Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why I LOVE History Lesson Planning (& HATE Christopher Columbus)

It starts with an idea. This was the idea I had last week:
I don't want to be another in a long line of teachers who lets Columbus Day come and go silently.  I don't want to horrify my students, but they deserve to know the truth.
So I start researching.

First, I looked for something that Columbus said in his own words. An obvious choice was his report to the the King and Queen of Spain upon his triumphant return from his first voyage in 1493.
For this and all images throughout the post,
click the screenshot to go directly to the resource.
Columbus speaks of the natives of Hispaniola in favorable terms.  They were welcoming, friendly, and unarmed.  Columbus seemed pleased.  Well, as I confirmed through further research, he should have been pleased.  He stood to receive a substantial reward if he discovered something that could be profitable for the Spanish Empire during his voyage.  The Library of Congress showed through primary sources that he gained the right to "bear arms" (this meant have his own coat of arms in Renaissance Europe), to use the title of admiral, and to collect a significant cash reward.
Top: Columbus's coat of arms
Bottom: Book of Privileges recording Columbus's agreements with the Spanish crown
OK, so far, Christopher Columbus presents as a wildly successful explorer who enjoyed the rewards that he worked hard to earn.  After all, a year-long journey to parts unknown is no small accomplishment, right?  And he did it FOUR times.  What a guy.  Well, it just so happens that an infographic on The Oatmeal website came to my attention through Facebook.  It didn't necessarily reveal anything new, but the way the information was presented was compelling.  This is the main thesis:
I love the attractive layout and shock value that this infographic delivers.  I plan to show select screenshots of it.  They will no doubt get a reaction from my 14 year old freshmen.  In my opinion though, the coolest thing about this infographic is that is goes on to hail Bartolome de las Casas as a quiet hero of Native American rights in an era when heralded explorers and mass murderers like Columbus were getting the most recognition. Las Casas, a Catholic priest and adventurer, is someone that all history teachers of the Age of Exploration worth their salt already cover.  He published quite a bit of testimony on the unjust and unChristian treatment of Native Americans by Spanish conquistadors and settlers.  So, next I needed to find a good translation of one of his documents.  The most obvious choice is his most known work.
Las Casas chronicles the enslavement and brutality against native groups that Columbus started and others continued.  He entreats the Spanish crown to enforce laws that protect the natives in New Spain (Spain's claims in the Americas).  Turns out, as I read I found out that Las Casas faced some significant opposition.  Most notably from Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the official historian of the the Spanish king, who argued that the natives were barbarians who were fundamentally inferior and therefore deserved to be enslaved by the civilized Christianized Spanish colonists.
Now these two resources, from Las Casas and Sepulveda, should be read as arguments against one another to help students evaluate historical examples of persuasive writing (a VERY Common Core concept).  But, again, I teach 14 year old freshmen.  The sources are long and are written in an archaic translation of Spanish.  So, I read through them, picked short excerpts that were more manageable for the teenage mind and put together an adversarial activity that will get the kids worked up, I hope.

Armed with their new knowledge of the true legacy of Christopher Columbus, I wanted to students to do some thinking of their own.  I chose some historical artwork from the 1800s, an era when Columbus was still hailed as a hero and people still felt that Columbus Day was a holiday worth celebrating.
My hope is that students will notice how the American artist depicted Columbus and his men as compared to how he chose to depict the Native Americans.  Clothed versus naked. Strong versus weak. Standing versus crouching. Light versus dark.  Art shows perspective.  It does not show truth.  

As a history teacher, my job is to help students learn how to investigate truth.  Hopefully my own investigations and research to put together this lesson will be a step toward reaching that goal.