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Bill advances to ban use of 1619 Project in Iowa schools to teach about slavery

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 2/10/2021 Melody Mercado and Samantha Hernandez, Des Moines Register
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An Iowa measure to ban public schools from using a project that teaches about slavery won subcommittee approval Tuesday, making it eligible for consideration by the state's House Education Committee.

The bill, House File 222, sponsored by Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, would ban schools, colleges and regents institutions from incorporating the 1619 Project or "any similarly developed curriculum" in U.S history classes and would take away state aid from institutions that use it.

The 1619 Project, published in 2019, aims to reframe the way slavery and the contributions of Black Americans are presented. 

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The Iowa measure is similar to measures that have been introduced in Arkansas,  Mississippi and other states. Backers in each argue the project misrepresents U.S history. On Tuesday, just as an Iowa panel was passing the measure, an Arkansas panel was rejecting it there.

"The 1619 Project seeks to tear down America, not lift her up," Wheeler said at the subcommittee hearing. "It seeks to divide, not unify. It aims to distort facts, not merely teach them. It does so as leftist political propaganda masquerading as history."

Rep. Ras Smith, a Waterloo Democrat, disagreed.

"I'm the first Smith not born on the same plantation where my father was born, where his mother was born, where his grandmother was born," said Smith, one of the few members of the Legislature who is Black. "America has that opportunity for diverse thought, rigorous debate, about what it means to be an American.”

During Tuesday's hearing, several Iowans echoed Wheeler, describing the project as harmful and inaccurate. Many others who opted to comment online said the bill was divisive.

At least 43 lobbyists, including 22 from prominent public education associations, registered against the bill.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a native Iowan and key author of the 1619 Project, called the moves to ban teaching from the project an embarrassment for Iowa's public education system.

"The 1619 Project is a work of journalism. It uses historical facts and historiography to illuminate a part of our country and our story that we don't know enough about," Hannah-Jones said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay to the project.

"I don't think those seeking to prohibit the teaching of the 1619 Project have engaged with the project," she said. "I don't think they've read it ... I don't think they've talked to educators about how they're using it in their classrooms."

Wheeler said he has read the project thoroughly. 

map: A heat map created by the Pulitzer Center shows where the 1619 Project is being used across the country. Results are from the center's 2019 anonymous survey where educators could indicate where the curriculum was being used. © The Pulitzer Center, Special to the Register A heat map created by the Pulitzer Center shows where the 1619 Project is being used across the country. Results are from the center's 2019 anonymous survey where educators could indicate where the curriculum was being used.

From USA Today in 2019:: How an accidental encounter brought slavery to the United States

How is the 1619 Project being used in Iowa?

In conjunction with the 1619 Project's release, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting created free online lesson plans centered on the project's 30-plus essays and creative works. 

In its 2020 annual report, the Pulitzer Center reported that more than 4,500 teachers  across the country were using the materials.

ln Iowa, the Pulitzer Center identified at least 34 classrooms using them, including 16 high school, nine college, five elementary and four middle school classrooms.

Some classes that use the materials have not reported that use to the center, and others haven't adopted the materials into core curriculum but use some of them.

Des Moines Public School history teacher Zach McClelland said in his ninth grade U.S history class at East High School, he uses four of the Project's essays. "A Brief History of Slavery That You Didn't Learn in School," for example, is helpful to elaborate on slavery in America, he said.

"We are too diverse of a school, of a community, of a country, to just sit here and say that there is one story of U.S. history," McClelland said.

'It's the most engaged I've ever seen students ... particularly students of color'

The Waterloo Community School District offers a history elective called the African American Experience.

Hannah-Jones, who graduated from the district's schools, said it was in that class that she first heard about the year 1619 — the first year African slaves were brought to the English colonies in North America.

The elective, which was reintroduced into the district last year, now incorporates the 1619 Project as the backbone of the curriculum. 

text: A page from the New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project series shows black legislators elected in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. © Myron B. Pitts/The Fayetteville Observer A page from the New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project series shows black legislators elected in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.

Chris Tims, who now teaches the African American Experience class at Waterloo East High School, said he believes banning the 1619 Project would deny history to his students, who live in one of the most racially diverse cities in Iowa.

"We just cannot focus on history from one lens," Tims said. "It can't just be a patriotic American lens, because then you are only getting one side of the story. You're not getting the truth."

Students in Tims' class learn about life before slavery, origins of slavery, the Reconstruction era, the birth of hip-hop and much more.

"I think it's pretty eye-opening for the students ... by the time we were a couple weeks in, they were begging to read more because they were getting history they've never been taught on," Tims said.

McClelland, the Des Moines teacher, also makes sure to introduce that diversity to his students through the 1619 Project.

"It was the most engaged I've ever seen students, particularly students of color," McClelland said. "First of all, it's important to know because it's honest history; it's not just us manufacturing stuff. But it's also ensuring that their history is a part of U.S. history." 

Iowa State University history and African American studies professor Brian Behnken said he has taught parts of the information that appears in the 1619 Project in classes throughout his career. 

“There are parts of it that are new and provocative, but there are parts of it that basically try to put very publicly what scholars and historians have been writing about now for the past two decades or more,” Behnken said.

He feels a lot of critics of the 1619 Project are bothered by the “centering of black people and black voices in the history of the United States.”

Melissa Peterson, Iowa State Education Association lobbyist, said Wheeler's bill is not the first one over the years to attempt to dictate what Iowa schools can or cannot teach.

Those attempts raise concerns, she said.

“You've got a legislator trying to prescribe what type of curriculum can and cannot be taught in the classroom,” she said.

Education professionals, including Iowa teachers, developed the state standards for what is taught, she said.

“It's not something we take lightly when someone wants to add or subtract something from educational standards and Iowa code,” she said.

1619 Project supporter: History is multidimensional; understanding evolves

The sponsors of the House bill seem to assume educators simply take curriculum they find, whether it is 1619 or another one, and teach it as is, said Amy Rutenberg, an Iowa State University assistant professor of history and social studies education program co-coordinator.

“That it's just going to be some kind of straight up indoctrination that comes from some outside source. And that's not what teachers do. That's not how teachers think," Rutenberg said. "Good teaching is all about asking our students to interrogate claims and look at evidence and build on their knowledge and trouble the waters.”

Recently, Rutenberg’s students discussed both 1619 and the recently released 1776 Commission report, produced by the Trump administration during it waning days in response to the 1619 Project. 

The two projects are very different, she said. 

“The people who believe the vision of the 1776 Commission Report believe that when the founders wrote the Declaration (of Independence) and wrote ‘All men are created equal,’ the founders, also, truly believed that all people are created equal,” Rutenberg said. “And the United States was sort of conceived immediately as a perfect nation, under those ideals and there have been some people along the way who have not quite lived up to those ideals, but generally speaking, our nation was fully formed from its outset."

In an email, Wheeler, the sponsor of the House measure, praised the 1776 Commission Report. 

"The New York Times’ 1619 Project has been shredded by historians all over the country, across political spectrums and from all different races and ethnicities. The 1619 Project certainly did spur a nationwide conversation," he wrote. "Had the project’s goal been to simply bring more African American stories to light, like the 1776 Unites project does, that would’ve been wonderful."

History itself is not stagnant because the questions people ask while reviewing historical documents change over time, Rutenberg said.   

“(It) doesn't mean they're wrong. It just means we're asking the questions we never asked before,” she said.

Melody Mercado covers the eastern Des Moines metro for the Register. Reach her at mmercado@registermedia.com or Twitter @melodymercadotv

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or svhernandez@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Bill advances to ban use of 1619 Project in Iowa schools to teach about slavery

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