Read “The 1619 Project,” a history of enslaved people in the United States.

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Zumbi dos Palmares fought for his people’s liberation from the Portuguese slave trade.

I am a teacher.  I have worked as a preschool director, a principal, an assistant principal, a lower school principal, and a general studies principal, but first and foremost my career has called me to teach.

One of the toughest things I have taught is American History.  Our history is filled with wonder and horror.  We are fortunate, in the 21st Century, to have amassed a collection of books that allow us to view this history from many vantage points.  Of note currently is the series, “The 1619 Project” offered by the New York Times.  I hope that not only will everyone read it, but that it offers an opportunity to open the minds of those who still resist the full narrative of our country.

I taught 5th grade for several years.  In California, fifth grade is the grade in which the study of the history of the United States begins.  During my last year of teaching 5th grade, I found myself at a magnet school with a very diverse class.  One child, a black student, raised her hand as I began the school year with the typical routines.  She asked,  “Are we going to be learning about slavery?”  I answered that our studies would be about American history and of course we would be learning about slavery.  A buzz went through the room.

I addressed the mixture of differently colored faces:  “Raise your hand if you have learned about slavery.”  Almost no one raised their hands.  “Raise your hand if you would like to learn about slavery.”  Almost every hand went up.

“Ok.  I will learn everything I can this week, and we will start next week before we begin our curriculum for American history.  This is important.”

And I did.  I went to the bookstore and found the few books available and I read, for a solid week.  I wondered how a white teacher could condense a history so egregious and horrifying and at the same time inspire students to learn more throughout the year about our American ideals, especially when our class history textbook, like most of our curriculum, was so limited in scope.

I passed out a large white paper to each child, and demonstrated how a timeline was made, as none had knowledge about creating timelines.  At one end we entered the date 1619 and at the other end we entered 1998, our current year.  With pencils and rulers in hand, we plunged through what I could pull from the books I’d read.

This small action on my part anchored our learning for the year.  I tried to balance a fifth grade level of truth with enough stories of inspiration to also inspire pride.  The children were as spellbound with the lessons, black and white alike, as they were when J.K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book came out and we read it as a class, a break from the dismal basal reader we were assigned.

I did OK.  I did my best.  But if you, as I was in 1998, are unsure of the details of the history of slavery in our country  and throughout the world,  please begin to follow the “1619 Project” created by the New York Times.  I think we need to do a better job of educating everyone.

 


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