plans from memory, saving the U.S. Government the expense of having someone else plan the city.

Benjamin continued to learn about astronomy and kept careful observations. In 1792 he used his talents and abilities to become the first Black American to publish an almanac. During this time period most families owned an almanac. Farmers used almanacs to help them know when to plant and when to expect rain for their crops. In his almanac Benjamin included the times of sunrise and sunset, information about the tide tables for the Chesapeake Bay, and the cycles of full and new moons. He also included other news such information about festivals and horse habits. The almanac was funded by the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery because they felt Benjamin's almanac was proof that Black people were as intelligent as White people.

Benjamin sent a copy of his almanac along with a letter containing his feelings concerning slavery, to the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. In his letter Benjamin reminded Thomas Jefferson of the desire for more freedom that Jefferson and others had felt under British rule. He compared this to the slavery of his day and reminded Thomas Jefferson of his own words that "all men are created equal." He asked if this was not also true of Black men. He also asked Thomas Jefferson to consider that Black people had abilities they were unable to discover because they were enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson acknowledged Benjamin's letter with a reply. Jefferson thanked Benjamin for the almanac and agreed that many Black people had talents and abilities they were not able to develop because they were enslaved. Jefferson also added that he hoped with time Black people would receive better treatment.

Benjamin's letter and Jefferson's reply were published in a pamphlet in 1792. They were also printed in Benjamin's almanac for 1793. Benjamin continued to publish almanacs each year for several years. Although he continued to formulate calculations for almanacs until 1804 Benjamin's last almanac published was in 1797. Benjamin studied astronomy until the time he died in October of 1806.

Benjamin Banneker is remembered today as the first famous Black American scientist and mathematician. He demonstrated admirable qualities throughout his life as he educated himself about the world around him. He also showed courage as he spoke out against slavery long before the civil rights movement or the abolition of slavery. Through his actions and determination he showed the world that all men are indeed created equal.

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Benjamin Banneker. [On-line] Available: http://tqd.advanced.org:80/3337/banneker.html.

"Benjamin Banneker." The Grolier Library of North American Biographies. Vol. 7. Danbury: Grolier Education Corporation, 1994.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Dear Benjamin Banneker. San Diego: Harcourt Brace &;Company, 1994.

Youness, Lahrim. (1996) Benjamin Banneker 1731-1806. [On-line]. Available: http://mason.gmu.edu:80/~ylahrim/Banneker.html.

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1. Students will be able to explain the main events in Benjamin Banneker's life and his contributions to society.

2. Students will gain an appreciation for Benjamin Banneker's inventive ability to reproduce a clock as well as his determination in teaching himself astronomy and advanced mathematics.

3. Students will be able to record observations of the moon and night sky in a learning journal and make predictions from their observations.

4. Students will learn about astronomy from a guest speaker and list two things they learned in a thank you card.

5. Students will be able to use an almanac to find answers to their questions about our modern world.

6. Students will be able to select a topic they feel strongly about and write a letter in an attempt to make a difference in society.

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Time Allotment:

Approximately two weeks.

Resources Needed:

A book on origami

Handouts from appendix

Guest speaker (astronomer)

A variety of almanacs

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1. Discussion. Go to a local library and find a book on origami. Using the book as a reference make a paper crane or another shape of your choice. Display the crane in front of the class. Give each student a sheet of paper. Without giving the students instructions tell the students to make the paper crane. When they look confused or start to ask how, tell them they have all the materials they need and an example. Ask them what else they need? Use this experience as a discussion starter about Benjamin Banneker. Relate the story about the clock he built simply by studying the pieces of a watch. (If you need information it is given in the background section.) Be sure to emphasis his determination to teach himself not only how to make a clock but also to understand astronomy and advanced mathematics.

2. Jigsaw. This is an experience where each student will become an expert on one part of Benjamin Banneker's life. Group the students into groups of five. This will be their original group. Once they are in the groups have the students count off one through five. Then send all of the number ones to a corner of the room, the number twos to a separate area, etc. These new groups are called their expert groups. Within these groups they will be given appropriate reading material to read. (See appendix A) Each person within an expert group will be reading the same material, but each expert group will have different material to read. For example, the number ones will be learning about Banneker's childhood, the number twos will learn about the clock he built, the number threes about his part in the planning of Washington DC, the number fours about the almanac, and the number fives about his letter to Thomas Jefferson. Once the students have had a chance to read and learn their material, give them time with their expert groups to discuss the important information they need to remember to share with their original group. Then the students will return to their original group. The students will become responsible for teaching each other about Benjamin Banneker's life. Have each student take a turn presenting to their group what they have learned. At the end of the activity, give the students an individual quiz, or worksheet to assess their learning of the material. A sheet of questions for this activity is given in appendix B. This can be used as a quiz or worksheet depending on your needs.

