Pulitzer Center Update November 5, 2021

Using The 1619 Project Books to Discuss Dominant and Counter Narratives

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In 2021, more than 25 professors and K-12 teachers participated in a Penguin Random House-Pulitzer Center 1619 Project pilot program for educators—gaining early access to two books that have grown out of the original magazine project: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.

Pilot participant Dr. Noreen Naseem Rodríguez utilized the texts in a social studies methods course in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. The 1619 Project: Born on the Water was used during a class about dominant and counter-narratives of history and a class session on the use of dramatization and gamification in social studies classes.

Below, Dr. Rodríguez shares her experiences of using the texts with students, and outlines a class session.

Note from the Educator

I used The 1619 Project books in my elementary teacher education classes to illuminate dominant and counter-narratives in U.S. history and to support students in understanding the history of enslavement in order to better teach it to young learners. We primarily relied on The 1619 Project: Born on the Water as a way to understand how to teach slavery differently than many of my preservice teachers learned it.

Unfortunately, in their own K-12 educations, they recalled a simple focus on how slavery ended and traumatic re-enactments that involved teachers simulating manhunts of enslaved people, with children pretending to be slaves. Given the curricular violence that continues today in the teaching of slavery, The 1619 Project materials offered my students another way of doing things that did not solely focus on the dehumanization of Black people and white saviorism.

Rather, Born on the Water was a beautiful picturebook that we examined over multiple course sessions as a way to introduce African life BEFORE enslavement, to consider the painful and difficult history of slavery AS IT WAS EXPERIENCED BY THE ENSLAVED, and to reflect on the repercussions of slavery that remain with us today — and how elementary educators can and should avoid problematic activities about ancestry in recognition of this history.

In the words of one preservice teacher, "We always learn about how slavery ended but never about how it began." Born on the Water is the text we wished we had been able to learn from in our own schooling, and we are thrilled to use it with young children. The captivating images and powerful prose offer educators a rare opportunity to teach young learners about life before, during, and after slavery in ways that don't insist on deceptively happy endings or superficial attention to racism and oppression.

Dr. Noreen Naseem Rodríguez
University of Colorado Boulder

Dr. Rodriguez used The 1619 Project as part of a 15-week required elementary social studies methods course at CU Boulder. The following lesson outlines offer a glimpse into a session from the course, and ways that the Project materials paired with other academic texts.

Before Class Reading: Chapter 1 from Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror for Young People

Questions for Reflection Before Class:

  • What are some single stories students learn in elementary classrooms?
  • Why is it important to avoid telling single stories in your teaching?
  • How does this impact how young children understand the world around them?
  • The stories of people, places, and events that are typically left out of the dominant narrative, or that are told from perspectives that do not belong to the dominant group, are known as counter-narratives. Some people find the teaching of counter-narratives threatening. Why might this be?

Small Group Discussion:

Topic: Critical Race Theory

  • What is it?
  • Why is there a movement and legislation against it?

Topic: The 1619 Project

  • What is it?

Questions for Reflection After Class:

  • What is a dominant narrative about the past or present that you recently unlearned?
  • What are some counter-narratives that you would like to learn about this semester? You can name a historical event and period if you know the dominant narrative and suspect there’s more to the story than what you learned in school — you can’t describe what you don’t know!
  • Think about your student teaching placement specifically. Rather than naming children, what are some identities held by students that aren’t recognized or uplifted in your current curriculum/school environment?