October 12, 2015

Teacher Stuff: Columbus Day

Pumpkin Swap partners have been sent!  You have until October 27th to shop and please mail your package by that day.  The linkup is on November 6th!  If you have any questions, let me or Becky know.  

Does anyone have today off for Columbus Day?  I don't, but Scott does.  Out of pure curiosity, what do you know about Columbus?  The guy who sailed the ocean blue in 1492?  

I can't remember when I picked up this habit, but I've made it a point to do a Columbus project each fall. I tried it my first year because I had a professor in college who demonstrated it to us in our methods class, and I thought it was a fascinating approach to Columbus. 

The way I like to teach history is through documents and inquiry.  I present an essential question and a lot of information through Powerpoints, video clips, etc.  I give the kids information to sift through on their own, and then I ask them to answer the question through an essay.  Now, nine years old is a little young to really dig into primary sources and their prior knowledge numbers around 0% when you're starting to teach them American history (or any other kind of cultural or geographical lesson for that matter).  I have to start from the very beginning and parts are painful. I just kind of hope and pray that something I say will stick.  

My Columbus Day lesson can be stretched out for a week if I want it to be, and it's also the foundation of American history, which is coming up in a couple of weeks.  I'm sharing this here because it's one of the parts of teaching I truly enjoy.  I like a lot of things about teaching, but teaching document-based and inquiry-based lessons is one of the few things I truly love.  

I use a powerpoint/slideshow to present basic biographical information, facts, dates, background, maps, etc.  It takes about 90 minutes total because I include a lot of video clips and they generally ask a lot of questions.  I did it in two days last week.  

I give them "documents".  These are highly scaffolded by me (color-coded, big print, synonyms for confusing words in parentheses, etc). I tried to keep them as original as possible, but I added in the questions and, after the kids had a go at reading, text-tagging, and discussing in groups, we went over the questions together.  Ideally, they'd do this all on their own. Maybe by the end of the year. But this also took about 90 minutes.  

Then, the essay.  This week, one of their center-work tasks is to take the documents and use all of that as evidence to answer the question "Hero or villain?" They need to back up their opinion with quotes, data, etc to try and prove themselves right.  This is the beginning of persuasive writing, really. The idea of starting with something that has meaning (questioning Columbus) makes all the difference I think.   

Every year, I learn something new from the kids I teach this to; I adore that part.  I become a better teacher because I see their engagement and get to answer their questions. This year, they asked about Vikings and I got to go into that part of history and then they asked about the Mayans and Aztecs, so I showed them a Powerpoint of my experiences on the ruins in Belize. 

I even got to pull out art history words like frieze . When I heard them using the word frieze back at me later, my heart joyfully skipped a beat. 


So, why Columbus?  Columbus' first voyage began the Columbian Exchange because the convergence of the two hemispheres in 1492 changed everything.  1493 was a very different year than 1491.  Here's a crash course.  The books 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann are interesting too, if you like this kind of history.  

I could really talk about this for days (and you can see that I do), so I'll end this here.  If you are a teacher and would like to check out my resources, let me know.  I'll be happy to share.  


  1. I love this. I am amazed at how many people don't like this day. There was a whole news segment about it this morning.

  2. It is hilarious to see what all my teacher friends post about Columbus Day - I've got a few who absolutely hate this day because of arguments about him then some like you who love it. We aren't off so we are doing activities.

  3. I love this assignment and how engaged they are with it.

  4. I want everyone who grumbles about common core to look at this lesson. This is higher level thinking strategies at its finest. This is exactly what kids should be doing. In school. I just pray our elementary school is doing things like this so they are ready when they get to me. You can tell the difference in the kids that have experience with it and those that don't.

  5. What an awesome lesson. Moving from small town Rhode Island down to South Carolina, I see such a different side of Columbus Day. Up there, we actually have a statue of Columbus in my hometown and the biggest parade of the year every Columbus Day, and down here every has school and no one even acknowledges it's a holiday haha.

  6. One of the things I miss about teaching first grade is teaching the very basis of these things to my first graders. This sounds like an amazing lesson! I'm quite impressed! While I'm sure I could incorporate something like this into my Language Arts class, it's hard for me to stop the flow of a unit or lesson, do something else, and then come back to the original lesson. Maybe some day....


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