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Activity November 7, 2021

The 1619 Project Books: Activities for Engaging K-12 Students

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Lesson Summary: These learning activities were created by educators participating in the Pulitzer Center-Penguin Random House 1619 book pilot program. The resources provide educators hoping to utilize both 1619 Project books as an instructional tools with ideas on how to begin. Educators interested in learning more can read the Pulitzer Center's guide to the 1619 books and learn how to access copies for their classrooms at the links below. Links: Access the complete educator guide Purchase copies of the 1619 books
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This approach to teaching Born on the Water was developed by Julie Emra and Noncy Fields, 5th grade teachers in Ann Arbor, MI as a part of the Pulitzer Center-Penguin Random House 1619 book pilot program. It is the framework used in their developing unit on Born on the Water titled "Uncovering and Reclaiming Historical Identities."

Using Born on The Water to explore stories and stereotypes

Emra and Fields' unit aims to introduce conversations about the power of storytelling in reinforcing and combating stereotypes. The project invites students to interrogate their prior knowledge about the African continent and any stereotypes they hold while also allowing students to reflect on their own identities and histories. 


"After reading through our students’ pre-assessments, particularly the questions that asked, ‘What do you know about Africa?’ and ‘List all the words that come to mind when you think about Africa,’ we learned that students had very limited background knowledge about Africa. On their assessments, they shared words like lions, tigers, animals, starvation, no electricity, desert, poor. These stereotypes that the majority of our classes wrote down allowed us to think about the various stereotypes that we would address throughout the topic."

In a joint statement, Emra and Fields explain that the project will “guide students to a unit project where they research their own historical identities similarly to the way that the character does in the text with identifying the flag that represents her.” They offer the following guiding questions and pacing for sharing the text: 

Topic Question Born on the Water
Topic 1: Why study Africa? How do you uncover a historical identity? Read the text through the Africa section
Topic 2: What has disrupted the historical identities of Black people in the U.S.? Read the text through the Middle Passage section - “We were born on the water. / We come from the people who refused to die.”
Topic 3: How does knowledge of resistance cultivate a historical identity? Read the text through the “Resist” section
Topic 4: How can we reclaim and uncover our own historical identities? Read entire text

“In reading Born on the Water, students were particularly drawn to the illustrations. They studied them closely and wanted each teacher to spend a lot of time on each page as they looked at the illustrations. In Ms. Emra’s class, students spent a lot of time on the page where there is an outline of the continent of Africa and it looks like a hand is holding the continent in the water.On the other hand, Mrs. Fields’ class chose to focus on the page where people were dancing and joyful. Both of us noted that these images of joy highlighted a much more empowering image of African people than students indicated on their survey, and that these images present a joyful rendition of Africa that helps students challenge their current thinking.” 

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