In spite of what our grandparents and parents were taught, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America in 1492. The land had been inhabited for centuries, and other explorers from Europe, Asia, and Africa had already made landfall here.
Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence to debunk the myth of flat earth from his voyages. Ancient Greeks knew that the world had a round shape, and Renaissance scholars assumed that to be the case. Washington Irving attributed that feat to Columbus in his 1828 publication, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a fictional but biographical account.
Why is he one of the two people with their own national holiday in the United States? Martin Luther King, Jr. is my other choice. In every state in the country, there are memorials to him and places named for him. Why were these names given to those places? Christopher Columbus has been seen as a symbol of unity, opposition, and power by thousands of Italian Americans, Catholics, Protestants, American Indians, Hispanics, government groups, and more through the centuries. Various political, religious, and ethnic groups have organized to celebrate and establish traditions that affirm their own perspectives and experiences under the umbrella of Columbus Day.
All sides treat him as a symbol, so we can’t avoid asking questions.
So, what DID Columbus do?
There are unintended consequences in Columbus’ story, broadly speaking. When Columbus set out for Western Asia, he set himself up for failure. His four voyages took place at a time when imperialism and trade were on the rise in Europe.
Christopher Columbus’ journal of his voyage of 1492 was published by Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook. They summarize the tension of conflicting interpretations in their preface to this wall-to-wall, unadorned transcription. “On the one hand, [Columbus’s voyage] is witness to the tremendous vitality and verve of late medieval and early modern Europe—which was on the verge of acquiring a world hegemony. On the other hand, the direct result of this and later voyages was the virtual extermination, by ill-treatment and disease, of the vast majority of the Native inhabitants, and the enormous growth of the transatlantic slave trade. It might not be fair to lay the blame at Columbus’ feet, but since all sides treat him as a symbol, such questions cannot be avoided.”
It is under the heading of History and Memory that Annenberg Media approaches Columbus, stating “Until recently, Columbus was revered around the world as a distinguished explorer and civilizer.” Annenberg’s primary and secondary materials demonstrate that increased scientific and archaeological evidence propelled an historiographic change. “Increasingly, Columbus became symbolic of an encounter that raised uncomfortable questions about conquest, colonialism, and destruction of peoples and habitats.”
A summary of the controversies about Columbus is presented by The History Channel in a biographical overview of Columbus’ life. They omit important milestones, however, such as opposition to the holiday by the American Indian Movement and the establishment of alternative holidays by legislation in some states. History News Network discusses the 2006 protest in Denver, where Columbus Day originated, that motivated activists to challenge Columbus Day.
Education.com provides a particularly comprehensive lesson plan for teaching about Christopher Columbus. Using primary and secondary sources, What Was Columbus Thinking invites students to learn about the intentions behind Columbus’ voyages and its effects on Native Americans and Europeans. Although the lesson plan is aimed at students in third and fifth grades, the primary sources (including Columbus’s journal excerpts and a letter from him) seem to be a bit advanced for that age group; however, the lesson plan offers detailed guidance for document analysis.
In its lesson plan for middle and high school students, the New York Times explores Columbus Day protests through the lens of “the viewpoint of a stakeholder of that nation.”
Books for children and adults look at how we construct historical narratives and who writes them.
Almost any bookstore or online retailer offers a variety of historical fiction, biography, and other nonfiction books for all ages. Both of these books examine the construction of different narratives about Columbus Day and how they came to be.
In Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History is Invented by Kathy Pelta (grades 6-9), students explore how history is written by examining primary and secondary sources about Christopher Columbus and discussing how each has been interpreted differently over time. Timothy Kubal’s Christopher Columbus and the Rewriting of the National Origin Myth (for adults) examines how political, ethnic, and social constructs have appropriated, shaped, and adapted the Christopher Columbus narrative.
And here at the Clearinghouse, please visit these materials:
The American Myths: Christopher Columbus quiz in our past quizzes section clarifies misconceptions about the man, his explorations, and the holiday.
The website review for Columbus and the Age of Discovery leads to a cumbersome, but useful resource for searching and accessing background materials.
The Library of Congress introduces exhibit-based materials on its website 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.
Bob Bain demonstrates a lesson in the Research Brief Learning to Think Historically: Columbus, Exploration, and the Idea of the Flat Earth that encourages students to challenge and examine inherited beliefs about history through exploring historical evidence.
DISCOVERER’S DAY LESSON IDEAS
Explore the Explorers Online
Students can explore new worlds, as well as new worlds of knowledge and discovery, thanks to Columbus and the other early explorers.
Consider helping your students explore Web sites that provide historical context to Columbus’ achievements this Columbus Day. We have included links to various online lesson plans for teaching about Columbus at all grade levels.
