Who is Columbus?

March 26, 2009

Who is Columbus? And why does he have a day named after him?

One week before Columbus Day I was asked this by my second graders.  I responded with a question – “Why do we have holidays?”

“Because something important happened a long time ago on that day.”

“Since Columbus is a person that must mean he is important or he did something important.”

“What did he do?”

I used their interest and questions to guide what I was going to teach them over the coming weeks. This was going to be a unit of discovery not on discovery.


Who is Columbus?

What is it that you remember about Christopher Columbus?

My guess is that it’s he was from Italy but sailed for Spain, had 3 ships-Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and he sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

Those pretty useless facts are what I remembered learning too. I assumed that was the whole story for most of my life. That is until I reached college and learned the true story of Christopher Columbus and his “discovery”.

Through readings from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen  and Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson I was exposed to the full picture of Columbus’s journey. I learned fascinating facts that were absent from my 12 years of schooling. Things like Columbus made multiple trips to the new land and that he met indigenous people when he “discovered” the new land. As it turns out Columbus might not be so deserving of the hero status we have given him. While it is not known for sure that Columbus himself did any harm to the indigenous Taino people he met on his journey, it is well documented that his visit changed the life of the Taino people-and not for the better.

As you may or may not know Columbus went on his journey in search of gold. His thirst for gold convinced him that the Tainos had stores of it and were hiding it somewhere on the islands. The Tainos in fact, did not have hidden stores of gold, but nevertheless Columbus was convinced. The Tainos did however, have a rich culture and society. They worked together fairly peacefully, made sure all were able to eat and lived in harmony with the lush rainforests of the islands. Columbus, his men, and the governments set up after him enslaved the Tainos and forced them to work tirelessly to find the nonexistent gold.

A system was setup where those Tainos who were not able to fulfill their gold quota had their hands chopped off, and those who tried to run and escape were chased down and killed by attack dogs. The rainforests were destroyed and cleared to make room for forts and other buildings. Clearly, Taino life was changed forever. 

You’d think a genocide might be addressed in the history books and probably the last thing one would have a holiday about-but you’d be wrong.

Knowing this information I knew I was not going to lie to my students. I was going to let them hear the whole story. Both sides. Then they could decide whether what Columbus did was heroic and holiday worthy or not.

What I Did

March 5, 2009

In order to give my students the full picture and multiple perspectives of Columbus and his voyage I first needed to assess their prior knowledge. I tried to do a K/W/L chart, but I found out my students really did not know anything about Columbus. I found this interesting because they are second graders and usually this topic is covered in earlier grades, but was delighted that I would not have to battle pre-learned untruths. I moved from the What We Know section to the What We Want to Learn section. I charted the the students’ questions: Who was Columbus? What did he do? Why do we have a holiday? Why don’t we have school?

I began our exploration of this topic with a simple read aloud from a typical book on Columbus. This book had all the typical information: 3 ships, lived in Italy, sailed for the Spanish king and queen, and “found” new world. This book also happened to mention that Columbus met people when he landed and left it at that. After I read the book to students, we looked at our questions and decided which questions we answered. We then charted the answers to the questions and called it a day. One student raised his hand as we were finishing and said this, “If Columbus met people on the island he landed on, how did he find a place?” I let the question go and watched as the students started to ponder this.

The next day I decided to read my students another account of Columbus and his journey. This one was from the perspective of Columbus himself. It was an excerpt from his diary that can be found in Rethinking Columbus. (I had to reword some of the language to make it more accessible to 2nd graders but changed none of the meaning.) Over the course of the next few days I read tiny portions of the diary to my students. After each read aloud we charted our findings and any new questions we had. As we read students began to see Columbus in a different light. They noticed things like his greed and fascination with gold. They wondered how a person could knowingly treat others so unfairly or claim the land of others as his own. They began to question the understanding they had of Columbus as a hero. We documented all of this information on our KWL chart.

After we finished Columbus’s diary, I read aloud accounts of the Taino people and their society prior to Columbus’s visit.  We looked at world maps and found where the Taino people lived-modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We looked at the route Columbus took on his voyage and pondered what life might have been like on the ship. My students, a majority of which are Dominican now felt a powerful connection to this subject. They seemed even more engaged in the topic now and raised their hands with more questions.

