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Units February 18, 2023

Reconstructing American History: Creating Altered Books


Lesson Summary: Students explore how cultural identity is informed by history through engagement with “The 1619 Project," and ultimately create Altered Books to reflect what stories they think should be amplified in the teaching of U.S. history. Downloads: Unit resources

This unit was created by art and English Language Arts educators in Chicago, IL, as part of the 2022 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across approximately ten weeks, or 30 class periods. It is part of a unit that includes both Altered Book-making and figurative language writing. This unit reviews lessons related to the altered book research and creation. Click here for lessons related to teaching figurative language (These will be added in early March 2023)

Objectives and Essential Questions

Students will be able to..

  • Deconstruct U.S. history books to construct and altered book that tell underreported stories about the histories of American people
  • Tell stories about U.S. history and their own cultural identities that integrate details and themes from "The 1619 Project" and resources by other Black cultural ambassadors
  • Create art and write figurative language that expresses their cultural identities and incorporates new and developing perspectives from their learning throughout this unit.  

Essential Questions:

  • Who do you seek out for information, guidance, advice, and knowledge that helps you learn and discover your cultural identity? (Cultural ambassadors can be artists, dancers, musicians, actors, and writers that tell the story of different cultures through the art form.)
  • Who do you seek out for information, guidance, advice, and knowledge that helps you learn and discover how your cultural identity connects to the cultural identities of others? (Cultural ambassadors can be artists, dancers, musicians, actors, and writers that tell the story of different cultures through the art form.)
  • Why is it important to consider our histories and cultural narratives through a lens that applies both critical thinking and empathy? What can we gain from this practice?
  • What art forms (visual and performing art and writing), artists/writers and their work serve as cultural ambassadors to help you feel most connected to and celebrate the cultures of Black Americans?

Unit Overview

As part of a collaborative art and figurative language-integrated project, students will examine connections with their cultural identity and aspects of U.S. history presented in “The 1619 Project.” They will explore how their cultural identity is informed by history, evaluate what new information they learn about their identities through engagement with “The 1619 Project and other historical resources, and ultimately deconstruct vintage books covering U.S. history in order to reflect their analyses from the unit (altered book art). Students will examine what stories have been underrepresented in U.S. history books by exploring news articles, primary sources,  storytelling, and artwork. They will practice  persuasive writing and creating writing skills, and will also develop and deepen emotional literacy, empathy, and critical thinking skills.  Their finished work will construct a more inclusive and accurate history of the American People that, in turn, informs their cultural identity.  Students will then decide how they share their work with others.  

This project is grounded in a continued commitment to seek truth and reconciliation for historically marginalized communities.  The project explores the healing power of bearing witness to the accurate history of others and guides students in developing an intentional understanding, empathy towards others, synthesizing of differences, and exploring opportunities for authentic belonging in the social setting of schooling. 

The full project is intended to be taught in the art classroom, and students’ home classrooms. The project also provides individual and co-teaching opportunities.


  • Deconstruction and Reconstruction
  • Cultural Identity

Art skill practiced:  Deconstructive and Constructive art making, Collaborative skills, Composition skills, Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, and Collage

Figurative Language Skills practiced:  Deepening descriptions, heightening the impact of ideas, emphasizing a point or idea, improving understanding by making comparisons, and heightening impact of language.

Scope and Sequence: 

  • Investigate Cultural Differences
  • Understand the impact of historical erasure
  • Develop an equitable lens to understand histories of people in America
  • Deepen Understanding of Cultural Identity
  • Investigate resources from “The 1619 Project”
  • Make connections between art and storytelling
  • Investigate how art can serve as a cultural ambassador and inform American History
  • Explore emotional literacy through engagement with The 1619 Project
  • Reading of Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith
  • Incorporating “The 1619 Project” themes and resources into Altered Book Creation
  • Incorporating Cultural Ambassadors into Altered Book
  • Incorporating Persuasive writing into our Altered Books
  • Culminating Project: Students share their American History Altered Books

Performance Task

Culminating Project:  Students will be deconstructing, and then reconstructing, U.S. history books that they believe do not provide an accurate and inclusive history using an art form called “Altered Books.” By the end of the unit, students will use creative writing and original art to integrate essential historical information they have researched, and that they feel was missing, into the U.S. history books to include their learning and perspectives throughout this unit.

Students use the following resources to prepare for the project:
Altered Book project introduction 

Altered Books Planning Sheet  [.pdf] [.docx]

As part of developing this project, students will discover how stories are told through visual art, performing art, and writing. They will identify details from unit resources to include in their projects. They will also research the work of Black artists and writers who are documenting history in order to identify additional stories and resources for their altered books.  For example, students will look at the work of Kerry James Marshall and his art about the experiences of Black Americans.  Students will ultimately have the opportunity to add information from these artists, and their own art and writing, into the altered U.S. history book.  The students will also decide where their altered history book will belong (school library, local library, city hall, or any other location they would like).  The guiding question throughout this unit will be: How can we learn about the stories that have been erased in U.S. History to continue on the path of truth and reconciliation and further our commitment to keep learning about marginalized communities?

Students also engage in this unit by completing reflective mini lessons that deepen their knowledge about “The 1619 Project.”


Assessment Goals: 

  • Based on specific learning targets and success criteria
  • Designed by teachers and students  
  • Elicit evidence of student learning  
  • Informs instruction  
  • Involves students 
  •  Provides specific, actionable, and immediate feedback

Formative Assessment CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques: [.pdf]

Classroom Assessment Techniques (commonly called CATs) are brief instructor-led activities designed to help shape and focus subsequent teaching, based on students’ current understanding and ongoing learning needs. Most take only a few minutes of class time and can be used repeatedly throughout the assignment. CATs are an easy way to assess how well students are learning content. Furthermore, they allow students to monitor—and quite possibly strengthen—their own learning. 

Several stages during the assignment, students will complete a CAT with the goal of answering for the students:

  • Where am I going? 
  • Where am I now? 
  • How do I get from here to there?

Students will evaluate their altered books using the following resources:

Self Assessment Checklist [.pdf] [.docx]

Student Created Rubric Example [.pdf] [.docx]

Student Created Rubric Guidelines 

Template Student Created Rubric [.pdf] [.docx]Formative Assessment Figurative Language: pre and post assessment [.pdf] [.docx]


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