Lessons Learned by the Explorers
Who chooses a life of exploration, adventure, and danger? A life without them would be nearly impossible. Students will answer those questions as they investigate the impact of explorers on our world.
Lewis and Clark: The Westward Journey
As part of a mapping expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean from 1803, Meriwether Lewis was appointed expedition leader. Lessons for celebrating the 200th anniversary of this historic journey are included.
From Sea to Shining Sea: A Nation Moves Westward!
Educators and students will find great resources on America’s westward expansion at Education World. More than a dozen lesson activities are available.
Across the Sea: Europeans Explore the New World
Want to learn more about the intrepid adventurers who first sailed to the New World? Check out these Internet sites and help your students learn about the earliest explorers.
From prehistoric man through modern times, this page has links to information about discoverers and explorers. Space exploration is the only topic that appears to be missing.
Amelia Earhart Comes to Life in Two Books for Young Readers
Amelia Earhart, one of the world’s best-known aviators, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world via an equatorial route.
A New Twist on Explorers!
Your search for a different way to introduce your students to the world of famous explorers has ended. Explore the amazing world around you with the newest guide from Workman Publishing.
Mariners’ Museum – The Age of Exploration
Our ancestors had wealth and riches thanks to their ability to sail the sea. On the “Mariners’ Museum – The Age of Exploration” Website students can learn what it was like to be a seafaring person in the past.
The three ships sailed Columbus across the ocean in 1492. He left from Spain and sailed through sun, rain and wind.”
Having learned it in elementary school, most of us are familiar with this rhyme. It actually celebrates the return of a lost and unreachable man. We need to put a stop to it. * Columbus Day should be reconsidered.
A story about a disoriented European can hurt us all, and Columbus Day is the wrong story to tell. It is better to tell the story of indigenous peoples who not only predate Columbus, but who have survived and succeed in an often hostile social and political environment in the United States.
By teaching about indigenous peoples’ presence, endurance, and accomplishments, teachers can transform Columbus Day into a day in honor of indigenous people. More than a dozen U.S. cities and the entire states of South Dakota, Hawaii, Vermont, Minnesota and Alaska now celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. There is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to the holiday.
Many schools across the United States will be closed Monday in honor of Columbus’s birthday, which is a federally recognized holiday, but more and more states are choosing not to observe the holiday.
Clearly, the story of the indigenous people affected by Columbus-and the colonizers who followed him-is gaining traction in local and state governments. Additionally, teachers are crucial for providing a deeper understanding of that story. The activities listed below are great ways to engage students in a different story in advance of Columbus Day, regardless of where your school is located:
- To help students understand that historical events have multiple sides, read the story of Columbus from both indigenous and western perspectives. The comic book The 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (grades 9-12) and Rethinking Schools’ Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years include lesson ideas that can be adapted to any grade level, historical documents and creative works. Each resource contributes to the replacement of “murky legends” with indigenous survival stories.
- Discover indigenous experiences of colonization beyond the arrival of Columbus. Elementary students should enjoy “Connected to Everything.” The TT Student Text Library offers readings for middle school and high school students. “The First Americans,” “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question,” and “Proclamation: To the Great White Father (November, 1969)” are examples.
- Hold a mock trial of Columbus. Students in grades 6-12 are asked to evaluate statements drawn from primary and secondary sources to determine whether Columbus should be found guilty of crimes against humanity in the education resources information center (ERIC) database.
- The Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King is a good choice for younger grades. The book introduced young readers to Columbus’ role in Indigenous enslavement, which is recommended by critics Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. Particularly notable is the text’s age-appropriate approach and its refusal to erase Indigenous people.
- Encourage your students to send letters to the town council or mayor explaining their concerns about honoring Columbus as well as their thoughts regarding recognizing the cultures and contributions of indigenous communities in your region. Persuasive Letters (grades 3-5) and Truth to Power: Writing Letters for Change (grades 6-12) are excellent ways to connect class readings and discussions with action.
- Introduce older students to contemporary indigenous practitioners and perspectives such as Drezus, the comedy troupe The 1491s, the documentary Moccasins and Microphones: Modern Native Storytelling through Performance Poetry and Adrienne Keene’s blog, “Native Appropriations.” You can even ask students to tweet on October 12 to these practitioners (or tweet references to their work) as a public antidote to the celebration of Columbus.
Thomas King writes in The Truth About Stories that “stories are medicine” and have the power to injure or heal. Observing a holiday in honor of Columbus and his exploits sends the wrong message. More important, it hurts Native Americans by reinforcing their absence from our national consciousness and hurts those who aren’t Native by lauding the arrival of a European instead of the more impressive healing story of indigenous survival. The indigenous story is more accurate, and it’s a story that students deserve to hear.
If stories are medicine, then the doctor is in. The prescription: Write and speak a healing narrative that honors Native peoples.