Teaching Holidays Can Be Tough

Last Friday I discovered a page left on the copier that frustrated me greatly. It was a copy of the classic poem about Christopher Columbus. I tend to forget that not everyone has been challenged to question what they learned in school. Still, it pains me to think that we’re passing down this idolized version of Columbus to more children. So I whined on social media. One friend responded, jokingly I think, that maybe a teacher was doing a critical literacy lesson with this text.

Luckily, that prompted me to do such a lesson. My 3rd graders and I read the poem together and discussed what we learned about Columbus from it. Then I read them Jane Yolen’s Encounter and we discussed what we learned about Columbus from that text. After each text we brainstormed words we would use to describe Columbus based on our reading. They noticed that the first text generated lots of positive words and ideas and the second text did the exact opposite. Finally, we talked about why we thought the two texts were so different.

Discussing what we learned from each text and what words we would use to describe Columbus based on the reading went pretty well. They had a lot of ideas. Talking about why the two texts gave us such different information, ideas, and impressions was more challenging.

We wrapped up by writing to one of two prompts (or both, as some of them requested):

  • Was Christopher Columbus a hero? Why or why not?
  • Should we or should we not celebrate Columbus Day? Why?

A few students believe we should and that he is a hero. They cite his bravery in sailing so far to somewhere brand new.

Most disagreed. They wrote about how many Indians died after his arrival. They wrote about how he didn’t discover the land. They wrote about Indians being forced into slavery. They wrote about his greediness as evidenced by his desire for the Indians’ gold.

I did the lesson far too quickly. The constraints of our ladybug unit (those constraints being actual living ladybugs who have no interest in waiting on me to teach at whatever pace I desire) made me feel that we could only spend one day on this lesson. That was an error. We could have, and should have, dug much deeper in our thinking. I console myself with the fact that there are plenty of other holidays for us to look at critically throughout the year.

Just as an aside, this was my favorite part of any of my students’ writing. Mostly because she made it a hashtag and included a smiley face. My kids crack me up.

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