Teaching the 1619 Project
“The 1619 Project” Annual Meeting Deeper Dive session on Friday, February 26, 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. features Mary Elliott, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and Christina Sneed, high school AP English teacher in University City Schools (outside of St. Louis, MO) who taught The 1619 Project and authored the curriculum resources for The Pulitzer Center’s 1857 Project. Inspired by The 1619 Project (which reframes U.S. history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the historical narrative), The 1857 Project examines the Dred Scott decision and the Lincoln-Douglass Debate. In this article, Sneed shares insight into her experience teaching The 1619 Project to higher schoolers and how educators can successfully implement it across curriculum.
I’ve been sharing my approach to teaching with the New York Times’ 1619 Project and was disturbed to read an article where Rodriguez (2021) explained that Republican lawmakers in five states (one in which I live) are introducing legislation to “punish schools that provide lessons derived from this project.” Unfortunately, we’ve seen this strategy used throughout history as a method to manipulate national memory. It forces reflection on the quandary, “Who gets to write history?” The answer is rooted in white supremacy. Recollect America’s Reconstruction period when the United Daughters of the Confederacy distorted the narrative surrounding who won the Civil War by using propaganda, monuments, and education-based indoctrination. They created state-sanctioned counter narratives that still plague America. Recently, Republicans used this tactic to establish the 1776 Commission in opposition to the 1619 Project. Such acts stem from fear that, if average Americans learn accurate accounts of history—without white washing, omission, erasure—white men will lose power. They fear teachers will inform students of America’s ugliest parts and sell a version of history that negatively depicts certain groups of people in order to create ”heroes” and “patriots” in others (what they’ve been guilty of for centuries).
The 1619 Project counters such inaccurate records and has become so widely discussed that average Americans now know the significance of the year 1619 and can explain how the system of slavery created America. Instead of penalizing the use of this inclusive and accurate telling of American history that details the lived, shared experiences of African, Black and poor peoples, political leaders should ensure historically and culturally relevant texts, like the 1619 Project, can be taught without fear and intimidation. Students must be exposed to controversial texts if they’re to be truly prepared for career, college and the real world.
This work isn’t a ploy to brainwash children, but rather a tool of liberation to engage them in life-giving, revelatory educational experiences. It was student testimonials about the positive impacts of the 1619 Project that convinced me it’s necessary content for US secondary schools. They reported how the immersive experience created by the project’s diverse texts, intense imagery, strong arguments, captivating podcasts and visuals worked to convince them—no matter how many criticisms—of the project’s validity. I witnessed the impact: after George Floyd’s murder, various students emailed with gratitude, stating that our inquiry unit and subsequent conversations about race, injustice and processing hard truths prepared them to handle the rage, frustration, confusion felt by his and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor. They questioned how that could occur in such a short span of time, in the most “exceptional” country in the world, with few consequences. One student wrote, “I know you couldn’t have predicted this, but your teaching prepared us for this moment…” Work with the 1619 Project resulted in their increased civic engagement; they participated in protests, helped create Alexa’s Black Lives Matter Skill and presented an appeal to our Board of Education to advocate for the incorporation of 1619 Project resources into district curricula. They extended the learning, created new meaning and made connections that surpassed all objectives—demonstrating why all students should experience this invaluable learning.
Educational leaders and teacher-prep programs should ensure this by training teachers to navigate controversial texts/topics and to normalize learning where students grapple with hard histories and uncomfortable, typically-avoided concepts. Schools must create safe spaces for students to learn about, and process through, the ugliest parts of history to prevent future incidents like January 6, 2021. This recent event punctuates the need for the adoption of curricular resources with accurate history as to produce students who will live as productive global citizens, learn from past mistakes and successes in order to create better for the future.
This work can be used, cross-curricularly, and all educators can successfully implement it. It simply requires intention. Although the 1619 Project is beautiful and special, I encourage educators to treat it like any other text:
- Align the planned study with priority content standards so the approach is above reproach
- Use it as a vehicle to foster knowledge and skill-building
- Teach students to interrogate it
- Share passion, but don’t let it impede progress
- Reserve teacher opinions until the end
- Scaffold discussions through intentional, reflective questioning
- Keep work student-centered; allow them to pursue aspects in alignment with their passions, interests and curiosities
Whereas the 1619 Project is trending in today’s politicized climate, educators must ensure its longevity in classrooms long after the hype fades.
Rodriguez, Barbara. “1619 Project Legislation: Republican State Lawmakers Threaten to Punish Schools.” The 19th, 9 Feb. 2021, 19thnews.org/2021/02/anti-1619-project-state-bills/.