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Pulitzer Center Update June 24, 2021

Buffalo Public Schools & 1619 Curriculum

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Artwork by Adam Pendleton in The 1619 Project, page 15. 2019.
English

The Pulitzer Center is proud to partner with The New York Times Magazine on The 1619 Project to...

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For the past year, the Pulitzer Center has worked with journalists at The New York Times Magazine, and with schools across the country, to explore how essays, creative works, audio stories, and visuals that make up The 1619 Project can support student learning in diverse academic settings. 

The collaboration between the Pulitzer Center and The New York Times has led to the creation of The 1619 Project Education Network, a program that supports U.S. education professionals in collaborating to explore how resources from The 1619 Project can engage students in grades K-12 and adults in carceral facilities.

One district that has led the charge in this work over the past year has been Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) in Buffalo, New York. The Office of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives (CLRI) at BPS has successfully created a rich array of lessons for students in grades 7-12 that draw from 1619 materials and expand upon the project’s mission of inquiry and justice for its students. The district has been generous in sharing some of its materials with the Pulitzer Center and sharing with us some of the strategy and thought processes that went into adapting the journalistic and creative material from The 1619 Project into K-12 curricular materials. 

A 1619 Project statement from the office of Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, highlights the way the project supports the district’s “Emancipation Curriculum,” an educational initiative that centers student liberation by “... equipping [students] with strength-based education that delivers them as globally competent, culturally proficient thinkers and active citizens prepared to lead into our 21st century American democracy.” 

The statement from Cash connects the curricular implementations of The 1619 Project with the core values of the project itself. He writes, “For the first time in the Buffalo Public Schools, we are teaching the history of Black people from a platform of historical accuracy and the inclusion of the marginalized narratives and voices of Black, brown, and indigenous people.”

“We recognize and empower all our students to know the unvarnished truth.” 

Read on, or explore the recording of our virtual panel with BPS staff and administrators on March 24, 2021, to learn more about how they developed, revised, shared, and evaluated curriculum inspired by The 1619 Project that ultimately supported the district’s students in grades 7-12. 

Exploring Curricular Alignment and Developing Lesson Plans

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, staff from the Office of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives (CLRI) at BPS partnered with educators to evaluate ways that The 1619 Project complemented district curricula for grades 7-12. 

In a recent webinar, Fatima Morrell, associate superintendent at the Office of CLRI, spoke about the journey of Buffalo Public Schools to integrate anti-racist practices into its teaching and administration. She noted that the goal of the district was to address a problem of “disproportionality” or disproportionate outcomes when it came to the learning of students from marginalized communities, and particularly to address the “root cause of the school to prison pipeline.” 

The 1619 Project, and the partnership between BPS and the Pulitzer Center, came about amid this push within the district to “raise the voices of children of color and edifying their narratives.” As part of the webinar, Morrell described the approach that the district took to utilize materials from The 1619 Project after it was released. She said that one of the first texts that the district looked at dealt with the issue of mass incarceration and its connection to the legacy of slavery in the United States. Morrell and her colleagues sat down with the text to unpack the content and to discuss ways that they felt the material could be integrated into the curriculum. They then embarked on the same process with other essays from the project. The result was a 1619 Project Standards Alignment document that identifies how essays and creative works from the project support district standards.

The standards alignment document gave the district an understanding of how The 1619 Project, which Morrell says takes on the work of  “dispelling misinformation and falsehoods” of historical narratives and institutions, can be taught at the K-12 classroom level. The district used this document as a foundation for the model lessons it developed for each grade level. 

Lesson plans integrated  extension activities and discussion questions drawn from journalistic material from The 1619 Project, as well as external materials ranging from short films to fragments from America’s founding documents. 

These lesson plans are geared toward a range of grade levels and both English language arts and social studies subject areas. 

