En la Clase: Textbook Detectives

dreamstimemaximum_17856192This week’s En la Clase continues the conversation we began last week about how to reconsider the ways we teach about Christopher Columbus in the classroom.  Today’s post looks at one of my favorite activities: Textbook Detectives.  A number of articles in the teaching guide Rethinking Columbus discuss ways to use Textbook Detectives in the classroom.  You can find these articles on the following pages of Rethinking Columbus: pp 19-21; 38-40; 47-55; 62-8.  (Side note: If you’re a local Albuquerque teacher and don’t have a copy of Rethinking Columbus yet, come to our professional development workshop on September 18th–the first 20 teachers will get a free copy of the book!)  These articles all offer references, ideas, and/or resources helpful for this activity.  One of the reasons I love this activity so much is because it’s easily adapted both for grade level and content.  It can be used with any topic, and certainly isn’t limited just to teaching about Christopher Columbus.  It’s great for any unit where you want to encourage your students to develop critical thinking skills and analyze the way a subject is portrayed in various literature. 

The following is adapted from Bob Peterson’s activity in Rethinking Columbus (p. 39). In order to do this activity, students must have some familiarity with the Columbus-Taíno encounter from previous readings and/or activities.  It could even be a great activity to do as a partial assessment to see how students are doing with the material being presented in a Columbus unit.


Before beginning this activity, the teacher must find an assortment of books about Columbus at the appropriate reading levels for the class—the school library or public library are good places to find these. Picture books are great resources for all age groups for this activity.


  1. First, the class must decide what the criteria will be for evaluating the books. There are a variety of ways to do this: a whole class brainstorm, small group brainstorm, providing a list that you have compiled, or using the list below. The following checklist of questions was taken from Peterson’s article (RTC p. 38). This has also been included as an Activity Sheet that can be printed and distributed to your entire class. In his article Peterson suggests having students brainstorm ideas for the criteria with which to analyze the books. The checklist below can be used as a guide to help students create their own checklist.
    • How many times did Columbus talk?
    • How many times did we get to know what he was thinking?
    • How many times did the native people have names?
    • How many times did the native people talk?
    • How many times did we get to know what the native people were thinking?
    • What do you learn about Columbus’ life?
    • What do you learn about native people’s lives?
    • Does the book describe the native people’s feelings?
    • Does the book describe how Columbus treated the native people?
  2. With the checklist completed students can work in pairs to evaluate one of the books on Columbus that the teacher has provided. Depending upon your class, you may need to use one shorter book to model the activity, completing it as a whole group. Then, students can work in pairs to complete the activity on their own with a different book.
  3. Student pairs present their findings to the class.
  4. Peterson suggests (RTC, p. 39) that you then brainstorm things that can be done with what the students have found during the activity. He suggests having students write letters to authors or librarians, sharing their findings with them, and then asking them why the books don’t always tell the whole story.

Hope you find this useful!



6 thoughts on “En la Clase: Textbook Detectives

  1. I wish I had learned the truth about Columbus and so many things when I was in school and taught how to think more critically when I was younger.

    • Thanks Jeff!! The Columbus story that was presented to me was far from critical as well. It wasn’t until college that I actually heard the counter-narrative to the ‘history’ so often provided in our classrooms. The Rethinking Columbus book is great–and it even has some ideas for the younger kids that you teach, especially around Rethinking Thanksgiving. If you’re interested in seeing any of the articles/teaching ideas for the early grades just let me know–like before, I’m happy to email you some excerpts from the book so you can get an idea of what’s in it. I even think Textbook Detectives could be powerful with the little ones–just done as a whole group activity, comparing two books with very different presentations of the history, maybe over two different days. Even if we just ask them to look at who’s talking, whose thoughts we hear, or how we illustrate different people–it’s a start to critical thinking. Hope you’re new school year is off to a great start!

  2. Pingback: Homeland insecurity | Deconstructing Myths

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

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