Saturday, September 19, 2020

The 1776 Unites Curriculum Isn't So Great

During Dear Leader's call for more patrio-centric re-education, he referenced and Betsy DeVos praised the 1776 Unites project as an example of the kind of thing he wants to see in schools. So I went to look at it, and, well, it has some problems.

What Is It, And Where Did It Come From?

The "curriculum" has been launched just last week as an "inspirational alternative" to the New York Times 1619 project. The 1776 Unites initiative was launched back in February with somewhat stronger language about the 1619 project. It came from the Woodson Center, the organization founded by Black conservative activist Bob Woodson, who said upon launching that it was intended to counter the "lethal" narrative of 1619.

"This garbage that is coming down from the scholars and writers from 1619 is most hypocritical because they don’t live in communities [that are] suffering," he continued. "They are advocating something they don’t have to pay the penalty for."

So, not a fan. He pulled together an assortment of other Black conservatives, and in February the website was launched:

1776 Unites is a movement to liberate tens of millions of Americans by helping them become agents of their own uplift and transformation, by embracing the true founding values of our country.

The website includes a library of essays, with titles like "The Cult of Victimhood," "Living by the grace of God and the power of applying oneself," "Embrace black patriotism over victimization," "Slavery does not define the black American experience," and "The 1619 Project perpetuates the soft bigotry of low expectations." 

There's an awful lot of bootstrapping rhetoric on the site, the good old-fashioned "if you're poor it's your own damn fault" kind. But I'm in no position to evaluate the group's standing as Black activists or intellectuals; I am, however, comfortable evaluating the usefulness of their educational tools.

What's Offered In The Curriculum? 

Well, not a lot, actually. You need to sign up your name and info to get access to the download page--in fact, you need to submit that info every single time you want to go to the download page--where you will find three lessons. Two are about Black history, focusing on Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. The third is about "building character" and the Woodson Principles. The page hints at an intent to grow this effort that is "essential to building a resilient, patriotic population." 

But for right now, you've got just the three lessons.

Lesson One: Biddy Mason

There are several elements here, starting with a Power Point presentation of 18 slides. The images are a curious mix. On the slide about Biddy's early life, one photo is an actual photo of young Biddy, a copyrighted photo that belongs to the UCLA, Library Special Collections folks, but it's used without any acknowledgement or caption (I had to reverse Google it), while the other photo is of a mother with what looks like a newborn baby. That can't possibly be Biddy; a reverse search suggests its a stock photo from Getty Images taken by W. Eugene Smith; it's also uncaptioned and uncredited. This is an issue through the slides--some photos are credited, some are captioned, and several more are not. 

The actual content is thin and context-free. Her 1,700 mile trek to Utah, which ended up in California, is given a couple of sentences. In California, she sued for her freedom and won in 1856. The slide asks if you know what year the rest of the slaves in America were emancipated, and the answers 1863 which--well, no. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Southern states free, but did no such favors for the slaves in the border states. And since the proclamation was issued at the beginning of 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, it didn't actually do a thing--it couldn't kick in until the North had actually beaten the Southern states in question. 

The rest of Biddy's story, which the slides continue to tell in very broad strokes, focuses on the economics. She worked for wages and invested her money. Her purchase of property in Los Angeles, leading to considerable wealth, is attributed to her wisdom and not to any fortunate timing. The slides tout that she became one of LA's "first prominent citizens and most important landowners...during the 1850s and 1860s," which seems like a kind of loose reading if she only became freed in 1856, and even looser when you learn she bought her first property in 1866 (you don't learn that from this lesson). Her philanthropic work and large fortune ("about $8 million today") are emphasized. Students are asked what causes they would give money to, and what kinds of people "you would like to help in your life?"

Activities and Assignments   

Look up some famous philanthropists (Carnegie, Gates) and find out how they made their money and what they fund. Do some real estate research in your own town and figure out what you'd invest in. Which parts of the country are growing or shrinking, and which would make a good investment right now? If you had a million dollars, how would you invest it? Without using the words, the writer suggests a pair and share. At the end of your life, if there were a memorial to you, what would you want it to say? 

Are you noticing anything about what a$pect of Biddy'$ life is being focu$ed on here? Will it help if I show you the targeted 

Vocabulary List

Profit, Assets, Appreciate/Depreciate, Philanthropy, Investment, Interest/compound interest, Down payment

Critical Thinking and Discussion Questions  

What are some advantages she faced? What are some disadvantages? How about you? "How hard is it to maintain a positive mindset in the face of adversity?" Why do you think Biddy was generous to others, even after her life was filled with hardship? How would her life have been different if she had become discouraged? Note: there are no questions along the lines of "What if her owner had beaten her to death before she got to court" or "What if she had arrived in LAS too late to get in on the growth boom?" or "What if she had ended up in some place that was busting rather than booming?" There's also no attempt to encourage students to dig deeper past the paper thin outline of her life.

Like so many things that try to pass them off as critical thinking exercises, these aren't even close. Here's an important pro tip about critical thinking questions-- if you are trying to direct students toward a specific conclusion or realization, you aren't doing critical thinking. This is why Dear Leader's vision of a curriculum that tells one certain shiny story of America will always be anti-critical thinking.

Lesson Plan 

This isn't a lesson plan. There's a paragraph that manages to sum up the entirety of the actual content of the lesson  in a few sentences. There are some suggestions about when the lesson might be appropriate. Oh, and you can use it for Social and Emotional Learning, too, because it "highlights resilience, grit, determination, self-reliance and other positive inner resources and character traits." 