Here is a glimpse at three of the 15 lesson plans developed by Buffalo Public Schools: 

  • In the lesson “Slavery, Mass Incarceration, and America’s Founding Ideas and Documents,” students explore foundational ideas of American history and draw connections between the history of slavery and the modern-day system of mass incarceration and the carceral system in the United States. Students analyze data about the demographics of incarceration in the United States and examine the way carceral institutions — from slavery to the modern prison-industrial complex — have evolved in America over time, and how these institutions can at times conflict with the principles of liberty and freedom expounded by documents like the Declaration of Independence. 
  • The Middle Passage”: In this lesson, students learn about the experience and journey of enslaved Africans along the Middle Passage. This lesson aligns with two modules, in which students write narratives with a focus on understanding perspectives.  Students read two texts: one from The 1619 Project and another from N.J. Amistad. Using the texts, visuals, and video, students write a narrative piece from the perspective of an enslaved African and use these writings to explore the beginnings of slavery in America. 
  • “1619 Project”: The Idea of America: This lesson guides students through an exploration of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay for The 1619 Project: “The Idea of America.” In the essay, Hannah-Jones contrasts realities of American history — namely, slavery — with the “idea of America” — patriotism, idealism, and pride in what Hannah-Jones refers to as “the American story.” The lesson asks students, “Do you think the ideals of America belong to all Americans equally today?” 

Click here for access to all of the lesson plans and support materials developed by the CLRI team. 

Student/Teacher Engagement at Buffalo Public Schools

In spring and fall 2020, educators and students throughout BPS engaged with the lesson plans above as part of 15 classes. They explored topics such as Phillis Wheatley, American Popular Music, the Tuskegee Experiment, and more. Lessons by BPS educators are geared toward students in grades 7-12, and are accompanied by various tools to integrate material from The 1619 Project into standards-aligned lessons. 

Genah Lasby, a BPS high school history teacher, taught a lesson on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to her U.S. history and advanced placement U.S. history classes. Lasby drew from a short story from The 1619 Project edition of The New York Times Magazine by Yaa Gyasi for her lesson, and drew connections between the ideals of Americanism with the history of medical racism in the United States. In a written reflection on her experience teaching the lesson, Lasby notes that her students “made powerful connections [between the Tuskegee experiment and] the pandemic and the distrust in the COVID-19 vaccine.” 

In the Pulitzer Center webinar with Buffalo Public Schools, Lasby states that her lesson began by asking her students to consider the essential question: Is there one American experience? Speaking about the way Americanism has historically been taught in schools, she notes, “There isn’t one American experience, but yet, we have only been taught about one American experience. A Eurocentric American experience. But what about people of color? What about Native Americans? What about women?” 

The lesson built off this essential question and a discussion of whether or not history could shape people’s opinions. This was the foundation that Lasby laid before having her students read Gyasi’s story on the Tuskegee experiment. In discussion and reflection, Lasby’s  students “came up with some pretty powerful stuff.” She notes that they all engaged with the material in unique ways and speaks about the enriching dialogues that abounded in her classes as students connected the historical context of the Tuskegee experiment with experiences in their own lives, developing a more nuanced understanding of modern medical racism and the added anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We can’t tell these kids how to think and feel,” Lasby says. “They have to do that on their own.” She facilitated the implementation of this lesson with that principle in mind, and her students arrived at their own conclusions about the trust and mistrust of institutions and the complicated process of healing from historical trauma. 

Lasby, who taught the Tuskegee lesson virtually, enthuses that her students were still able to engage and connect with the lesson in the digital setting. Samples of student work support this observation. Lasby introduced the lesson by having her students read an article by Gyasi on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which opens with an anecdote of a woman in New York who maintains a fear of doctors and hospitals after growing up in Alabama and hearing horror stories of “grandfathers, fathers, and brothers who had died of bad blood” — the “term for syphilis, anemia, and just about anything that ails you.” Students spoke extensively about these links between the past and present in their samples of work from the lesson. One student, in response to a question about the distrust of medical doctors in the households of people of color, noted:

“You listen to your family, if your family doesn’t trust doctors then you don’t trust doctors. My family always listens to my elders. We look out for each other.”

Another student commented on the link between the history of medical abuse in the U.S. and the modern distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine: 

“It's just generational fear, why would they trust the doctors when they’ve been betrayed before? How do we know that we won't be tested on again? We don’t want to play a guessing game with our lives so that you can have some numbers on a sheet of paper.”

