En la Clase: Rethinking Columbus Through Literature

This fall, for the third year in a row, the LAII will hold a teacher workshop on “Rethinking Columbus” in our classrooms.  It’s an important topic to us at Vamos a Leer.  It would be almost impossible for a student to go through school in the U.S. without learning about Columbus.  He’s a significant figure in the history of the Americas, and we certainly don’t dispute that at Vamos a Leer.  Our interest is much more in how Columbus is presented and what knowledge is privileged in the classrooms. The following is an excerpt from a post I wrote last year.  For those new to our blog, I thought I’d share it to give you some background on why we think Columbus is such an important topic. 

Christopher Columbus is among the most well-known of our historical figures.  For many school-age children, Columbus’ exploration of the Americas is their first exposure to the concept of history.  It can be quite significant, shaping how they will interpret many other historical accounts of conquests and settlements across the globe.  For many of us, the mere mention of Columbus brings that familiar chant “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. . .” running through our minds.

Unfortunately, too often, our knowledge of Columbus and his explorations stops short soon after Columbus set sail.  Rarely do any of our history books delve too deeply into the years of Caribbean history following 1492.  We learn all about Columbus in our text books and classrooms–how he bravely sailed across the world in search of new lands and adventure, discovered and claimed the islands of the Caribbean, and brought civilization to the ‘New World’.  Very rarely do we learn much about the people that were already living on the islands that Columbus claimed, or what happened to these populations in the century that followed as they were brought into ‘civilization.’  If these people groups are mentioned in books or curriculum, the story is often framed as a pleasant cultural exchange.  Yet, somehow this friendly cross-cultural experience resulted in the death of almost the entire population of Taíno people. Historical estimates state that there were anywhere from 1-3 million Taíno when Columbus arrived, by 1542, there were 200 remaining. (click here to read the entire post)

Today’s post is our first in this year’s series on resources for teaching about Columbus in the classroom.  As the title suggests, I’m going to focus on how literature can help us to rethink what we present about Columbus.  I’ll highlight two books–one for children and one for young adults.

encounterEncounter by Jane Yolen is a beautifully written and illustrated children’s book that tells the story of when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador in 1492. Told from a young Taino boy’s point of view, this is a story of how the boy tried to warn his people against welcoming the strangers, who seemed more interested in golden ornaments than friendship. Years later the boy, now an old man, looks back at the destruction of his people and their culture by the colonizers.  It’s great for read aloud activities. The lesson plan below incorporates both art and listening skills, but if you’re crunched for time,  just use it as a simple read aloud.

Activity One: Sketching

  1. Give each student a piece of blank white paper and ask them to fold it into fourths, so that they end up with four squares on the paper. Explain that you are going to read a story out loud to them. They are not going to see the pictures the first time through the story. Instead, after you’ve read a section of the book, you are going to ask them to draw a picture of what they just heard in one of the squares on their paper. They are going to do this 4 times (you can have them draw as many times as you think makes sense for the story—4, 8, 10—maybe every 2 or 3 pages they draw a picture). It doesn’t have to be colored—they can just sketch in pencil and go back and color it at a later time. When you’ve reached a predetermined stopping point, tell students they have 3 minutes to sketch what they just heard—the thing that sticks out to them the most, the most interesting part, their favorite part, etc—give them whatever guidance you’d like. For three minutes (you can adjust the time) they sketch in one of the boxes. Then, begin reading the story again, stopping at the predetermined points, and allowing them to sketch until you’ve read the whole story. (You can stop here if you like, waiting until the next day to finish the lesson).
  2. Now, read the story out loud again. This time show students the pictures and allow them to compare them with their own.
  3. When you’ve finished the story, give students the opportunity to process either as a whole group, small group, or with a partner how their pictures were different than the book. You could also have students do a quick write telling how their perceptions of the story were different before they saw the pictures.
  4. You can also return to their sketches the following day to allow time for students to practice retelling the story. Using just their sketches, students have to retell the story to a partner, each partner taking turns telling part of the story. Or this could be a whole class activity, using some kind of a story map – an enlarged poster size or one projected onto a large screen. Have the class retell the events of the story using their sketches. Fill out the story map as you go.

Activity Two: Writing

Write about a time a new person moved into your neighborhood or home. What were your thoughts and feelings?

Morning GirlFor older readers, Morning Girl is a great option.  Morning Girl takes place just before the 1492 arrival of Columbus and his companions in the Caribbean.  Through the story of a Taíno brother and sister, Star Boy and Morning Girl, Dorris gives us one possible vision for what Taíno life may have been like in the period before conquest and colonization.  The novel can be used in a variety of ways—as a read aloud novel, small group guided reading, or as a whole-class guided reading novel if you have enough copies.  It is a short book (only 74 pages), so it could easily be read in a week or two depending upon how much time you devote to the activities and guided reading questions.  The book is divided into nine chapters.  The chapters alternate between the sister’s point of view and the brother’s point of view.  Because of this, it makes the most sense to read two chapters in one sitting.  We’ve created an Educator’s Guide for the book here, and you can read an earlier post on using the book in the classroom here.

Other books that may be of interest:

Feel free to share any books or activities that you use in your classroom!



3 thoughts on “En la Clase: Rethinking Columbus Through Literature

  1. Pingback: En la Clase: Textbook Detectives | Vamos a Leer

  2. Pingback: En la Clase: Thanksgiving Reconsidered | Vamos a Leer

  3. Pingback: En la Clase: Rethinking Conquest and Colonization | Vamos a Leer

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