3.Guest Speaker. Remind the students that Benjamin Banneker spent many nights observing the moon and the stars. Explain that they will be having a guest speaker come and talk to them about astronomy. Have the students come up with a list of questions they would like to ask the astronomer. After the astronomer has spoken to the class have the students think about the things they learned. Have the students create thank you cards that include the things they learned from the presentation.

4. Learning Journals. Tell the students that they will have the chance to observe the night sky like Benjamin Banneker did. They will do this each night at the same time for a week. For example if they choose to do this activity at 7:00 p.m. then they need to be sure to continue to go outside to the same place each night at 7:00 p.m. Each night they will observe the moon and keep notes in their learning journal about what they see. (Make sure the moon is visible in your community at this time of night.) Have them describe what it looks like and sketch a picture of where it is located in respect to a mountain or another landmark in their area. Have them record any changes they might see. After a couple of days, have them begin to make a prediction about what the sky will look like the next night. At the end of the week, have them write a short entry about what they have learned from this experience. Discuss this activity in class and emphasize Benjamin Banneker's ability to teach himself astronomy and successfully predict eclipses and other natural occurrences.

5. Almanacs. This experience is to help students understand what an almanac is and how it can be used. You will need a variety of almanacs available for the students to use as references. Begin this activity with a short reminder about Benjamin Banneker's life. Be sure to remind students what was included in Banneker's almanac as well as how almanacs were used in his day. (If you need information it is given in the background section.) Then have the students individually or in pairs think of a question they would like to find the answer to, such as "What is the largest city in America?" or something else that interests them. Have them write the question down. Then have them use the almanacs as research tools to find the answers to their questions.

6. Letter Writing. Remind the students of the letter that Benjamin Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson. Discuss how important the abolition of slavery was to Banneker. Remind them that it took a lot of courage for him to send this letter. Also tell the students that although it took many years for slavery to be changed, it was important for him to stand for what he believed in. Have the students think of something that they feel is important. This may be something as simple as wanting a longer recess or it may be that they feel the city should do more to help it's citizens recycle. Whatever the case may be, have them select an issue they believe in and right a letter to the appropriate person. Help the students locate an address for their person and mail their letters. Remind the students to include a return address in case the person they are sending the letter to wants to reply. If a student does receive a reply, have them share it with the class. You may also want to give the students time to share their letters and why they feel strongly about their issue.

7. Turn-2-Think. In groups of four pass out a set of question cards about Benjamin Banneker and a set of answer cards (See Appendix C and D). Have the students count off, one through four. Have person number one start by selecting a question card and reading it out loud to the group. Each person in the group will then think about how they would answer that question. Then person number one will select an answer card to see who will actually answer the question. Repeat this process with each student taking turns selecting cards until all of the questions have been answered.

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1. Origami experience and discussion will be assessed informally through observation.

2. Jigsaw will be assessed with a worksheet or short quiz that demonstrates the students knowledge about Benjamin Banneker.

3. Thank you letters written to the guest speaker including two or three things the students learned will be assessed.

4. Journal entries and observations of the night sky will be assessed.

5. Students questions and the answers they found in the almanacs will be written down and assessed.

6. Letters written by students on an issue they feel strongly about will be assessed.

7. Turn-2-Think responses will be assessed informally through observation.

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Appendix A: Reading Material for Jigsaw Activity

Person Number One: Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731. He grew up on a tobacco farm along the Patapsco River in Maryland. He worked hard to help his family raise crops. He also wanted to learn about the world around him. When Benjamin was very young there was no school for him to go to. Benjamin's grandmother taught him to read. She taught him to read using a Bible. It was the only book she owned. Later Benjamin was able to go to a boy's school. He learned how to write and do arithmetic. Benjamin spent most of his life as a farmer. He never stopped wanting to learn new things. When Benjamin was a grown man he borrowed some books from his neighbor. He used these books to teach himself advanced mathematics and astronomy. He is remembered today as the first Black American mathematician and scientist.

