Over 6,000 teachers, principals, school board members, university professors, librarians, and parents signed up for last week’s discussion on teaching The 1619 Project.
The insightful discussion featured the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, along with the Pulitzer Center’s Donnalie Jamnah, the K-12 partnerships manager and manager of the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Education Network, and Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine.
It was clear from the number of attendees that educators, parents, and students alike are curious about teaching and engaging with The 1619 Project and its multifaceted materials — which now include the magazine, a podcast, and two newly published books, Born on the Water and The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
Curricula and lesson plans are being built and taught by educators across the country in response to The 1619 Project, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project Education Network, and educators now have the tools, resources, and community to engage effectively with the materials. With the various entry points to the project, students and teachers across all 50 states have been exploring the project and its deep insights about the history of the United States and the Black American experience in a myriad of ways.
Hannah-Jones, Jamnah, and Silverstein discussed the reception of the project in classrooms and around the country, the many ways students and teachers are engaging with the project, and the impact of project backlash and misinformation on educators. They also addressed community questions — such as how to create a safe space for students of all identities, and when to introduce The 1619 Project (and children’s book Born on the Water) to younger students.
Watch the full event, and read on for some highlights from the discussion:
On this moment in history for educators
“The reception has been really astounding,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“We know educators are facing … in this particular moment … so much scrutiny about what they do in the classroom, what teaching materials they are using.” We are also witnessing “a defiance among educators who are determined to teach what they think is appropriate, what they think is right even in the face of a great deal of challenges,” said Hannah-Jones.
The determination to teach and engage with a more comprehensive and representative exploration of U.S. history has led educators across the country to connect and share resources with one another in order to build a stronger support network. The 1619 Project Education Network is the Pulitzer Center’s response to feedback and requests from thousands of educators nationwide about the need for support, guidance, and networking opportunities as they implement resources from 1619 in their classrooms. Donnalie Jamnah, K-12 partnerships manager at the Pulitzer Center and manager of the Network, expanded on the Network’s purpose and impact.
On the launch of The 1619 Project Education Network
The 1619 Project Education Network consists of cohorts of educators from across the country who collaborate with award-winning journalists, historians, and the Pulitzer Center’s education team to create, teach, and share curricular resources that allow students to engage authentically and critically with the world.
“The idea came from the teachers,” said Jamnah, who previously taught 10th-grade English. “What we kept hearing overwhelmingly from teachers was they wanted a way to do this with support, to connect with other teachers, and get feedback on what they were doing.”
The first cohort of the Network has grown to 41 teams of four to 10 educators representing 21 states. There are now 170 teachers and administrators working on units utilizing 1619 materials that align to many subjects and grade levels. Jamnah pointed to the lesson plans created by the Pulitzer Center and through the Network as a great entry point into the project. Building these resources has also helped to highlight just how versatile the project is, and serves to highlight the incredible work that teachers are doing in their classrooms.
Learn more about The 1619 Project Education Network at the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Education Conference, coming February 19-20, 2022.
The many ways students and teachers are using The 1619 Project
Educators and students across the country have been highly imaginative in how they bring The 1619 Project to life in their classrooms. Hannah-Jones and Jamnah cited numerous examples from their experiences working and engaging with educators who are implementing 1619 materials.
Hannah-Jones has witnessed teachers using the podcast in their music classes, for example. She also cited educators teaching the essay on sugar in their foods classes, and public schools in Boston, Chicago, and D.C. excavating their city’s pasts and modern ties to slavery, using The 1619 Project as a guide. Many students are also using poetry and short fiction to respond to and create their own, leveraging The 1619 Project as a prompt for art projects.
Jamnah also highlighted the importance and timeliness of this work, resonating with the lived experience of many students as they are exposed to unprecedented challenges. “Especially in the middle of the pandemic, students are seeing and experiencing so much, and I think that the project validates a lot of that for them. The essays on health care and medicine are really resonating with students … as they see the pandemic unfolding around them.”
Teachers have also been “blown away” by the level of interest from their students, and have found a variety of ways for their students to connect with the wide range of materials and formats. Now, educators have built resources that show just how versatile the project is in the classroom. "There are many ways to teach it and demonstrate its impact,” said Jamnah.
Visit the Curricular Resources on the 1619 education portal to download the latest lesson plans, read teacher testimonials, and explore examples of student work.
Engaging with younger students and Born on the Water
“The literary timeline is a love letter” — Donnalie Jamnah
Jake Silverstein cited many questions from educators and parents in the audience on when it’s appropriate to introduce The 1619 Project to younger students. Hannah-Jones shared that she started reading age-appropriate books on slavery with her daughter at the age of 3. Jamnah noted that the introduction to cultures and understanding of different experiences is aligned with SEL standards as young as kindergarten.
