Teaching Columbus: Mythbusting

Hi all,

During our last class I was chatting with Bethany and Emily about the challenge of teaching  problematic historical figures to the younger grades. Bethany pointed out that the SOL for grade 2 specifically asks teachers to “describe the contributions” of Christopher Columbus. The first time I encountered the Columbus section of the The People’s History of the United States, I had to literally put the book down and walk away. It was that upsetting. Knowing what I know about Columbus, I was more than surprised to see him included on the agenda for second grade.

So how do you teach terrible history to young children? Do we sugarcoat figures like Columbus and hope to bust the myth later, when they’re old enough to learn about slavery, genocide, and caging women and children in pens? Or do we give them the tools to think critically about the towering historical figures that our country still celebrates?

In search of an answer, I went to Google and found some great resources that might help us begin to bust the myth of Columbus at an early age. Teaching History has a great post on different approaches to teaching Columbus from K-12. I especially liked the recommendation for the book Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History is Invented. The book includes primary source documents appropriate for young learners (as early as second grade, I would say); I firmly believe that primary source work can help teach students to think critically about original documentation, to consider multiple and differing perspectives (including colonized cultures), and moreover, to understand that history is itself constructed. I think books that work with primary sources are a good, age-appropriate start to teaching students how to think critically about the past (the lesson that history is a construct is huge, I think) and are a good way to start grappling with problematic figures like Columbus.

Anyhow, this is all just my two cents. How would you teach Columbus or other figures like him, especially to young children (K-2)? Should we remove Columbus from the SOLs, or should we be forced to reckon with a fuller account of our history?

7 thoughts on “Teaching Columbus: Mythbusting

  1. Vivian, you bring up very interesting points in your blog post. I agree with the importance of reviewing what we are teaching and really taking the time to examine why. Christopher Columbus is an excellent example. As I mentioned in my previous blog response to Bethany, we discussed this issue last semester in the Advanced Children’s Literature course. Even how it relates to science, history is not a stagnant document (or construct as you put it) so of course, we need to review our course teachings and reexamine with fresh eyes what we are teaching and why. We teach what we know at the time but aren’t we continuing to learn and grow as a society? Shouldn’t our teachings reflect that growth and newly discovered information? Review should be constant, thorough and thoughtful. How and what we teach should be scrutinized but with a careful lens to be sure we are telling the most accurate story from vaarious perspectives and with sensitivity.

    I just heard on NPR yesterday that parents are requesting/demanding their “Parental Rights” be valued and are asking to see daily lesson plans, have online transparency with curriculum and even want cameras in the classroom so that parents can see and hear what is being taught to their children. As a parent, I’ve often wanted to get a glimpse into the classroom where my children are spending most of the day but as a teacher, I cannot even imagine how that would feel, being watched every second of every day by potentially critical parents who could take things out of context. Have we grown into such a distrustful society that we want to monitor every sentence uttered by our educators? My hope is that the thoughtful content review will provide a more comfortable education process for teachers, students and parents moving forward but foremost, we need to acknowledge that the need exists by reexamining what we are teaching and why. -Erika

  2. Vivian,
    Thank you for highlighting this issue. As we discussed it at our table during class, I wasn’t sure what the right answer was. I think in this particular situation, t’s important to keep to an unbiased view of history that simply examines facts. Since young children may have a difficult time grasping and dealing with Columbus’ true nature, we may have to introduce him in a way that describes his historical importance without placing him on a pedestal. This could even include mentioning that he wasn’t a good man, without going into extreme detail, I do feel it’s important for children to know the truth. Especially with young children, like the second graders that have to learn about him, we can explain to kids that we know that he was unkind to the natives and was not a nice guy. This is a simple way of allowing children the truth, not withholding it, but also gently approaching the subject in a way that’s appropriate for youngsters. This is a really tough topic, but I’m glad you shed light on a very important question. I’d love to hear from Dr. Stohr on some more tips and techniques we could use to approach these sensitive cases and historical figures. I think it’s important to share the truth, but frame it in a way that is child friendly and support it with sources instead of making claims from opinions. Great topic, Vivian!