Person Number Two: Benjamin Banneker lived in the 1700's. During this time most people used the sun or sun dials to help them tell time. Watches and clocks were hard to find. When Benjamin was 21 years old he saw a patent watch for the first time. He was very interested in how the watch worked. He took the watch apart to see what was inside. He studied the pieces carefully. Then Benjamin took some wood and carved little pieces. The pieces he carved looked like the pieces in the watch. Benjamin put his wooden pieces together and built a new clock. This was the first clock to be completely made in America. Benjamin's clock was built so well that it worked for over 40 years.

Person Number Three: Have you ever wondered who decided where things should be built in your city? Why is the police station where it is and the grocery store somewhere else? It takes a lot of work to plan a city. Benjamin Banneker, a man who lived a long time ago, got to do just that. He helped two other men plan our nation's capital, Washington D.C. Benjamin and the men he helped had a lot of important decisions to make. They decided where the streets should be and which way the should run. They also decided where to build important buildings. Because of his work on this project Benjamin is known as the first Black American to receive a presidential appointment.

Person Number Four: Benjamin Banneker was a man who lived in the 1700's. He was alive long before we had weathermen and fancy machines to help us know when it will rain and snow. Benjamin was very interested in the world around him. He wanted to find answers to questions about the weather. He also wanted to learn more about the moon and stars. Benjamin borrowed some tools from his neighbor to help him watch the sky. He took careful notes about what he saw. By reading books and watching the sky he taught himself astronomy. This helped him to make predictions about the weather and the moon. Benjamin took his predictions and published a book called an almanac. In his day almanacs were used to help farmers know when to plant their crops. They also tried to predict when it would rain and when the sun would rise and set. Many people used Benjamin's almanac to find answers to their questions. We still have almanacs today. They contain important information about all kinds of things. You can use almanacs to find important answers to your questions too.

Person Number Five: Benjamin Banneker lived during a time when many people believed in slavery. Benjamin was never a slave himself but he felt it was wrong for one person to own another. He also believed that Black people were just as smart and talented as White people. He felt strongly that slavery should be stopped. Benjamin wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was an important leader in America at this time. In his letter Benjamin told Thomas Jefferson about his feelings toward slavery. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter back to Benjamin. Thomas Jefferson thanked Benjamin for his letter. He said that he also hoped that Black people would someday be treated better. It took many years before slavery was stopped. Benjamin was a good example to many people that it is important to stand up for what you believe in.

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Appendix B: Worksheet / Quiz for Jigsaw




Benjamin Banneker


1. Who taught Benjamin how to read?


2. How did Benjamin learn astronomy and advanced mathematics?


3. What did Benjamin make, without instructions, from looking at an example?


4. What famous city did Benjamin help design?


5. What kind of book did Benjamin publish?


6. How did people who lived when Benjamin did use the kind of book he published?


7. Benjamin wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. What did he write about in the letter?

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Appendix C: Turn-2-Think Question Cards

If you could only choose one word to describe Benjamin Banneker what would it be and why?


Complete the following statement. Benjamin Banneker is like______ because_________.



What do you feel was Benjamin Banneker's greatest accomplishment?



What do you think was Benjamin Banneker's greatest challenge?



Why did Benjamin Banneker write a letter to Thomas Jefferson?



What was it that Banjamin Banneker was able to create simply by looking at an example?



What is something you feel strongly enough about to take a stand on like Benjamin Banneker did with the slavery issue?


If you could meet Benjamin Banneker what is one question you would ask him?



Which city did Benjamin Banneker help to design?



What type of book did Benjamin Banneker publish?




What is one thing that might be different today if Benjamin Banneker had not existed?



How did Benjamin Banneker's physical description effect his life?



Where did Benjamin Banneker learn to read?




Who taught Benjamin Banneker astronomy and advanced mathematics?



If Benjamin Banneker had lived in a different country how might his life have been different?



What one thing do you think Benjamin Banneker is most remembered for today?



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Appendix D: Turn-2-Think Answer Cards


Person #1 will answer the question.




Person #2 will answer the question.




Person #3 will answer the question.




Person #4 will answer the question.




Person #1will answer the question.




Person #2 will answer the question.




Person # 3 will answer the question.




Person # 4 will answer the question.




Person #1 will answer the question.




Person #2 will answer the question.




Person #3 will answer the question.




Person #4 will answer the question.




Person #1 will answer the question.




Person #2 will answer the question.




Person #3 will answer the question.




Person #4 will answer the question.




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