By Andrea Ruggirello
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay, The Idea of America, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation.”
The 1619 Project, conceived by Hannah-Jones, aims to change that understanding. The project, which reframes the history of the United States centering the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, began as a journalism project and has since become a podcast, a curriculum, and, most recently, a book. It has also become a target for conservative lawmakers and activists due to its ideological assertion that America’s true beginning was in 1619 when enslaved Africans first arrived on our country’s shores. As backlash rises against teaching this reframed history—and any mention of racism and systemic racism as part of US history—educators are taking a stand.
WNDB sat down with three such educators to talk about the 1619 Instructional Design Contest from Canopy Education. Canopy Education is a virtual learning platform where teachers can build multimedia curricula and share or sell their lessons and units to other teachers. In September, Canopy Education launched a contest for mini-units about the origins and impacts of systemic racism on American society.
“There are people who are trying to make this stuff harder to teach,” said William Minton, CEO and co-founder of Canopy Education. An educator for 15 years, Minton knows that education is foundational to antiracism work, which is why his team created this contest. “It’s a contest, but more than that, it’s an effort to curate a library of quality resources so we can make it easier for these lessons to be taught.”
Educator and contest judge, Kevin Dua, credits a college professor and mentor with instilling this lesson in him at a formative age.
“She emphasized to me and my Black classmates the importance of being gatekeepers of our own history,” Dua told WNDB. “And also paying it forward and sharing [that history] with as many people as possible.” Dua has been doing that for more than a decade as a history teacher and now as an instructional coach in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Dua has always woven ideas around systemic racism into his lessons even though it is not always done with the explicit intention of teaching about racism. His main aim is to help his marginalized students see themselves in the curriculum.
“History is not rigid, it’s fluid,” he said. “And what’s happening outside of the classroom should be integrated into the classroom.”
Caitlin Beckman uses this same lens in her approach to teaching about the past. Beckman is a middle school theater teacher at a Kipp Academy in Lynn, Massachusetts. She entered the Canopy Education contest with a mini-unit that bridges the gap between historical instances of racism and how that same racism shows up in the present day. Her winning mini-unit focused on minstrelsy, incorporating the third episode of the 1619 Project podcast, “The Birth of American Music.” The episode explores the history of Black artists’ contributions to American music.
In the mini-unit Beckman developed, her students not only learn about the history of minstrelsy but they also connect that history to a present-day news report about the prevalence of blackface today.
“They practice how they might address [blackface] now,” she explained. “Having the knowledge of history gives them the autonomy to confront the situation in a strong, intelligent way.” She has found students are more excited and curious about topics when they see the connection to their own lives.
In Beckman’s unit, the students don’t just focus on minstrelsy, but also the tremendous contributions Black Americans made to music in this country. They learn about Motown, rock and roll, and the blues, culminating in a group project where students can make a Motown music video in the style of a Black choreographer or write their own blues song.
Beckman said that using the performing arts to explore African American and Black history allows students to interact with the material more fully.
Dua also uses multimedia to teach his students, noting he believes it would be “culturally irresponsible not to include technology into the classroom.” He incorporates documentaries, slam poetry, and music, trying not to limit what students can do. One project he recalled was a documentary he and his students created, attempting to solve the disappearance of a civil rights leader, Lloyd Lionel Gaines. And he used the 1619 Project when it was first released to talk about the desegregation of schools in Boston and to unpack the project’s definition of racial progress.
Dua couldn’t pass up the chance to be a judge for the Canopy contest. He said it was an opportunity to “make sure history is taught right, as opposed to history being taught ‘white’” and that the 1619 Project gives students a comprehensive view of history.
Despite the backlash against the 1619 Project and teaching about race and racism in schools, Dua said he never felt anxiety about teaching systemic racism.
“Stigma around what students are learning comes from the outside,” he said. And he is sure to create a climate inside his classroom where students know they’re there to learn and that no one —not even him—has all the answers.
Through her mini-unit, Beckman has seen her relationships strengthen with students after the unit; they have a greater sense of trust in her.
“Even though I can’t relate to them racially, I can give them tools they can use to their benefit,” she said.
For other educators looking to do this work, Beckman emphasized the importance of doing her homework and engaging others to help develop the curriculum.
“I was nervous because it’s a sensitive topic, but it’s so ingrained in theater history,” she said. She got feedback from her colleagues and mentors of color, people she knew would have open and honest conversations with her.
Dua wants teachers to reflect on the type of educator they were in the spring of 2020, when the racial justice movement of 2020 was just beginning. He encourages them to think back to what they said on social media, the public statements from their schools, the books they read, and their goals to promote racial and social justice to become better educators.
“Don’t return to the status quo,” he urged.
Minton agreed. “Keep fighting the fight,” he said to educators who are working to keep education about race and racism in the classroom. “Your children deserve to know this.”
Andrea Ruggirello‘s stories, essays, and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Gay Magazine, Zora, Hobart, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, Catapult, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University, and her novel manuscript was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Andrea was born in Korea, adopted as a baby, and raised on Staten Island, NY. She lives in Washington, D.C.