Saturday, October 13, 2018

My response to "Can you recommend a book about Columbus?"

I get email from people asking me to recommend a good book about Christopher Columbus. Far too many books depict him as a hero. He wasn't, but people in the US ignore the horrible things he did (if they know about them, that is!). Sounds a lot like the way people in the US and elsewhere, too, are responding to the current president of the US. Does ignoring the problems in people like Columbus make it possible for a nation to ignore the problems in someone like trump?

Columbus did not "discover" America. That's an easy error to spot. With that in mind, I'm trying to come up with a critical literacy lesson that teachers can do to help their students develop the skills to read critically. Here's what I've roughed out so far:

First, get as many different Christopher Columbus picture books as you can, from libraries, yard sales, or used bookstores. Old or new, it doesn't matter. They're easy to get from online booksellers.

Second, create a large chart. In the first column, put the title of one of the books and do that for all the others you want to use. You can use as many as you want. This is a group activity. If you have the option of putting an image of the cover in that column, do that, too. The second column will be for the year the book was published (you'll need to do a mini-lesson on where to find that information in the book). The third column will be for a page number, the fourth column will be for notes. The chart might look something like this:

Third, create and deliver a short lesson that teaches students that Columbus did not "discover" America. Tailor that lesson to the students in your particular grade level. You can do this activity at different grade levels--using picture books or chapter books. If you use picture books and your students are 6th graders, you can frame this as "the books your little brothers and sisters will see..." Back (at 3:05 PM Central time) to strongly add that picture books are not only for little children. Thanks to Jillian Heise for reminding me of that important fact.

Fourth, put students in groups. Show them the chart. Distribute the books (one or two per group, depending on how many you have). Tell them to look for the first occurrence of "discover" in the book they will use in their group. Write the page number(s) on the chart. Step back to do an overall appraisal of that data: how many books use it, what year they were published in, etc.

Fifth, ask them about the language used to describe Columbus. Add that info to the 4th column, and then invite a discussion about the findings.

So... that's what I have for now. Have you seen -- or done -- this sort of activity with students? If so, let me know! I bet Jess5th has! I'll ask and see.


Nora Lester Murad, Palestine said...

What I love, love, love about this exercise is that it's teaching the skill of critical thinking, not just a bunch of facts that students can disregard if they don't validate their current thinking. Real teaching is, to me, not just creating alternatives, but helping kids and adults to re-think all that we think we already know. It's not just that the answers they come to on their own will have more meaning to them, but the skills they develop recognizing embedded beliefs and assumptions will be used in many other circumstances. I really love this exercise and thank you for sharing it.

Susan Sauve said...

I like how you are not just offering commentary about inexact history (or biased histories) but teaching the students to tackle it themselves.

I like Encounter by Jane Yolen this time of year --

Donna Gehring said...

Jane Yolen's book, Encounter, is my "go to" book for this discussion.

Libby said...

This sounds like a fabulous way to teach information literacy skills--thank you!

Jean Mendoza said...

This is a such great idea! So many ways to branch out, too -- such as asking students to consider how the illustrations portray Columbus and his crew. Do they look benign? Unpleasant? Child-like? Clean-shaven, well-dressed, and well-fed? -- or like a bunch of guys who survived months at sea with no fruits-and-veggies, lousy health care, and maybe one change of clothes?

And then -- what do the illustrations show, and what does the text say, about the Native people?

If you're using Encounter to teach about Columbus, i hope you ask students to look critically at its perspective on Native people. One of the biggest problems with it is that, though it shows Columbus as No Hero, it utterly fails to depict Native resistance and survival.

In fact, at the end of the book, the protagonist sits alone and laments that his people either willingly or stupidly participated their own demise (they failed to heed the protagonist's warnings, they took the strangers' language into their mouths, forgot the old ways, etc.). As if what happened did not involve wholesale slaughter as a precursor to forced assimilation. As if it was Their Own Fault. As if they never resisted, never hid out, never survived.

