On September 17, 1787, 37 men signed their names to the Constitution of the United States of America. Every year, students in classrooms across the country participate in lessons and activities that celebrate the document that made our nation. This year’s Constitution Day is especially exciting because it is the launch of 2019 Commemoration Schools! All year long, American Evolution is teaming up with educators across the Commonwealth to honor the legacy of 1619 in our schools.
What’s so special about 1619?
Well, as American Evolution explains on their website: “1619 was a pivotal year in the establishment of the first permanent English Colony in North America. It was the year of the first representative legislative assembly in the New World, the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America, the recruitment of English Women in significant numbers, the first official English Thanksgiving in North America, and the development of the Virginia colony’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirit.”
I have to be honest—when I first heard about 2019 Commemoration Schools, my initial thought was, Do we really need another reminder of how a bunch of White guys from England colonized Virginia? I was skeptical that a commemoration of the early English settlers would do enough to ensure my widely diverse student population felt like theirs is a story that matters in our history. As a student of history, I’ve far too often seen a failure to address the multiple perspectives of our past.
That’s why I’m so excited to share how wrong I was!
The team at 2019 Commemoration Schools has done a phenomenal job working to ensure a fuller history of Virginia is told this year. The themes of Democracy, Diversity, Opportunity, Innovation, and Collaboration are designed to encourage both teachers and students to discover the untold stories of our past. As I explored the site, I found an emphasis on telling the stories of the First Nations people already living here when the English arrived, of the women who have been ever-present but oft-ignored in our framework of history, and of the Africans who were tragically taken from their homes and forced to build a new nation that they were never allowed to claim as their own.
As I thought more about how I might incorporate the commemoration into my sociology and history classes this year, I started brimming with ideas! I’m going to work with my students on storytelling, focusing on the value of diverse representation and telling the stories of the unknown, the unimportant, and the forgotten.
If you’re not sure what you might do with your students, the online toolkit is a great place to start. It provides links and resources from activities as simple as a daily journal prompt asking students to consider the meaning of democracy to more involved projects like participating in a student essay contest, exploring historical sites with the Virginia Trails app, or collaborating on a National History Day submission.
This Constitution Day, I virtually ‘brought’ my students to the digital First Freedom Wall inspired by the First Amendment Wall in Downtown Charlottesville. There, they were able to leave messages about what this country – the good and the bad – means to them.
Educators who sign up to be a 2019 Commemoration School received a toolkit that includes resources for up to five teachers, a banner to display in the school, and a letter from Governor Northam acknowledging them as a participating school. Participants who share the ways in which they’re commemorating 1619 in their classrooms through the hashtag #2019Schools or on the website will also be included in an interactive map of Virginia.
What’s stopping you? Sign up today to be part of 2019 Commemoration Schools this year!
Michelle Cottrell-Williams is the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year and a social studies educator at Wakefield High School in Arlington Public Schools. Since 2006, she has taught many different subjects and levels of students but is most passionate about teaching social justice and supporting English learners. Here, she finds the greatest opportunities to support students who sometimes struggle to feel like they belong. Her website is www.michellecottrellwilliams.com and you can find her on Twitter @WakeHistory.