Lasby’s students completed reflection questions about the Tuskegee lesson and their experiences engaging with the material. In keeping with Lasby’s policy on giving students space to feel and process their emotions in a class discussion, many students spoke openly about how the lesson made them feel. The word upsetting came about more than once, as did pain, healing, and truth. 

One student said, “The fact that this wasn’t taught [before] makes it all the more aggravating.” Another noted, somberly, “I don’t think people of color can heal from this unethical experiment but what we can do is tell future generations this happened, teach them the history so it doesn’t repeat itself.”

Lasby was able to lean into the discomfort and anxiety surrounding the subject matter of the lesson and turn it into a productive and dynamic learning experience for her students. She ended her webinar presentation of the lesson with a few of her key takeaways and a word of advice for educators. 

Speaking about her experience teaching The 1619 Project article in her classroom, Lasby noted, “I think it opens the doors for educators to have critical discussions, and a safe space for educators. We can’t ignore our past connections to the present situation.” 

For other educators hoping to teach The 1619 Project in their classrooms, Lasby urges them to “create a safe space that is honest” and to give the students space to engage with the lessons in a way that is real and grounded in their own experiences of the world and of these topics. 

Lasby and other teachers from BPS all had unique experiences teaching The 1619 Project. Enadrienne Dubose, a bilingual English language arts teacher who previously worked as a speech language pathologist at BPS, spoke in the webinar about scaffolding a lesson on “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Dubose shared a Google Jamboard where her students were able to find themes from the article and use them to guide them through their exploration of the material and connect it to their own thoughts and opinions about that theme. 

Dubose shared a video where the voice of one of her students was overlaid onto a presentation of the quotes from the article. Each of her students created their own video where they engaged with the material in ways that made sense to them. Other students made murals, took photographs, or created drawings. Dubose, who teaches immigrant students (about half of whom are from Africa, and the other half from Asia), notes that “we’re all brown and Black in my classroom.” For this reason, one of her guiding questions for her lessons was: How is the history of African Americans/slaves similar to the history and present of immigrants? 

Dubose’s lesson speaks to the same mirror-quality between the past and present that is seen in lessons from other BPS educators, all of whom have found ways to open avenues for their students to find links between 1619 Project materials and their own lived experiences. These types of connections led to “striking thoughts” from Dubose’s students and “gave them a lot of opportunity to shine.” 

Dubose ended her webinar presentation by urging other educators to not underestimate their students and to find ways for students to “make a connection with themselves, their culture, and their communities.” 

Buffalo Public Schools Joins The 1619 Project Education Network

Buffalo Public Schools and the CLRI team is one of 42 teams that has joined The 1619 Project Education Network. The goal of this partnership is to use The 1619 Project materials as a launching point for curriculum and professional development for educators and administrators across the country, and to “help students engage curiously, critically, and empathetically with the world.” 

The BPS team, when responding to questions from other educators about how to integrate The 1619 Project into standards-aligned lessons, had practical, hands-on words of advice on scaffolding, differentiation, and navigating potential pushback from colleagues and parents. As Morrell noted toward the end of the session, although the material is new and different, it is tapping into something critical. She encouraged educators to find sources of support, whether that was within their institutions or outside of them. 

One such resource for support is the Pulitzer Center and the team leading The 1619 Project Education Network. All of the BPS educators who spoke in the webinar emphasized the importance of collaboration and community in bringing anti-racist practices into the classroom, and we encourage educators to reach out with questions at the email address listed at the bottom of this blog. 

To close with a quote from Morrell, who wrote The 1619 Project statement for her district: 

"We are emancipating the minds of our students and teachers and teaching the legacy of slavery and its reverberating impact on American history and society today.  For the first time in the Buffalo Public Schools, we are teaching the history of Black people from a platform of historical accuracy and the inclusion of the marginalized narratives and voices of Black people. We know and understand that our students need to know and can handle the truth."

The Pulitzer Center encourages all educators to explore the lesson plans provided by Buffalo Public Schools as model examples of how to bring The 1619 Project into their classrooms. In addition to these lessons, there are more curricular resources available in The 1619 Project Curriculum page or in the 1619 Project Education Portal. 

For educators seeking support on ways to implement The 1619 Project into their classrooms, we can be reached at 1619@pulitzercenter.org

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