Website review by Vanessa Aranda, Common Sense Education | Updated December 2019

The 1619 Project

Striking resources can add depth, rigor to lessons on slavery's legacy

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Grades
11–12
Subjects & Skills
English Language Arts, Social Studies, Communication & Collaboration, Critical Thinking

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Pros: Thought-provoking and varied sources certain to extend and challenge students' thinking.

Cons: Teachers have to carefully vet the materials to find what's suitable for their classes, and they'll also need to create their own lessons.

Bottom Line: These high-level materials will add depth and context to lessons about slavery, but they need scaffolding to connect with students.

Teachers should vet the materials and curate a collection that best complements their curriculum. Better yet, give students a few options and have them analyze a resource that speaks to them.

Here are a few highlights and ideas:

  • The podcast episodes are a clear standout. Students will find them accessible, especially the first episode. At 40 minutes, this episode alone might not fit in a class period, but students could listen at their leisure. Teachers might also play a section (11:00-21:00) that offers an important reframing of the founding of the nation. This section pairs selections from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence with the audio testimony of a former slave and the commentary of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter behind the 1619 Project. Teachers can support this audio with the transcript, which is usefully provided on the 1619 Project website.
  • For ELA or creative writing classrooms, there are several featured poems students could read, analyze, and respond to. Even social studies classes could dig into the example of blackout poetry that uses the text of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. A great follow-up activity might have students find a primary source and try their own hand at blackout poetry addressing a social justice issue.
  • Pair a lesson or unit on Eli Whitney's cotton gin with the essay "Fabric of Modernity: How Southern cotton became the cornerstone of a new global commodities trade." It's heavy reading for high school students, so be sure to scaffold with a reading strategy to digest the text. Have students annotate the text, adding notes and questions in the margins, a summary at the bottom of each page, and an essential question at the beginning. This could lead to a Socratic seminar or philosophical chairs discussion on how the cotton trade impacted America.
  • For non-history classes, connect modern music and artists like Beyoncé or Lil Nas X to the roots of Black music using Wesley Morris' essay. Again, this isn't easy reading, so it'll need to be chunked and scaffolded. Teachers might use a jigsaw reading strategy, where each group of students takes a page and seeks to understand and communicate the ideas contained with that section.

Teachers should also check out the Pulitzer Center's The 1619 Project Curriculum.

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The 1619 Project is a collection of articles and supporting materials on slavery and its significance to American history and culture by the New York Times. It was developed to acknowledge the 400th year since enslaved Africans were first brought to America. The articles and imagery that make up the 1619 Project were originally published as an insert in the New York Times Magazine, but they've since been made available on the New York Times website (along with audio, video, imagery, and some interactive design) and offered through the Pulitzer Center website (along with curricular resources). Also, copies of the print version of the project are available for purchase on the New York Times store. The content is in-depth, creative, and thought-provoking, but it was not designed for classrooms, so teachers will need to adapt the resources and use them to create lessons.

It can be tough to find resources for teaching slavery that effectively lay bare its profound effects on people and the country, and its enduring legacies. The 1619 Project does that, framing racism, slavery, and the Black experience as foundational to American history and culture. One way the 1619 Project accomplishes this is by bringing together predominantly African American scholars, reporters, and critics. Consequently, students learn from people living the legacy that the 1619 Project explores, and benefit from stories, histories, and perspectives on slavery passed down through generations of Black Americans. 

Students will find the material challenging, however, due both to the 1619 Project's raw -- but necessary -- look at the history and impact of slavery (in a way too often glossed over in K-12 materials), and to the high reading level of the materials. Teachers will need to preview and adapt the content as necessary so that students can benefit from it. For example, the creative design of the website (which uses something called parallax scrolling) is stunning, but students could get lost or confused without direction. Make sure to give students a heads up on what to look for, click on, or scroll past. Teachers will also need to direct students to materials with appropriate reading and vocabulary levels, and also avoid content students might not be prepared to dive into quite yet. For instance, a poem or photo might deliver a similar learning opportunity to one of the multi-page essays, allowing for differentiation and variety. While not designed specifically for the classroom, many of the resources do feature supports teachers look for, like strong visuals alongside text, and transcripts accompanying the podcasts. Still, there are no lessons, units, or other classroom-specific supports.

Teachers should be aware that the 1619 Project faced some critique and backlash that students might've heard about. Teachers should be prepared to address and discuss this controversy if appropriate. 

Overall Rating

Engagement

There's a variety of resources from poems to podcasts to pictures. Teachers will need to use them creatively to make lessons that'll grip students.

Pedagogy

Each one of the carefully selected pieces in the 1619 Project collection is full of deep critical-thinking potential. These resources take a commonly covered topic to another level of rigor and perspective.

Support

Transcripts for podcast episodes and visuals throughout the tough texts help break down complex content. An extensive digital presence offers additional resources for integrating the 1619 Project in the classroom.


Common Sense reviewer
Vanessa Aranda Classroom teacher

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