The ‘1619 Project’ Curriculum Challenges Teachers to Reframe U.S. History

By Madeline Will — August 19, 2019 6 min read
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Most schoolchildren can recite the founding date of the United States of America: July 4, 1776. But a searing project from the New York Times Magazine changes that date to August 20, 1619—the day 20 enslaved Africans first arrived on Virginia soil.

The 1619 Project is a collection of essays and literary works observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed,” the project begins.

But as Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s lead author, writes, the prevailing narrative taught in schools is that black Americans’ history begins with enslavement and they had contributed little to the founding of this nation. Instead, she writes, “it is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

To bring this groundbreaking project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. The curriculum asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory.

A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there’s no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools—and lessons often miss crucial components to understanding this fundamental American topic. It’s taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out. And just over half of the teachers surveyed said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery.

Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty. (There are also teachers who do slavery simulations, like a mock slave auction or a game about the Underground Railroad, to try to convey the brutality—but experts and educators say that these simulations can minimize horrific events and cause emotional trauma to black students.)

Even so, frank conversations about the legacy of slavery are important. In her keynote essay for the 1619 Project, titled “The Idea of America,” Hannah-Jones writes that she had been taught in school “through cultural osmosis” that black Americans didn’t have a strong claim to the American flag.

“I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag,” she wrote. “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

Engaging Students

The Pulitzer Center curriculum offers discussion questions and guided reading, as well as activities that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Fareed Mostoufi, the senior education manager for the Pulitzer Center, said Hannah-Jones and editors at the New York Times were eager for educators across grade levels to reconsider how slavery is taught.

The reading guide for the issue includes broad questions that can be posed to students even if they’re not ready to read the full project, he said. And the Pulitzer Center pulled out quotes and key names, dates, and terms from each essay in the 1619 Project, so educators can identify which ones are right for their students.

The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones’ essay “The Idea of America.” It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.

Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society. They could use one of two provided graphic organizers to guide their reading. There’s a list of questions for students to discuss as a class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?

Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619, and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery. Students can also construct their family history based on interviews with their parents and grandparents—but they can also imagine their ancestry, claiming descent from “intellectual, artistic, or spiritual parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents.” Another activity asks students to research black American innovators.

And the Pulitzer Center has put out a call for educators to share their own lessons developed from the 1619 Project. The center will highlight select lessons and student work in the coming months.

“I’m curious to see how it goes, and I’m excited the issue really makes the case for opening this topic up and really embracing the discomfort,” Mostoufi said.

On Twitter, many educators said they were eager to bring the conversations inspired by the 1619 Project into their classroom:

So far, the No. 1 question teachers seemed to have on Twitter is how they can get enough copies of the 1619 Project to share with their students. The Pulitzer Center uploaded the full print issue as a PDF.

Mark Schulte, the K-12 education director for the Pulitzer Center, said the organization is now planning an education tour with Hannah-Jones, where she can talk to high school and college students about the themes and questions in this work. One of the first stops will be an all-school assembly at Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago—former First Lady Michelle Obama’s alma mater—on Oct. 8.

Already, Schulte said, there’s an incredible amount of interest in the project, and the essays are getting in the hands of people who might not normally read the New York Times.

“I have to believe that this is going to really change the way history is being taught in this country,” he said.

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