How To Teach Critical Thinking on Columbus Day

The second Monday in October is recognized as Columbus Day in the United States. Some schools have this day off, while others use the holiday to discuss Christopher Columbus and his role in history. However, over the past few decades, more educators and parents are rethinking how they talk about Columbus. The man is no longer deified as the discoverer of the free world and people increasingly evaluate the negative impacts his landing had on the Americas.

As an educator, it can be hard to decide what to cover in regard to Columbus. Are younger students ready to learn the truth about this person? Should older students discuss him at all? 

There is a place for Columbus in the classroom. Here is how you can discuss Columbus thoughtfully while honoring the Indigenous people he harmed. 

Learn About Columbus Day

Before you decide whether you want to discuss Columbus Day in your classroom, learn more about its origins and who celebrates it. 

Dennis W. Zotigh and Renée Gokey, cultural specialist and teacher services coordinator, respectively, at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, report that Americans only started to observe Columbus Day in 1972, although it was first documented in 1869 as a way to celebrate Italian-American heritage in San Francisco. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it a national holiday, and President Richard Nixon created the first national observance. 

Almost immediately after the holiday was recognized, Indigenous populations spoke out against the new national holiday. Since then, there have been calls to state leaders and localized protests to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The movement against Columbus Day is starting to gain traction. More than 15 states now observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or alongside Columbus Day. Additionally, many universities and local governments have adopted the day even if state leaders haven’t. 

Changing the name of the day is only one step toward honoring historic and existing Indigenous peoples. 

“Of course, changing the name of a single day doesn’t nearly address the knowledge gap about Native history that still persists today,” says Lizz Schumer, senior editor at Hearst Magazines. She cites data “showing that 87% of the references to Native Americans in U.S. curricula appear within the context of American history before 1900.” According to the study, that approach relegates “the importance and presence of Indigenous Peoples to the distant past.”   

As an educator, you can use Columbus Day to talk about modern Indigenous peoples while still teaching students about the history surrounding the holiday. It is possible to strike a delicate balance between the two. 

Teacher and pupils working at desk together at the elementary school, Columbus Day concept

Don’t Erase Columbus Entirely

Honoring Indigenous people doesn’t mean eliminating Christopher Columbus from the discussion. The person behind the holiday still plays a significant role in history and our culture today. 

“Not teaching about Columbus does not erase him from the calendars, the history books and, frankly, the unconscious minds of most Americans,” says Ali Michael, author of “Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education.” “The mainstream history which is taught in most U.S. schools and in U.S. culture…sets up students to have an understanding of history told from the perspective of the colonists, a history that celebrates Columbus, a history that erases the indigenous people who lived here—and those indigenous people who still live here.”

Homeschooler Erin at Royal Baloo shares two reasons why Columbus needs to be part of history class. First, many people continue to view Columbus as a hero. People need to know the truth about this person. Second, Columbus is still part of history. 

“It would be hard to understand the atrocities committed against the Native Americans if we don’t include something about Columbus,” she writes. 

Keeping Christopher Columbus in the conversation allows students and educators to discuss the man and his actions honestly. It opens the door for debates and new information about who Columbus was. 

“We are not rewriting history,” says Steven Reed, mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, which marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time in 2020. “In fact, we are allowing for a more accurate accounting of history by acknowledging the people who are native to this land. We must be honest about the past in order to heal, reconcile and become an even stronger community.”

Provide Age-Appropriate Discussions

The first thing to consider when developing your lesson plan is the types of discussions your students can handle. Younger students are not ready to learn about genocide, but this doesn’t mean you need to paint a rosy picture of Christopher Columbus. In fact, you are laying a foundation for students to better understand his role in history as they grow older. 

Robyn Welling, director of content at ParentsTogether, says parents and educators can talk about Columbus Day from a social-emotional perspective. For example, students can examine the painting “First Landing of Christopher Columbus” by Frederick Kemmelmeyer, and share their thoughts about different aspects of the art. Teachers can guide students through questions and activities that allow them to reflect on the imagery and the various perspectives involved with the colonizers’ landing. This is a good place to start, especially for younger children. 

Younger students might actually be more receptive to learning honest history than you realize. Nathanael Madden, a fourth-grade teacher in Potomac, Maryland, went viral in 2019 with a series of tweets about how he teaches Columbus Day. Many students were surprised by this accurate telling and how it contradicted what they had previously learned. 

“School is often a very confining and controlling place for kids, and I want to create a space for students to feel liberated by learning,” says Madden. “This…means that we can’t ignore our world’s current realities, as well as how everything has been impacted by historical realities. Through my teaching, I constantly encourage and challenge my students to be critical questioners and critical thinkers so they can be active and informed participants in our world.”  

Talking about Columbus through a modern lens is an opportunity to encourage students to dig deeper in their lessons beyond what they learn in the classroom. 

“[Columbus] had a huge impact, shaping the world we live in today,” says Eric Soto-Shed, a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It brings the past to life when you’re getting kids to interrogate history and really think about it critically.”

High School Students Taking Part In Group Discussion; teaching Columbus Day concept

Discuss How the Day Should Be Observed

As you start to introduce the real Columbus to students, you can create discussions around the holiday including whether or not it should be observed. You can also build lesson plans that encourage students to advocate in favor of or against the day. 

“We should discuss history and culture from a relatively objective point (as much as objectivity can be achieved),” says David Childs, associate professor of social studies and history at Northern Kentucky University. “Teachers should not only share the negative aspects of Christopher Colombus and earlier European explorers, but also honestly discuss contributions that he made.” He created a list of resources for your Columbus Day lesson planning.  

You can use one of the campaigns by the Zinn Education Project as part of your lesson planning. It focuses on abolishing Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some teachers ask students to write letters to their school principal while others host forums with local Indigenous representatives. These activities can give students the power to put their writing, civics and public speaking skills to use.

There are other resources available that are meant to guide teachers and students through the Columbus Day debate. The non-profit organization Learning for Justice created a detailed lesson plan for grade level 6-8 with vocabulary, reading materials, in-class discussion, and next steps. This is a good page for a single-day discussion or a multi-day series of activities.

Bring Indigenous People Into the Present

Indigenous people are at risk of being left in the history pages, despite the modern accomplishments of many Indigenous communities. As an educator, you can highlight local cultures and the people who come from them. 

“One thing I try to encourage our educators to do is to recognize the accomplishments of Indigenous people, communities, and nations and many of the other things that Native people have brought forth and continue to create,” says David O’Connor, American Indian studies consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “A lot of times, we look at it from a historical lens when discussing Native people, but it’s important to especially look at it from the lens of who Native people are today as well.” 

Rebekah Gienapp provides multiple resources for teachers who want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Younger kids can watch part of the PBS series “Molly of Denali,” which introduces a modern girl who is proud of her Native Alaskan heritage. Older students can also engage in different videos and activities to better understand the Indigenous cultures around them. 

Additionally, the team at Cultural Survival annually publishes lists for individuals and organizations to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Their list includes activities to learn whose land you are on and to address racist mascots at schools and professional teams across the country. These activities are meant to bring Indigenous people to the modern spotlight, rather than leaving them in the annals of history. 

There are other days that you can observe too. For instance, Patricia Ann Talley at Imagine Mexico, says many countries celebrate Dia de la Raza, or Day of the Race, on October 12 every year. It honors and recognizes the people conquered by the Spanish and European colonists and brings their traditions to light. Discussing Dia de la Raza brings an international perspective to holidays like Columbus Day and can be part of many classroom discussions, including foreign language classes.

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