  3. Hi Vivian. I really like the questions you posed. I personally would still teach about Christopher Columbus because he did do important things, but I would want to show the truth too. I was taught that he was the most amazing person and that he only did good. But as I got older and found out all the things that he actually did, I didn’t understand why I wouldn’t have been taught those things. I don’t think he should have his own day or that we should devote so much time to him. Just teach the basics and move on to more important figures. If we were to teach more of the truth about Columbus, I think it would need to wait until students are older. Maybe introduce him in the younger years and then go more in-depth when they are older and learning about early history.


  4. Hi Vivian,

    Like you, I found it upsetting to read the article by Howard Zinn as well, but as lifelong learners ourselves, these readings are necessary for providing our students with these appalling truths. With these truths, we provide our students with the opportunity in learning critical-thinking skills needed to question the importance of learning about the selection of individuals in our Virginia Standards of Learning.

    After our activity regarding Rosa Parks, Dr. Stohr mentioned Claudette Colvin, who had refused her seat for a White male prior to Rosa’s actions, however, Colvin did not peacefully protest, which is why we honor Rosa and her peaceful protest. Given this information, it makes me question the reasons for allowing Columbus to be taught in classrooms. As we are teaching the future leaders of tomorrow, we should teach students about individuals who made contributions in America in a humane way. I believe this is especially important for students who don’t have good role models to look up to in their lives. As students progress through their education, if teachers aren’t honest and have a willingness to appropriately answer their questions about history, our students could resent the educational system without knowing that today’s teachers are justice-seekers.

    Regarding a possible approach (which I am welcome to any feedback on this idea/strategy) when introducing the controversial “individuals who changed the lives of Americans” would be to explicitly state to my students the reason for teaching the specific individual, ensuring understanding that the individual made specific contributions, however, their character in attaining these contributions should be questioned.

    Overall, as a teacher, it is expected that we remain professional role models for our students. With this, teacher’s need to be honest about the characteristics of certain individuals such as Christopher Columbus because, as a role model, we are expected to tell the truth in all aspects of our profession, so we must be honest in what we are teaching our students as well. The advice I gained from Zinn’s article was not to lie about the history and also not to omit any information. Importantly, depending on the grade level you are teaching, its important to use simple vocabulary in addressing certain facts that could be inappropriate for certain grade levels and emphasizing the importance for them to question an individual’s characteristics.

    Thank you for your post!

  5. Hey Vivian!

    Thank you for your very insightful blog post, I think you bring up a lot of great concerns. The main objective for us, teachers, is to discuss the the truth and the importance of these figures while avoiding the sugar coating and displaying them as good people. This is especially important as younger children have more tendencies to look up to role models, and if the wrong figures are portrayed to them as role models and when they find out the truth later on, they might be disappointed in learning that what they have learned is a lie. I would love to learn more about introducing the concept of how not all key figures in history are good and how some are malicious but in a way that is appropriate for younger children so they are not shocked in the future with a discovery of the untruthful. This way, we can teach the important history but avoid portraying them as idols and people to emulate.

  6. Hi Vivian,

    Thank you for sharing this pondering; I must say I have struggled with this. When I was in 3rd grade, I (unknowingly) loved the explorers unit because my teacher used a fun board game to teach each person. Now that I have more knowledge on his (and other historical figures) actions, I am saddened. Truthfully, I don’t think Colombus should be entirely taken out of history. Realistically it is a pivotal part of American history; however, that does not mean Colombus and his likings need to be glorified.

    Perhaps the history of Colombus could be taught in steps. We should never ignore parts of history if we can teach students about his acts of violence during the quests and how the land acquired is not truly his/ours. I think things can be taught without scarring students; there is an appropriate time and place for things, and as educators, we should know at what age to draw certain lines. We make no progress in history if we hide and ignore elements; by this, I mean Colombus and his actions need to be kept in the books, but the information be more truthful.

  7. You have shared great resources and asked important questions here, Vivian. Many of these are resources I normally examine with the class. I’ll have to see what else I can come up with no!

    A number of states no longer honor Columbus, but instead celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on this day. I think this is an important thing to do. I do think students should learn about Columbus, but I don’t believe he should be honored as a discoverer. We should highlight the positive and negative impacts his appearance in the Americas actually had. There has been a movement to eliminate the holiday nationally, but there has been a tremendous backlash from the Italian American community, for whom Columbus is a point of pride. This canonization comes from not telling the whole truth of his story.

    BTW, I wrote and delivered a lengthy public comment during the 2015 revision of the SOL. Many of use objected to his continued inclusion in the elementary curriculum. Obviously, those protests fell on deaf ears.

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