Monday, October 10, 2011

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo.
There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus.
This weekend, I started out writing an article on lesson plans, activities, and books for celebrating Columbus Day. But in the course of my research of all the different resources available for teachers and students, I began to have second thoughts. Before I knew it, I was learning things about Columbus that really upset me and made me pause and rethink the plans I had for teaching my children about this controversial man.

I have grown up thinking of Columbus the way I - and every student in America -have been taught: Columbus was an intrepid explorer whose arrival in the "New" World eventually led to the colonization of the continent by the Europeans.

The question is: Do we want to teach historical accuracy?

The reality is that Columbus was an atrocious human being. His crimes were well known and documented at the time (yes, there is proof!), and he was even arrested and sent back to Spain for his unforgivable treatment of the indigenous peoples he eventually annihilated. Much of what I learned turned my stomach, and I cannot bring myself to share it here...and I certainly would not teach it to my young children.

So what do we do? Is there a way to teach the real story without making a hero out of Columbus? Yes, I think so. But if you're not sure what to think of all this, take a moment to listen to Celeste Headlee's (The Takeaway) discussion with Bob Peterson, a 5th grade teacher and co-author of Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, and Scott Richard Lyons, director of Native American Studies at Syracuse University.

While I don't totally agree with everything said in the discussion above, they do make a lot of great points and share some valuable information. I have ordered Peterson's book, and will let you know what I think of it when it arrives and I have a chance to go through it. 

For now, I think that this is how I will present the subject of Christopher Columbus to my own children:

Columbus is an extremely important person in world history. He played a major role in the colonization of the Americas, but it came at a terrible price. Columbus sought to create a new and faster trade route to Asia for Europe, but instead he landed in the Carribean, on an island he called San Salvador in the Bahamas. He was a very cruel and greedy person who had asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to pay for his trip and to give him the right govern any new lands, as well as 10% of the profits from his journey. When he could not find any gold to take back to Spain, he instead chose to force the indigenous peoples into slavery and shipped them back to Europe.

I plan to ask them how Columbus could have acted differently upon his arrival and what other things he might have substituted for gold (aside from slaves, I mean).

That said, I do think that the following resources are helpful, depending on how they are used to teach the story:

  • Teaching Resources Classroom Jr. has lots of great coloring pages. I especially like the individual pictures of the Niña, Pinta, and the Santa María.

  • Super Coloring also has some good coloring sheets. I like the pages that incorporate a text box so that the kids can add descriptions or stories of their own.

  • Teacher's Clubhouse offers inexpensive activity sheets for students. If you go to this page and scroll down until you get to the "Explorers" category, you'll find lots of ideas like a minibook, trading cards, journals, and more. I think I would use these to have the children show how Columbus should have acted upon landing in the Americas, by pretending to be him and write their journey down in their own "explorer" journals.

  • I'll be sure to share my thoughts on the book, Rethinking Columbus, when it arrives.

    I'd love to know how you teach your own children about Christopher Columbus, too.

    Un abrazo...


    1. I also grew up with "sailed the ocean blue,"
      When mine are smaller I focus on the journey,adventure and the discovery of a new place, island.
      With my older daugher we focus on De Las Casas, exploring written journals on Columbus and we spend time reviewing map skills, journal enteries. Thanks for the new link.

    2. Thanks for this post Monica, I'm ashamed to say I don't know much about Cristobal Colon, your post made me feel I should!

    3. Great post! I grew up the same way, thinking of him as a hero. Now that I am more aware, I don't think there is much to celebrate about the man.

    4. Vianney, De las Casas is the fascinating one to me!

      Silvia, don't be ashamed. There was so much I didn't know either until I started researching. That's the best part, we can always learn.

    5. Lisa, he is definitely worth studying and learning about, but a hero he is not!

    6. I do not think that he should be celebrated. I do believe he made a huge mark on history so he should be taught. I went to college with a young man that would wear a red T-shirt on Columbus Day that said, "F@ck Columbus!" and on the back said, "Celebrate the slaughter." I most certainly do not think he discovered anything, I do think he claimed things that were not his to claim.

      Not everyone in history has to be a complete hero or a complete villain.

    7. In the words of BART SIMPSON..... The indians were here first!!!!! Who cares about Columbus..... he just raped the people of EVERYTHING they had.

    8. i also grew up with this notion that he was this wonderful sailor. ironically, my 22 yr old niece posed the question on FB just yesterday why do we even bother celebrating a man that was a murderer and thief.... i was quite intrigued by her deep query. thanks for the resources!

    9. Terrible...thanks for writing about this. I think most times we just take certain things for granted because it is so deeply rooted in our culture, but I don't celebrate Christopher Columbus. We can only imagine what the indigenous peoples of the Americas could have achieved had Columbus and his followers not landed in the Americas. When the Spaniards arrived near D.F. and saw all that the Natives had accomplished, they were awestruck and these are men from what they believed to be the "modern" world. I wish we could have the opportunity to see what would've been, but sadly...greed and genocide were able to destroy a body of nations.

    10. Last year I shared with my son something similar to what you will be teaching your children. He is 8 this year and I think if he asks I might give him more detail. Its difficult to know when to begin teaching about such terrible things but I'd rather he hear facts from me.

    11. When I was a kid I always questioned this Holiday. It's this very story that made me start questioning a lot of the history of the US. Thank you so much for sharing how you'll be teaching your kids.


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