Lesson Plans

Activities to Extend Student Engagement

Students at Washington Global Public Charter School. Image by Eslah Attar. United States, 2017.

Students at Washington Global Public Charter School. Image by Eslah Attar. United States, 2017.

The 1619 Project is more than a magazine issue. It’s a national conversation that demands analysis, reflection, and insight from students. The following standards-aligned activities draw from concepts in the essays, creative texts, photographs, and illustrations to engage students in creative and challenging ways. For the full text of The 1619 Project as well as reading guides for the essays and creative works, visit our this resource.

1. Alternate Timelines: Reevaluating U.S. History

In his Editor’s Note, Jake Silverstein writes, “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe U.S. history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

Step 1. Individually or in pairs, select one article from The 1619 Project that interests you. Make sure that you and your classmates are all exploring different texts. While you read the article, write down any important historical events it mentions and their dates.

Step 2. Choose three important events from the list you made while reading. On a single sheet of paper, compile the following for each event:

  • The date
  • A concise statement of the event (i.e. “The 13th Amendment was signed into law.”)
  • 1–3 quotes from the article you read that explain the event’s importance
  • A photograph that visualizes the event or its impact

Step 3. Come together as a class to create a new timeline of U.S. history. Your timeline should start with the year 1619; work with your classmates to order the rest of the events you compiled. Display your timeline along the wall and read your classmates’ additions.

Step 4. Discuss and share. First, discuss the following with your class:

  • How does The 1619 Project contribute to and change the history you have been taught?
  • What new information did you learn from your reading and your class timeline? 
  • What surprised you?

Finally, display your timeline in a public place at your school. If possible, organize a school-wide event to discuss these questions together.

2. Constructing Your Family History: Oral or Imagined History

In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The Idea of America,” she describes having to point out the flag of the country of her ancestors during an in-class assignment. She writes, “Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no ‘African’ flag.”

Many black Americans face obstacles in tracing genealogy because of the violent uprooting and dehumanizing record-keeping associated with slavery. The 1619 Project traces how our national history was formed, but what about your personal history? How might you trace—and in some cases, imagine—your family history?

Option 1: Oral History

Begin your investigation through oral history: Talk to family members, such as parents, grandparents, and cousins, to find out as much as you can about your family history, going back as many generations as possible. Create a visual presentation to share this with your class, answering the following questions to the fullest extent possible:

  • What is your family’s history of movement and migration? What other countries, cities, and towns did your ancestors live in?
  • Who were important members of your family in past generations?

After comparing your classmates’ presentations, discuss: How might the process of constructing your family history be different from that of your classmates, and why?

Option 2: Imagined Ancestry

An ancestor can be a person from whom you biologically descend, but they can also be a person “from whom mental, artistic, spiritual, etc., descent is claimed.” From whom do you claim descent? Create a family tree poster, but instead of populating it with your blood relatives, populate it with your inspirations. Who are your intellectual, artistic, or spiritual parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents? Be creative; include at least 10 people in your imagined family tree, and explain why you are claiming them.

3. Create a Quote Museum: Critical Reading and Visual Art

The 1619 Project uses a mix of historical research, personal reflection, analysis, and creative writing to challenge dominant narratives about U.S. history. This activity asks students to read selections from the issue critically and highlight ideas they want to share with their community, then present those ideas in creative ways.

Step 1. Choose one article and one creative piece (poem or story). Click here for an index of options. While you read, identify quotes from both pieces that challenge and/or inspire you; write these down.

Step 2. Select quotes that you want to display for your class and/or school. Consider how you want to present them visually; you can design a typeface, create visual art that interprets the quote, or choose a photograph that illustrates what you want readers to consider when they see the quote.

Step 3. Post your creatively presented quotes alongside those of your classmates in a public place in your school or community to create a curated gallery that offers others a glimpse into The 1619 Project.

4. Infographic Design: Visualizing Contemporary Linkages to Slavery

The 1619 Project challengess readers to identify connections between modern day society and the mechanisms that supported and maintined slavery in the U.S. Many of the authors support their claims with data, including statistics and demographics. How could you visualize this information to make it easy for audiences to understand and share widely?

Create an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the U.S. and its links to slavery. In addition to data, you can include quotes from the reporting, photography, and/or graphics. Click here for examples of infographics designed to engage students in different literary concepts. Need help finding an essay to explore? Select one from the following list:

  • “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (pages 14–26)
  • “Traffic” by Kevin M. Kruse (pages 48–49)
  • Sidebars by Mehrsa Baradaran in “Capitalism” by Matthew Desmond (pages 35–36)
  • “Mass Incarceration” by Bryan Stevenson (pages 80–81)
  • “Sugar” by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (pages 70–77)

5. Mapping Your Community’s Connections to Slavery

Step 1. For context on how U.S. geography was shaped by the institution of slavery, read “Chained Migration: How Slavery Made Its Way West” by Tiya Miles (page 22) and/or “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (pages 14–26).

Step 2. Research your own state or community in order to answer the following questions:

  • To whom did your state or community’s land belong before it was colonized by the U.S., or what would become the U.S.?
  • Why did the U.S. want to own this land?
  • What industries were developed on this land after the U.S. acquired it? Whose labor fueled those industries?
  • How is your community shaped by the institution of slavery today?

Step 3. Choose a creative format in which to present your research findings. You might develop a presentation including discussion questions and deliver it to your class or school; write an essay modeled on the essay(s) you read in step 1; create a poster incorporating primary source documents to show your research; or conduct a photography/visual art project in which you show your community’s historical and present-day connections to slavery.