Jamnah, who is also a parent, emphasized that teachers should not try to teach the book in one day, and should prepare themselves and their students before diving into the text and illustrations. With the youngest students, this might look like reading a poem a day, or reflecting on and reinforcing the language used in the text. Because the book is grounded in the framing of family and oral history, it also allows for a lot of room for students to frame the teachings in the context of their own cultural experiences.
While Born on the Water is a children’s book, Jamnah also highlighted that there are many creative ways to use the text and beautiful illustrations at all grade levels. “Picture books are for everyone! Adults need to read Born on the Water; it’s gorgeous,” she said. “We’ve seen many educators leveraging the picture book with their older students as well.”
Hannah-Jones agreed: “I’ve seen educators who are above the age grade of the children’s book using it for older students. Which I just love … because the language and poetry can be challenging for younger students,” she said.
On the challenges that educators face
“Let the kids lead the way” — Jake Silverstein
When asked about the challenges that educators face during this moment, the first challenge Jamnah cited was the robust amount of material — and the multiple entry points to the themes. It’s important for educators to be intentional and work through the materials themselves — or with a group — before bringing it into the classroom and engaging with students. Educators should look at the project as a whole, and identify the pieces that fit into the lesson plans and goals of curricular units. “Scaffold it out,” said Jamnah.
Teachers also face challenges feeling nervous or inadequately prepared to teach the materials, and wanting to teach the materials intentionally in a safe space for students. Jamnah cited a lot of concern with student safety and emotions, but said that in many ways, the project models that well. As part of the 1619 Network, “we've had reading groups where we read different essays together and have those conversations as adults – and do that learning ourselves before we then go and engage with students,” said Jamnah.
On the issue of misinformation and backlash to the project, Jamnah said, “Encourage teachers to have those conversations and lean in. A lot of that doubt goes away once you’re able to sit down with your principal, with your parents. Ask people what are you really afraid of, what’s your concern — and take those concerns seriously. I’ve seen that to be productive.” Transparency is key.
On the state-level banning of 1619
The discussion also turned to the coordinated effort by lawmakers to ban The 1619 Project and other materials at the state level. “Between January and September 2021, 24 legislators across the U.S. introduced 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, estate agencies, and institutions,” said Silverstein, citing a recent PEN America report titled “Educational Gag Orders.” The majority of these bills target discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history — and some even mention The 1619 Project by name.
“How have you been able to work with teachers in those states?” asked Silverstein. “Connect people to information they need,” said Jamnah. The first thing is knowing and reading the law in your state, or bill that’s on the table. This can be very confusing and hard to keep track of. The PEN America report can be a helpful resource, as it tracks and breaks down the laws and who they target.
Jamnah also noted that resources like The 1619 Project Education Network give educators someone to brainstorm with when encountering these challenges. There is a lot of misinformation “telling people that this is replacing your standard history and they just want to indoctrinate kids.” Being transparent about how the materials are being used, as supplemental to a lot of other things that are taught in the classroom, and pointing out that teachers regularly supplement curriculum — is also important and can help break through that disinformation that so many people are responding to, she said.
Hannah-Jones warned that laws like these are being called “memory laws” by some historians — and that these laws can pave the way for more repressive policy. In response, Jamnah noted that many of these laws are also in direct contradiction of state educational standards.
Do the work every day
The conversation concluded with a focus on the importance of cultivating a safe and empathetic learning environment for students — a question that many educators in the audience wanted to hear more about. How can both white teachers and teachers of color make their classrooms safe for Black students, create space for processing complex emotions, and teach these materials without compounding trauma?
“That's work that you need to be doing every day in your classroom,” said Jamnah. You should be having ongoing conversations with students about creating a safe space, and respecting everyone’s thoughts. Think about how you are building: 1) space for social-emotional learning; 2) culturally-responsive teaching, including resources and doing emotional resilience work and modeling that for students; and 3) the language needed to address the different entry points that people may have to the project.
Pre-work is also extremely important for teachers and students — being intentional with the questions and prompts, and giving students space to reflect and process before coming together as a group. If teachers are able to do emotional resilience work on their own and model that for their students, students should be able to meet you halfway. “Students will surprise you once you’re able to acknowledge those different experiences and make space for that,” said Jamnah, who directly coached and provided professional development for hundreds of teachers prior to joining the Pulitzer Center.
Hannah-Jones closed by addressing the educators in the audience: “I'm just grateful that you're here, that you're wanting to teach what is not easy to teach to your children, because you know that our children deserve to be taught a truer version of what this country is … We have choice and agency — all of us — in the country that we want to build. So my parting words are these times call for great courage and all of you are stepping up in very courageous ways for your students, and for your communities, and I hope that we can continue to support you and I'm just honored to be working in this fight with you all.”
For more information on the 1619 Education Network and teaching The 1619 Project, visit 1619education.org.
Watch the full discussion here.
This event was sponsored by The New York Times' education and library subscription program, which provides schools and communities with full digital access to The New York Times. To learn more, please click here.