Teaching Profession

Do Your Students Know Who Harriet Tubman Is?

By Madeline Will — April 21, 2016 3 min read
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In a major shakeup to the bills in our wallets, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced on Wednesday that Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, will be moved to the back of the bill.

But how many Americans actually know who Harriet Tubman is? Maybe fewer than you think. A Washington Post article titled “If You Have No Idea Who Harriet Tubman Is, You’re Not Alone,” pointed out that Google search interest in Tubman spiked 4,520 percent after the announcement. The day’s top searched questions were: Who is Harriet Tubman? What did she do? When was she born?

That statistic will likely make history buffs—and teachers—cringe. Tubman, born into slavery in the 1820s, was an abolitionist who, after escaping slavery in 1849, rescued about 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that fugitives traveled through in the dead of night. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as an armed scout and spy, guiding a raid that freed more than 700 slaves. Tubman was also active in the women’s suffrage movement until she died in 1913.

Several teachers have shared on Twitter how their students reacted to the changes in currency. Many said their students were excited about the news, but others said their students had no idea who Tubman was.

The news provides an opportunity for teachers to share Tubman’s story with their students. In a 2014 piece for Edutopia, Elena Aguilar (who authors “The Art of Coaching Teachers” blog on Education Week Teacher) wrote that Tubman’s story “offers a fascinating study of leadership, resilience, and history” and provides countless teaching moments for students.

Kids Discover, an educational publisher, compiled a list of resources and discussion questions about Tubman and currency in general to coincide with the Treasury’s announcement. And PBS News Hour Extra published an educational video about the news, along with a list of key terms and critical thinking questions for students. Teachers, share your resources for teaching about Harriet Tubman in the comments.

Tubman’s place on the $20 bill spares Alexander Hamilton, whose status has risen in popularity thanks to the Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical Hamilton, which tells the story of the founding father through rap and hip-hop songs. Now, Hamilton will stay on the front of the $10, but the back of the $10 will honor the March of 1913, a march for women’s suffrage from the U.S. Capitol to the steps of the Treasury Department, and the leaders of the suffrage movement, like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott.

The new $5 bill will keep President Abraham Lincoln on the front of the bill, but the back will highlight historic events in the civil’s rights movement that happened at the Lincoln Memorial, featuring images of Martin Luther King Jr., Opera singer Marian Anderson, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

So in addition to Tubman, you could practically do a whole unit in relation to the currency changes on key social justice figures in U.S. history.

All three notes could be in circulation by 2030, but there’s no final release date yet.

Image by Women on 20s

More on teaching resources for these historical figures:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.