6. Analyze, Connect, Write: Bringing The 1619 Project Home

These writing activities ask students to analyze an article in The 1619 Project, extrapolate a theme from that article, and apply it to a deeper dive into racial justice in their own communities.

Suggested articles for these activities:

  • “A Broken Health Care System” by Jeneen Interlandi (pages 44–45)
  • “Traffic” by Kevin M. Kruse (pages 48–49)
  • “Mass Incarceration” by Bryan Stevenson (pages 80–81)
  • “The Wealth Gap” by Trymaine Lee (pages 82–83)
  • “Sugar” by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (pages 70–77)
  • “Medical Inequality” by Linda Villarosa (page 56–57)

Option 1: Write a News Pitch

In The 1619 Project, contributors analyze how contemporary social, political, and economic structures have been influenced by slavery, sometimes in unintuitive ways. Select an article from the issue about a topic that interests you (see suggestions above). Read the article, then develop a pitch for a news story about how this topic intersects with race in your community.

Your pitch must include: a statement of your topic; 1–3 quotes from a story in The 1619 Project highlighting how racist policies and racial inequities connect to this topic on a national scale; an explanation of how these racial inequities connect to this topic in your own community; 5–7 people you will interview for your story; the media you will use to present the story (photo, video, text, etc.); and an argument for why this story needs to be published.

Option 2: Write and Op-ed

In The 1619 Project, contributors analyze how contemporary social, political, and economic structures have been influenced by slavery, sometimes in unintuitive ways. Select an article from the issue about a topic that interests you (some suggestions follow). Read the article, then write an op-ed that answers the following questions:

  • How can you see the racial inequity described in the article you read in your own community?
  • What do you think should be done to address this inequity?

7. Reframing History Through Creative Writing

Step 1. Read “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and consider this statement from the essay: “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

How does Hannah-Jones explore this theme throughout her essay? What key figures do she, and other contributors to The 1619 Project, identify as “perfecting” U.S. democracy? Create a list of these figures, then consider: Who else should be added to this list of key figures in U.S. history?

Step 2. Examine the creative works in The 1619 Project. Each poem and short story is a creative interpretation of a historical figure or event that either doesn’t get the attention it deserves, or is often misinterpreted. After reading through these creative works, discuss: Which poems and stories stood out to you, and why? What new information did you learn by reading these works? How is it different to write about history in a poem or short story as opposed to in an article? Why do you think the authors chose to use creative writing to approach their topics?

Step 3. Use your own creative writing to reshape history. Using the creative works from The 1619 Project as models, write a poem or short story that highlights the story of one figure from the list you created in step 1.

8. Highlighting Black American Innovators: Research, Visuals, and Presentations

“Pecan Pioneer” by Tiya Miles (page 76), “Popular American Music” by Wesley Morris (pages 60–67), and several other articles in The 1619 Project emphasize invaluable contributions by black Americans to U.S. society. After reading these pieces, consider: Which innovations were new to you? What other contributions by black Americans should be taught in schools?

Conduct a research project that investigates an innovation by a black American. You could research innovators in music, science, technology, or any other arena. Select a person who contributed to a field you are passionate about! Create a visual that presents what you learned, and then work with your class to create a public presentation about black American innovators throughout history.

9. Erasure Poetry: Highlighting Inequities, Envisioning Liberation

As part of the creative works in The 1619 Project, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts created an erasure of the first Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law by George Washington in 1793. Erasure poems can be a way of reclaiming and reshaping historical documents; they can lay bare the real purpose of the document or transform it into something wholly new. How will you highlight inequity—or envision liberation—through your erasure poem?

Step 1. Choose a historical document that interests you. Read the document itself, and read the corresponding article in The 1619 Project to get more context. Here are some suggestions:

  • Declaration of Independence / “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (pages 14–26)
  • 13th Amendment / “Mass Incarceration” by Bryan Stevenson (pages 80–81)
  • Affordable Care Act / “A Broken Health Care System” by Jeneen Interlandi (pages 44–45)
  • GI Bill / “The Wealth Gap” by Trymaine Lee (pages 82–83)
  • “Who Are Our National Poets?”, a racist music review written by J.K. Kennard in 1845 / “American Popular Music” by Wesley Morris (pages 60–67)

Step 2. Create an erasure of your chosen document. Show analysis through your erasure. What is your perspective on this document and its connections to slavery?

Erasure poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts in The 1619 Project, page 43.

Erasure poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts in The 1619 Project, page 43.

10. Questioning History: What Do You Know About Slavery, and Why?

In “Why Can’t We Teach This?”, Nikita Stewart writes, “[T]he United States still struggles to teach children about slavery. Unlike math and reading, states are not required to meet academic content standards for teaching social studies and United States history. That means that there is no consensus on the curriculum around slavery, no uniform recommendation to explain an institution that was debated in the crafting of the Constitution and that has influenced nearly every aspect of American society since.”

What do you know about slavery, and where does that information come from? Choose an educational resource to explore, such as a textbook, an assigned film, your school library, or a local museum. While you explore your chosen resource, use the following table to analyze it.

Questioning History.pdf

Did you encounter historical inaccuracies, antiquated language, glaring omissions, or other instances of “educational malpractice” (Jeffries qtd. in Stewart 3) in the resource(s) you explored? Pulitzer Center and The New York Times want to know, and might even publish your examples! Send the relevant passage/photo/video/etc., along with the title of the resource and your name, to education@pulitzercenter.org.

Looking for other activities that you can use to engage your students? Or would you like to share an activity you created with other educators who are using The 1619 Project in their classes? Visit our call for contributors to share you 1619 curricula and explore lessons by other educators.

Educator Notes: 

Common Core Standards

Key Ideas and Details:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Comprehension and Collaboration:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.


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