The last article I read to my students was also from Rethinking Columbus. This article told about the horrifying gold collection system set up by Columbus and his men. The system required the Taino people to bring the Europeans a specified amount of gold-gold that didn’t exist on the island. Those who brought the right amount of gold were given a pendant to wear. Those who did not  got their hands chopped off. “Why didn’t they run away?” remarked one students. Tainos who ran away were hunted and attacked by dogs. Though gruesome, this article captivated and awed students. “How could this happen?” they asked. They were now critically thinking about the topic. “Wait a minute. How could you collect gold without hands?” asked one students. The others all agreed this system was not the best one. After this reading the students erupted into chatter on the subject. I knew I had harness this interest and enthusiasm and really assess students’ understandings of the topic.

Once we had finished our read alouds I asked the students what their opinion of Columbus was; Hero or Not? We explored the difference between fact and opinion and then created a T-Chart of reasons why Columbus could be a hero or why he could not be a hero.


I then asked my students to write down their opinions of Columbus’s heroship along with justifications for their positions. I surprisingly got papers representing each side.

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I thought we were done. However, my students were not yet satisfied with our study.

Taking Action

March 5, 2009

My students were not satisfied yet. Though they learned all they could they still needed some sort of closure with the subject. “How come my brother in 5th grade didn’t learn this?” “I was talking to my mom about this and she never knew that Columbus did this stuff.”

I could tell from their questions that what they really wanted was to get the word out to other people. I turned this question back to them. “What can we do?” I asked. Our brainstorming session brought us to 2 possibilities: a bulletin board or handing out pamphlets on the subject to others in the school. Since this was my first year in the school and I wasn’t fully aware of the culture and climate of the school, I opted to have the students make a bulletin board. With this focus I asked the students what we could put on the board. We decided to put up the T-Chart and our opinion papers on the subject. Then one student suggested we leave a space for others to write down their opinions on the subject.  I could see some of the students were upset about not getting to hand out flyers. I suggested we create a Facts Sheet about Columbus that people could take. This cheered them up and a separate committee of fact collectors and typists was created. Another student suggested we put up pictures to go along with our writing. I agreed with that idea as I thought it would help a few select students fully participate in the project. I asked students to create 2 pictures. One depicting Taino life before Columbus came and one showing what happened after his visit.

The students ran with the idea and we spent the next few days creating our bulletin board.

In the end this is what we created.





Taino Person and His House

"Taino Person and His House"


"Chopping Off Hands"

"Chopping Off Hands"

"Get Me GOLD!"

"Get Me GOLD!"



"Chopping Off Hands"

"Chopping Off Hands"


March 4, 2009

Overall, we received positive reactions from students and staff at the school.

Our first comments came from a student’s nurse. She watched as the students put up the bulletin board commented on how interesting this work was. A third grade teacher took one of the Facts Sheets and taught her class using it. The school security guard popped into the classroom to tell students she was so proud and interested in their research. The other 2nd grade teachers approached me and said they really enjoyed the work my students had done. They remarked about how they wished they could do this with their students and how it was such an interesting perspective on the topic.

My students were receiving compliments from their peers as well. They would come back from lunch giddy with the knowledge that other students were reading their work and enjoying their bulletin board.

This unit really helped set up the culture of my classroom. My students now regularly question things they read and every holiday have questions about why we celebrate it. The class feels very comfortable asking any questions and are more than willing to put in the extra work and research to find out the answers to their inquiries.

Improvements and Revisions

March 2, 2009

Over the past 2 years I have reworked and revised the way I taught this unit.

I first tried focusing more on the concept of fact and opinion. While most of the content was the same I really made sure that my students understood the difference between facts and opinions but still asked them to do the same activities. I generally got the same kind of work out of them.

My next attempt at teaching this unit was from a different perspective. I kept the content the same but I changed the tasks and activities I had students engage in. I also changed the perspective and sequence of the unit. I usually started with Columbus and then the Tainos and the impact Columbus had on their lifestyle. This time I started with the Tainos.

We explored the Tainos’ culture and way of life and students drew pictures of things they learned about the Taino society. Then we went into Columbus and the encounter. This change of perspective really helped change the mindset of my students.

They were even more outraged and wondered what was happening with the Tainos now and how we could help. This allowed us to actually take more action than I had in the past. My previous attempts were more awareness raising than taking social action but this time we were able to do both.

One group of students focused on making a petition to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day and another group worked on a comic book to illustrate what they had learned. The petition group made the petition, gave presentations to classes using the other group’s comic book, gathered signatures and wrote letters to people who they deemed powerful and in control of the holiday. The students wrote to the principal, the mayor and the president. They mailed each of the letters with a copy of their petition and the signatures they gathered. For the first time I was able to get my class to to take social action and strive to make changes that they felt were important.