Teaching with The 1619 Project in Ethnic Studies

Posted by Kimberly Young on January 20, 2020

It is an exciting time to be an Ethnic Studies teacher. We are in troubling times and the insights emerging from resistance movements creates profound opportunities for deep conversations about justice in the classroom. Perhaps the most impactful recent example is The 1619 Project edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones and published by The New York Times. Last Fall, Facing History offered class sets of the magazines for teachers in the L.A. area. After spending much of my summer trying to locate copies of the release, I jumped at this opportunity. 

FHAO_2019_Summit_072As an Ethnic Studies teacher, I feel like there is a good amount of remarkable content to work with.  And, in our troubling times, we need to equip our students with the ability to ask really hard questions to those in positions of power. Incumbent in seeking truth and deciphering fact from fiction is the question that we have analyzed this semester in my Ethnic Studies Class: Who does the dominant narrative serve? 

We have used this base question to explore hegemonic narratives that dominate our learning and our lives. My students have grappled with understanding the power of a narrative, who gets to write the narrative and who dominate narratives silence. We think about narratives and intentionality, positionality and how to resist, then transform narratives through expansion or revision.

One of my favorite things about teaching Ethnic Studies is the creative freedom that is embedded in the class standards. I believe that the purpose of ethnic studies in high school is to create spaces of decolonized education where Eurocentric history is not prioritized. The California History Social Science Framework sums up Ethnic studies by stating, “It emerged to both address content considered missing from traditional curriculum and to encourage critical engagement.” In this critical engagement as an Ethnic Studies teacher, I seek to empower students to see their communities at the center of the historical narrative. I try to do this by creating relevant learning experiences that are directly connected to the personal goals, interests, or cultural experiences of my students and are connected to real-world issues or contexts. 

At Culver City High School, I teach mostly 11th and 12th graders in a semester long Ethnic Studies class. Ethnic Studies is an academic elective or an additional history class meaning that many of my students really enjoy engaging with history and tend to have ideas and opinions about the world they live in. The students themselves are very racially and socioeconomically diverse, mirroring the larger student body population. Because I work with upperclassmen they come into my classroom with some basic type of understanding often rooted in the dominant narrative about Slavery. Quickly, I work to shift their thinking to Enslavement, intentionally not equating the structural condition of bondage with the people. This year because of the timing of when I received a class set of The 1619 Project, I worked with the resources later in the semester than I may in the years to come. I was eager to get this magazine into my student hands to help them expand the preexisting narrative they posed. 

After preparing students for an important conversation about expanding the narrative that we have around enslavement, we opened our exploration of 1619 by responding to the opening quote, “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.” Students were asked to think deeply about the quote and write a few sentences in response or a question on a post-it. I collected the post-its and grouped them into common responses while we listened to the Trailer for The 1619 Podcast.

As students listened to the 4-minute trailer, I asked them to flip through the magazine and to just look at the images contained within. After about 6 minutes of observing, students completed a written Hear/See, Think, Wonder centered on what they heard in the podcast trailer or saw in the magazine images.

My students were very interested in a variety of pieces in the magazine. I wanted to offer them choice in where they wanted to expand their understanding of enslavement, liberty, democracy, etc. so I framed our Socratic seminar style discussion around these guiding questions: What is significant about 1619? How does starting the enslavement narrative at 1619 change the way that we think about slavery in the United States? In what ways would knowing a more complete and complex narrative of enslavement help us to live up the ideas of liberty and equality?

My students were asked to prepare for engaging in our seminar by reading analyzing one of the articles and images in depth. They also needed to prepare 3 higher-level thinking questions, at least one analysis question and one evaluation question. Students also needed to connect their selected articles and image to one of the main theoretical frameworks that we have studied over the semester: Intersectionality, Five Faces of Oppression, four I’s of Oppression, Racial Formation Theory, Theory of socialization, and the Theory of Resistance.

During our conversation, students worked hard to honor the new learning that they took from their selected article. We toggled between deeper more abstract notions of freedom and equality while highlighting information that was new to them. We tried to clear up misconceptions and misunderstandings present in the conservation and used our discussion norms to have a dialogue about the system of slavery and the ways we continue to honor and dishonor this history. 

I was very excited by the way that my students were able to expand the narratives in their own minds around enslavement and engage critically with the previously taught dominant narrative. I hope to leverage the skills and knowledge we cultivated in these conversations and push forward to a more just future. Courageous efforts like The 1619 Project makes these hopes possible. 


  • Want more ideas for using The 1619 Project with your students? This blog shares ideas collected at the fall Open Houses.
  • Want to get your own 1619 resources ? We have just a few remaining sets which we will give to teachers diving into this history with us at our upcoming workshop on the Reconstruction Era. Register today!

Topics: legacy, truth, race

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