Malcolm X famously observed, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
But not everyone is satisfied with today’s preparations, particularly as it relates to teaching children about the individuals, events and ideas that shaped U.S. history and molded the nation’s culture and value system.
In November, a trio of mothers — two based in Westchester County and one in Florida — sought to address their concerns on how the school system was addressing civics and history lessons by launching Primerrily, an online resource designed to assist parents to help children understand and appreciate the American experience.
Britt Riner, the Floridian of the trio, acknowledged the “absolutely important role” that public education plays in childhood development, but she also stressed the sole duty of teaching children cannot be just left to the schools.
“We also believe that parents have a role in shaping their children’s education,” she said. “And teachers can’t do everything. What Primerrily aims to do is to be a primer.”
Co-founder Allison Lee Pillinger Choi, a Bedford resident, said the idea for Primerrily first percolated two years ago in casual conversation, but began to take on a new urgency when the Covid-19 pandemic halted in-person classes and forced parents to become actively involved in homeschooling their children.
“When school went remote in the spring, more and more parents were hearing about what was missing in their kids’ civics education,” she said. “In 40 days, we quickly compiled all of the ideas that we could think of and put them on the site and started sharing with our friends. And it just kind of grew from there.
“We realized that if we were going to raise the next generation of citizens and teachers and parents and voters, we were going to have to provide a lot of the civics education ourselves.”
Primerrily offers a mix of discussion guides, activity planners, inspirational stories based on historical events and talking points to help children understand subjects ranging from the complexity surrounding the Columbus Day holiday and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The site’s promotional material stresses the importance of introducing concepts of “freedom, equality, patriotism, sacrifice and duty with young minds,” but Primerrily strenuously pursues a nonpartisan focus — a key consideration, according to Mount Kisco-based Rachel Gerli, the site’s third co-founder, who noted that even her 3-year-old son was not susceptible to the us-vs.-them state of today’s politics.
“My son pointed to an American flag one day and said, ‘Look, mama, it’s a Trump flag,’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No, no, no, that flag does not belong to Trump and that flag does not belong to the people who voted for Trump. That flag belongs to everyone who is an American.’
“And I think part of our desire to teach flag code and to teach the history of these things is actually an effort to unify the country and to understand that while there are differences underneath that flag, that flag flies above all of us.”
The co-founders have expressed concern on recent efforts to re-examine the nation’s history through a harsh light, most notably with The New York Times’ 1619 Project that sought to relocate the foundation of the American experience on the social and economic consequences of slavery.
“We find it very unfortunate,” Choi said. “And we think that casting the founding story of our nation in a very negative and ugly light just sets up the next generation for failure by thinking, ‘I was born in a country that was so horrible and just existed because it was founded because of slavery, period, end of story. Why would I take any pride in my country?’”
Choi added that while the U.S. “is not a perfect country, it is the most exceptional country, and that’s why my mom and my grandparents left their home country to come to the best country in this world. The 1619 Project just doesn’t do a service to Americans, especially to minorities, and it’s just a shame.”
Primerrily is being monetized by an e-commerce function that includes books, toys and crafts aimed at furthering an appreciation of the nation. It also offers Halloween costumes inspired by figures from American history, along with shirts bearing messages in support for the military, first responders and essential workers.
“What your child sees, especially at the ages preschool and elementary school ages that we’re targeting, impacts so much of what they believe,” Riner said. “If they’re surrounded by historic figures and by flags, there’s a natural curiosity.”