There's a "lesson prompt"-- "Have you ever wondered what happened to people who were born in slavery but were later freed?" And suggestions that you could use the power point, or watch some videos, and basically you could use the stuff in this packet. This is a lesson plan as conceived by someone who has never written an actual lesson plan ever. What exactly will the teacher do, in which order, following what time frame? Who knows.


Links to four youtube videos about Biddy Mason. All four, including the one that's only four and a half minutes long, provide far more depth and information than this lesson does. One is just a panel discussion, but all are informative. 

MC Questions

A bank of multiple choice questions to use. They are terrible. How did she win her freedom? Was she born free, moved to a free state, escaped and moved to the North, sued and won her freedom in court, or died as a slave. Some of the answers are ridiculous and could only be used to test if the students were conscious during the power point, and in this particular case, two answers are correct (she could only sue for freedom because she was in a free state). The other four questions are similar, though one is the only one to offer "All of the above," which is, of course, correct. 

Standards and Learning Objectives  

Four and a half pages of standards cribbed from a variety of sources, including CASEL, ASCA, NCSS, Common Core, and AP US History. They have stretched like crazy here. Just a few of the standards this lesson claims to meet--

From AP: 5.3.11.B The women's right movement was both emboldened and divided over the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution.

From NCSS: 8 Science, Technology and Society

From ASCA: A:C1.6 Understand how school success and academic achievement enhance future career and vocational opportunities

CASEL: Stress management

CCSS: A whole lot of speaking and listening, for some reason.

The Learning Objectives list includes the student being able to: explain the difference between a slave state and a free state, define the vocabulary (not use it?), identify at least one financial investment opportunity, explain/interpret a quotation using their own words.

Lesson Two: Elijah McCoy

Worried I'm going to drag you through all that again? Don't worry-- the only thing done for McCoy is his 15 power point slides. Those include one that asks students if they've ever had a job, one that asks "what kinds of things need to be invented right now," and two oddly redundant slides that credit him as the basis for the saying "the real McCoy," a claim that a quick Wikipedia check would tell you is shaky, at best

Honestly, I've assigned slide-style presentations about important people over the course of my career; this looks suspiciously like the one done by the student who scanned one source, copied some random photos, and then did his best to squeeze out a few more slides for padding,

The Woodson Principles   

Okay, I was going to take a quick look at this, but the list of ten principles is mis-formatted on the power point slide and another slide asks if students know what a GED is. Woodson's ten principles look like any good unobjectionable corporate training list, but is this a good way to teach them? I think not. Moving on.

So Many Issues   

Fact-checking. Editing. Chopping the heck out of a couple of actually quite exceptional stories. McCoy and Mason really are impressive individuals with extraordinary stories. But these stripped down versions don't begin to do them justice. It's hard to know why--Mason's story is filled with people who stepped up to help her at critical moments, from helping her get her day in court to giving her a place to live when she was freed--have they all been excised to highlight "self-reliance"? 

It's extraordinarily unclear what the target audience is here. The tone and language feels like maybe fourth or fifth grade, but the standards lists high school standards. You are never going to capture high school attention with material this bland and thin. The exercise reminds me of beginning student teachers I would work with who knew they had some stuff they wanted to cover, but had no idea how they should exercise their own leadership and planning to make the lesson happen. "I'll go over some of this and then there will be a discussion, and the students will, you know, learn about all this other stuff that will just come up, somehow." Or maybe it's just the work of another bunch of people who don't have any real idea what teaching involves. Or maybe they were focused on what they wanted to say about the material that they treated the "curriculum" itself as an afterthought. And you can argue about the scholarship behind the 1619 Project, but there's no scholarship going on here at all.

In short, teachers should absolutely be teaching about Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. Under no circumstances should they use these materials to do it. And if Dear Leader is counting on 1776 Unites to create his super-patriotic curriculum or beat back the evil lefty forces of the 1619 Project--well, this sample indicates that it's just not going to happen. 


  1. Donald Trump giving curriculum advice to teachers is like Ghenghis Khan giving palliative care advice to hospice nurses. Why would any self respecting educator spend a nanosecond listening to our Carnival Barker in Chief.

    This pandemic has shattered the old saw that, "Those who can, do -
    those who can't, teach."

    1. LA Teacher here:


      That saying is one of the most insidious and toxic attacks on educating the poor and ignorant.

      It should be something like:

      "Those that can do, were taught. Those that can't, need a teacher."

      And at of the end of the day this 1776 propaganda project is nothing more than protecting vested interests in white supremacy and unbridled capitalism. Which both are about profit and power for the few at the expense of the many. Why else was it illegal to teach slaves how to read? Why were they codified to be valued as 3/5ths of a person for accounting purposes?

      Profit and Power.

      Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle public education to rebuild it in the image of the third world. Lots of schools of all types with no real progress for the students except those selected from the elite academies.

      America is being destroyed by parts of the country that cannot confront nor repair the two original sins of the country committed by whites:
      - the genocide of native peoples
      - slavery

      They would rather burn it all down than deal with it. Denial is a helluva problem. And the powers that be use that denial, lace it with racism and nationalism for the high that is currently called MAGA which used to be called Jim Crow.

      But truth will set us free. It may just take us longer and require more courage and struggle than we would have like. Our task is to hold the line and push forward and pass the baton on for the next generation.

      It has always been this way. Bring it.