Last week, we reconsidered Columbus Day. While our school does not recognize the holiday and remained in session on Monday, it is still a federal holiday and many of our students’ parents had the day off.
To lead up to our inquiry work, we asked students to respond to the question, “If you could create a holiday, what holiday would you create and why?” for their Morning Work. They had predictably fun and silly ideas - Kids’ Day when you get unlimited candy, Pets’ Day when pets can go everywhere, etc. However, the idea emerged that a holiday is about celebrating someone or something POSITIVE.
Later that week, we did a read aloud of Encounter by Jane Yolen and David Shannon, which tells the story of Columbus arriving in San Salvador in 1492 from the perspective of a Taino child. After reading the story, we had students complete an I think/I wonder chart about the the events described in the book.
We then had a whole class discussion about who Christopher Columbus was, with students calling into question the idea that “he discovered America.” We found San Salvador on a world map, and looked at this map showing his Columbus’s four voyages. Students were surprised that he never actually came to the continental United States, and confused by the idea of “discovering” a new place when people already lived there.
One student clarified, “He discovered the Americas for white people in Europe.”
Other students had questions about how Columbus and the other Europeans with him treated the Taino people. In Encounter, the narrator (a Taino child) describes touching a sword and getting “bitten.” We discussed how there will be an imbalance of power between someone who has weapons and someone who does not. Students asked what Columbus did that should be celebrated with a holiday (other than the previously mentioned “discovered the Americas for white people in Europe.”)
Next, we watched Reconsider Columbus Day. Some of our students had heard of Indigenous People’s Day, but most had not. They liked the idea of going back to their original idea of a holiday to celebrate someone or something positive. One student asked, “Why would there be a holiday for someone who was bad?”
We let students reflect and discuss that question, and then had them write responses to what they had learned and what they were still thinking or wondering about. Many of them still had questions and continued to grapple with the idea of a holiday for someone who hurt other people.