Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?

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I had a wonderful Friday at my placement school, but it was such a whirlwind that by the time I got home, I simply didn’t have the energy to do much of anything, let alone write a coherent post about my day (though I did end up going to see Hacksaw Ridge (2016), the new WWII film about Army Medic Desmond Ross, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor).

I was especially excited to be at school because I was about to help set up an ELL (English Language Learner – or EL, for English Learner) discussion group with a colleague of mine, aaaaand I was ready to teach a lesson that I had designed to the students in my fourth block U.S. history class.

During advisory period, I met with up Ms. B, a colleague of mine in the counseling program, as well as three of the 6th grade ELL learners who are new to our school. We found an empty classroom and promptly began to introduce ourselves and explain what we would be doing. Ms. B, Ms. C (the ESL instructor), and I had decided to begin a small student-centered discussion group for the ELL learners in the sixth grade. Our goal was to create a weekly, fun, friendly, low-pressure space for them to talk about their experiences at our school. In a nutshell, our goal is for them to tell stories, share their interests, express any concerns they may have, and most importantly, to support one another as they navigate their transition into middle school. The latter would be a daunting task for any sixth grade student, but perhaps even more so for those who are still diligently working to acquire English.
During this first meeting, we did two things:

a. We made name tents together and asked the students to decorate them with pictures of personal significance. Then, we shared them and introduced ourselves. TCL.jpg

b. We established group norms and expectations. This was mostly a discussion, with plenty of visual scaffolding and modeling, about respect, confidentiality, and kindness.

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I think our group members really enjoyed the opportunity to share their thoughts and express their feelings without having to worry about the mechanics of language production in front of their peers. I am excited to watch them grow as individuals and as community members over the course of the school year!

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During my fourth block class, I had the opportunity to teach a lesson that I had designed in my Social Studies Curriculum & Instruction Methods class. This lesson (shortened-sac-nov-11utilized the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) model. An SAC is a discussion-oriented activity designed to investigate an open-ended or controversial question. While in pairs or small groups, students synthesize historical evidence and use it to formulate both sides of a critical issue. After engaging with contrasting, even conflicting perspectives, students present their information to each other, and are ultimately asked to attempt to reach a sort of consensus. An SAC is particularly valuable because it emphasizes the importance of accepting alternative positions while scaffolding the process of creating persuasive arguments. 

If you want to learn more about the model itself, please read this, or visit my Plans & Projects page (I have included a more detailed version of this learning plan, with background information, context, rationale, a description of the instructional model, and reflections).

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“Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?”

 

“Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?”

As I sat down to think of possible lesson topics for my SAC about three weeks ago, I realized that the perfect one was practically right in front of me! Just a week earlier, people across the country had celebrated Columbus Day, a national holiday dedicated to the adventurous, yet controversial Italian explorer (fun fact: Columbus Day was established as a national holiday in 1937 after much campaigning by influential Catholics).

While Columbus was indeed an intelligent and daring individual who had a profound impact on the course of western history, his legacy is certainly more complicated than some may think (or accept). Here are some brief reasons why he may be more of a villain than a hero:

  • He was motivated to explore out of greed (he contracted with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain).
  • He was highly racist and ethnocentric – these traits are revealed through a careful examination of his journal & diary entries.
  • He treated the native people cruelly, and administered harsh punishments, including torture, the removal of limbs, and even murder, if they did not comply with his demands.
  • He enslaved thousands of native people and sent them back to Spain.
  • He and his men introduced deadly diseases which ravaged the native population. Some historians suggest that he committed genocide. Any educators reading this might want to also check out The People vs. Columbus, a mock-trial simulation that was created as part of the Howard Zinn Education Project.
  • He was actually sent back to Spain in chains after the king and queen heard about the atrocities he had committed. He was also stripped of his title of governor.

Because my students are in the sixth grade, I figured this would be the perfect topic for a structured academic controversy. I was fairly certain that the only narrative they would have heard was that “Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to reach America,” which isn’t even true! (it was probably Leif Ericsson). Therefore, I was excited to see how they would react when they heard the other side of the story.

Their reactions ended up being something like this:
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My lesson ended up going just about as well as I could have hoped! My students engaged in enthusiastic, lively discussion, and were practically bouncing in their seats as they waited their turn to present their information to one another. Several groups needed extra time because they wanted to be able to keep their discussions going. Even though they were chomping at the bit to respond to each other’s points, they remained respectful, and adhered to the activity’s norms and expectations.

I was particularly proud of the persuasive paragraphs my students wrote in response to the central question. They continue to impress me with their ability to synthesize information, consider alternative points of view, and produce coherent arguments. Here is a phenomenal sample of one of their paragraph responses – remember, my students are only four months removed from elementary school.

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“Columbus was ruthless, racist, and a liar”                                                                     “He was also ethnocentric because he thought he, his race, and religion were superior”

I was pretty much grinning from ear to ear at the end of class. My students had exceeded my expectations, and then some. I was even more excited when the other 6th grade social studies teachers at my school expressed their interest in teaching my lesson to their students!

As we begin to discuss the themes of “cooperation” and “conflict” between Native Americans and European settlers, I’m thinking that it might be possible to use this lesson as a springboard for a contemporary discussion about the Dakota Access Pipeline. I want my students to be able to understand the perspectives of the Native Americans whose lives are being affected today. I hope that this lesson helped illustrate that interactions between cultures and peoples are not always the rosy narratives depicted in Disney, and that there are certain aspects about history that we might consider changing if we could.

 

 

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