Letting Students be the Judges of History: Putting Columbus on Trial

We’re all familiar with the Columbus myth. The man garnered an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, told them he believed that the world was round and that he could use that novel fact to find a faster route to Asia for spice and gold. On his way, he used his three ships the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to find The New World and erroneously named the local people he found there as Indians, thinking he was in fact in India. Of course, very little of that story is true.

The facts are that most people knew the world was round back in 1492. The Greeks had proven it thousands of years earlier, so if a body had any education at all they were well aware of it…and the fact was not in contest. Furthermore, Columbus made many trips to the so-called “New World” (and its “newness” could be disputed by thousands of years of local history as well as hundreds of years of Viking expedition). The truth is that Columbus’s greatest impact on the world and history is rarely taught in the elementary classrooms where his ships are commonly colored in from black line masters and hung on bulletin boards for display.

The true Columbus was an imperial murder, thief, and rapist who sat at the helm at one of the most efficient and devastating genocides known to man. Within decades of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, the native Taino populations were all eradicated—their only genetic remains lying in the children born from intermarriage (often forced) and rape. This is also hardly blockbuster news…however most people don’t discover this very different New World until their proximal to college age. As an educator with a multicultural heritage that has its fair share of genocide (and genocidal attempts) on both sides, servicing a population of students who mostly have their own fair share of Taino blood in them, I could not allow them to live their lives celebrating a man whose holiday is younger than my grandfather and was only created through the strong arming of FDR by the Knights of (you guessed it) Columbus.

Though I have been teaching for a while, it had never been appropriate to address the true nature of Columbus and his acts in history because my classes had always been too young to approach the matter in the way that I wanted to. In those circumstances, rather than address Columbus in err I approached him not at all, and banished him from my conversations and topics. At most, his name was dropped only to explain that there was a day off on Monday, and that day was called Columbus Day. This year, last week I was able to take to action.

Having 5th Graders this year opens up the possibility to challenge concepts in a way that is more sophisticated and broadening than with children in the younger grades. I am sure that there is a way to broach the truth of Columbus with younger students, but I didn’t give it much thought…in my heart I wanted to put Columbus on Trial as shown in the book Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow. I had participated in a workshop version of this activity (tailored to adults) in my Masters program and since then had been very hungry at the opportunity to try it in my room.

Putting Columbus on Trial isn’t nearly as dramatic as you might think, though it is a wonderful example of the over executed workshop model in action. Along with another teacher who provides my students with a Social Studies “special” period, the students were provided with facts about the real Columbus and his real impact as she read them the book Impact by Jane Yolen (providing the perspective of Columbus from that of an aged Taino) on one day, and gave the Eurocentric perspective on another, we were able to build a schism of information in the eyes of the students. Mostly, I acted as a facilitator when the actual trail lesson was conducted as the information building sessions were not co-teaching classes, I wasn’t present. Once they had the background knowledge I had them offer my what they knew about Columbus and the Tainos. Their list showed me that they were ready for the trial-they had enough information to think critically about the veracity of either side of the story.

The lesson that was conducted provided students with the opportunity to represent one of four parties responsible for the murder and genocide of the Taino people: The King and Queen of Spain, Columbus, Columbus’s Men, and the Tainos themselves (I left “The System of Empire” out of the lesson because it would have required too much scaffolding at this time). The students were broken into four groups and given identical fact sheets from which they had to use only written facts and prior knowledge that they could cite to prove their group’s innocence and lay the facts of another’s guilt. During that time they were to use chart paper to share their ideas and document them as I circulated for the period trouble shooting group dynamic problems and pointing out places where they needed more for their idea to be “fully developed”.

During that time several of my students expressed their difficulties in working with the limited set of data, wishing they had more evidence to work from. This, of course, is part of the exercise that I modified from Bigelow. I wanted the students to think about both the new perspective I offered and the myth that we have been inundated with over the years. In this, I believe the students were successful. Several times I had students asking me if they could use the internet to find some photographs to back up their positions—and they were shocked to find out that there were no such devices in 1492. One student—upon that revelation—asked me how then the portrait of Columbus I had offered them could be trusted. I told them it couldn’t…

“History is bogus Mr. Melendez! You can’t really prove anything!!” she said to me.

I felt I had done my job, and done it well. I informed her that if she believes something is bogus or not true, it requires just as much proof and effort as trying to convince people that your ideas are valid. She shot daggers at me, not in anger, ,but in the frustration of a hard truth that will service her well throughout her life whether it is academic, professional, or personal.

After a little more than one 45-minute period, the students presented their cases to the class. The students had come to identify with their groups as teams, and began competing for the “win” in the trial which was not unexpected but was unintended and discouraged. At this point in the lesson all non-presenting groups were to be acting as “jury” while I was playing the role of Prosecutor and Judge. I asked the students challenging questions about their cases which they had to answer such as “Aren’t you responsible for your own actions regardless of who hired you?” or “Why didn’t you defend yourselves against the invaders?” and they this did successfully and logically.

In the end a secret ballot vote was taken and an affair was made of publicly counting the votes (something that I do often for decisions made by the students in my classroom). The students found by overwhelming majority that Columbus’s Men were responsible for the Murder of the Tainos on the grounds that they tried to mutiny, and that Columbus was often traveling back to Spain—thereby discrediting his leadership. I have personal issue with it, but many of those facts were not readily available to them—and I didn’t broach the sex slave issue or the cutting off of hands in retaliation for not making gold quota that Columbus instituted. Their decision was built on a good case developed from limited data by their peers.

I now believe that this particular set of my elementary students left on Friday with a very different set of beliefs around not only the Columbus myth, but also on “factual” history and the burden of proof. I always encourage them to challenge information that rubs against their grain, and I now feel they have some experience in the practice. While the workshop model isn’t always the most effective route to education, in this instance it was the most successful venue for this kind of activity. They students were engaged in learning that was self-directed, open ended, and ultimately the subject of interpretation.

My students have taken some of their first steps towards critical thinking and breaking their programming, and I am excited for them for it.

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