We know Columbus & crew brought slaughter, enslavement, disease. We also know there was resistance -- for one thing, the first time he left some men behind to continue exploiting the people & resources, they were all killed. It's true that native people of those islands where Columbus came ashore had a hard time surviving the onslaught. If there's one thing those European Christians were good at at that point, it was enriching themselves by means of their military advantage over Indigenous peoples.

But the lie that the native people didn't resist, that they just assimilated, disappeared (as the protagonist is doing in that illustration at the end) is particularly foul. There are still Taino people today. It hasn't been easy for some of them to reconnect with their peoples' past but it's happening.

I'm curious how teachers today help students move toward understanding that 1) Columbus was a precursor to hundreds of years of More of the Same, and 2) the people resisted from the very beginning.

Susan Sauve said...

Thank you for noting those inaccuracies -- I spend a lot of time with the end of the book. The facts then lead to a conversation around dominance of one society over another noting quality of weaponry, etc. There is also conversation around meeting someone for the first time and who are you....reluctant, shy, trusting, etc.

It's a much more accurate account than any other children's book and I spend a lot of time undoing the pilgrim hats and feathers of the earlier educators.

I would love to know of another. We were sent a packet and in it was included "Did Columbus Really Discover America?" I was not at all impressed by the gliding over of the atrocities.

Jean Mendoza said...

Susan, i hope that at least some of the children question the notion that weaponry should be a determining factor in who dominates -- and that they question whether domination is necessary/desirable.

I hope you can make use of your awareness of the problems with the book to help children get acquainted with other perspectives.

I often wonder what children of various ages make of the Doctrine of Discovery and the fact that a few monarchs and popes believed they could decide who owned all the land on earth.

Susan Sauve said...

Another great series of questions/topics to lead my discussions. Domination is an interesting term and not one I've used with my students.

Thank you again for helping me lead discussions of value.

Beverly Slapin said...

Hello, everyone--

Since several of you mentioned ENCOUNTER, you might want to read Jean Mendoza's excellent essay, "Goodbye, Columbus: Take Two," in A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, eds., AltaMira Press, 2005), pp. 196-200. Here, Jean compares Tom King's amazing picture book, A COYOTE COLUMBUS STORY (Douglas & McIntyre, 1992) with Jane Yolen's ENCOUNTER (Harcourt Brace, 1992).

Here's a short excerpt from Jean's essay. First, about ENCOUNTER:

"To hear the Taino narrator tell it from his seat by the sea, they...surrendered their culture without much compelling cause. The 'lost' their lands, 'gave' their souls, 'took' the foreign speech and 'forgot' their own, 'became' something other than true human beings. Now, when someone mugs you at knifepoint and takes your billfold, you don't tell people, 'I lost my wallet.' You don't say you 'gave the keys' to a carjacker with an Uzi. If the punishment for speaking your own language is having your tongue cut out, you don't say, 'Oops, I forgot the old way to talk. De nada.'"


"The storytelling and illustrations in A COYOTE COLUMBUS STORY clearly hail from an alternative reality. Children are not likely to come away believing in tipis at the seashore, any more than they believe that moose wore swim trunks or Columbus was purple. But more significantly, no child is going to set this book down with the idea in mind that Native people's greed and indifference caused their own downfall. Nor are they likely to imagine that Native people just let themselves be overrun, or that they have ceased to be true human beings."

An extension of Debbie's suggested activity might be a series of guided questions in which children (and adults, too) compare these two stories in terms of looking at history in an honest way.

Susan Sauve said...

Thank you ordered that and The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz!!!

Jean Mendoza said...

Good choices, Susan! Kent Monkman's illustrations in Coyote Columbus Story are like nothing you'll see in any other book about Columbus!

And, A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, eds., AltaMira Press, 2005) is full of great content by lots of different people, about representations of Native people in books for children -- and much more. Great resource for anyone who selects books for young people.