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In a scene from “The First Official Thanksgiving” set in 1619, travelers to North America give thanks for their safe passage at the site of what is now Berkeley Plantation.

The 2018-2019 school year is officially in full swing, and it’s an important one for Virginia students, as they will be commemorating the 400th anniversary of many pivotal firsts in Virginia and American history.

Sept. 17 — Constitution Day — held great personal significance for me, an immigrant and former U.S. history and civics teacher. On Sept. 17, 1787, our country officially adopted the United States Constitution, and on that day we recognize those who have become U.S. citizens. I immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan with my family at age 10, and I was proud to then become a naturalized citizen and eventually a Virginia resident.

Virginia is home to a diverse population, and to an intriguing and often complicated history. It’s imperative that we educators work together to increase our students’ awareness and understanding of the historical events that brought us to where we are as a country today. This is why I’m proud to be a part of Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, during which we are remembering the formative events that occurred in 1619 Virginia, and that indelibly influenced and continue to shape today’s America.

These 1619 events include 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 to the Virginia Colony, the first official English Thanksgiving in North America, and the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the new “Virginians.”

During my time as a civics teacher, I taught my students the history of American democracy, including the convening of the first elected legislative assembly in Jamestown. This assembly was the foundation of the current representative system of government in the United States of America, and it continues today as Virginia’s General Assembly.

On Sept. 17, American Evolution launched 2019 Commemoration Schools, a program that will engage Virginia students, educators, and staff with the themes of democracy, diversity, and opportunity. Teachers and students across the commonwealth will have resources at their fingertips and a variety of ways to participate in the program.

The American Evolution “Guardians of Jamestown 1619” video series, targeted to fourth- and fifth-graders, uses time travel and archaeology to teach students about the seminal events of 1619 Virginia. The series is an excellent introduction to early Virginia history.

In August, American Evolution launched “Our American Story,” a digital contest for eighth- through 12th-graders that challenges students to share their unique perspectives on the meanings of democracy, diversity, and opportunity. The contest is designed to foster discussion among our country’s next generation of leaders, and will be taking entries from now until Nov. 30. All of Virginia’s middle school- and high school-age students are encouraged to participate in this thought-provoking exercise.

There are also many higher-education institutions hosting commemoration-themed lectures and events. The American Evolution Innovators Cup at Tom Tom Founders Festival on April 12-13, 2019, offers a great opportunity for Virginia’s university and college students to compete in an innovation tournament that will task teams to identify some of the most difficult challenges that America has faced since 1619, and then to provide and expand on promising solutions. A stimulating competition!

As a Virginia educator, I’m pleased that American Evolution is providing students with the tools to learn about and establish a modern connection to these pivotal events of 1619. The programs and educational resources offer a bridge for educators, students, and their parents to discuss what paths we as a nation want to embark upon in the coming years.

As Virginia and the United States continue to evolve, we must critically examine our past challenges, inequities, and successes as citizens of this country, to gain a clearer vision of a future, more inclusive American society.

Atif Qarni is the Virginia Secretary of Education. Previously, he taught at Beville Middle School in Prince William County, and in 2016, he was recognized as the Dale City Teacher of the Year. Contact him at atif.qarni@governor.virginia.gov.

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