One of the most popular lessons on the Zinn Education Project website is The People vs. Columbus, et al. Here are a few of stories from teachers about the impact of the lesson in their classroom. These comments were collected in celebration of the publication of the 35th anniversary edition of A People’s History of the United States.
I think The People vs. Columbus, et al. was so effective. I taught it in a Native American Studies course and the students spent a lot of time exploring primary source documents from Columbus and Las Casas.
My students are all Native American and they are all too familiar with the concepts of genocide and exploitation. However, many of them did not know about the Taíno and were curious to learn more. At the conclusion we watched the film, Even the Rain, to enhance their understanding of the texts, and also to learn more about the Cochabamba water war to piece together an interdisciplinary unit about water that they were engaged in. —Lisa Longeteig, high school social studies teacher, Santa Fe, New Mexico
First, it forces them to think about the construct of our globalized world in a new and critical manner. Americans are bred upon the unchallenged idea of superiority and equality, and it is troubling for them to have to see that the true pillars of trade, colonization, exploration, and expansion are instead rooted in forced inferiority and exploitation. This lesson further challenges students to give up the stereotypes and nostalgia surrounding Native Americans (in this case on Hispaniola) and see them as people who had functioning societies and belief systems. The most powerful aspect of the lesson, however, is the way it forces students to research, utilize primary sources, think in a debate-like manner, and justify their positions with evidence. One of my students returned to visit me last month to inform me that because of partaking in this lesson last year, he joined an online group advocating the end of Columbus Day. I was impressed to have a 10th grade student not only take a firm stand on something, but actually take action to incite change. Another of my students said that this “was the best lesson I (she) ever learned because it helped me (her) believe that there is ‘real’ history I (she) can learn from. —Sara Pierce, high school language arts/English teacher, Hollywood, FL
We spend a significant amount of time in our social studies curriculum learning about “perspective” and how perspective plays a key role in how we understand history. This trial deeply solidified the students understanding of perspective in a more concrete way. We did this trial on the days after Columbus Day and students continue to reference it when we bring “perspective” up. It’s really wonderful to see a lesson have that big of an effect on student learning while making it fun. —Chloe Hansen, middle school social studies teacher, Wellesley, Mass.
They are usually so surprised at the truth behind Columbus. They also love the role playing. This year, when I was doing the lesson, my assistant principal walked in just as one of the students who usually sits quietly during social studies was standing up and asking a fiery round of questions to the defendants on the stand. I was so impressed with it. The lesson also gets students who I usually don’t get a lot of participation out of to debate with the students who I do. I love it! —Chris Olsen, middle school social studies teacher, Chicago, Ill.
—Stefeny Anderson, high school social studies teacher, Seattle, Wash.
Our students were incredibly engaged in the reading and learning and had meaningful group discussions that focused on choices made by Columbus and other explorers and their impact on the world. …
and show self-motivated engagement and look at both the positives and negatives in history without the rose colored tint that other resources often provide for students. —Coral Edwardsen, middle school humanities teacher, Los Angeles, Calif.
The impact has been great. For both cases, I used the Columbus on Trial activity—one at a graduate institute and the other at a proven-risk youth organization for individuals involved with or affiliated with crime and gang activity. Both instances had the participants, ages 17 to 30, invested in the trial and who they were representing—shedding more than just a holiday weekend (as this activity was done just after the holiday weekend). More specifically, it opened up for a specific participant to speak about his Taínos background. The activity got a lot of love. —Nick Pelonia, Lowell, Mass.
Maryland does not celebrate Columbus Day so students are in school. To show the impact of Columbus voyage on indigenous people, this exercise provided an eye opener for students as well as instructors. It was done with 4 GED classes that were a various learning levels. Students were randomly selected from each class to participate in the trial and one class served as observers and writers of the exercise. Students were able to show clearly critical thinking skills that we rarely use with other learning materials. The students and instructors truly enjoyed the exercise and it was reported in our newsletter. —Verona Iriarte, GED preparation in Maryland
—Grace Struiksma, middle school social studies teacher, Draper, Utah
The impact from “The People v. Columbus, et al.” resource is multifaceted.
by other activities for studying the time period during which Europeans first began to arrive to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. I believe that the way in which ZEP pushes students to understand history through a critical lens has made my classroom more engaging, more rigorous, and has prepared my students to be the types of citizens this world desperately needs. —Jose Valenzuela, middle school social studies teacher, Boston, Mass.
My first class graduated this past June and in conversations with them they always tell me how much they enjoyed Social Studies, and will never forget Columbus and how much fun they had learning the truth. Thank you for providing us with such incredible resources over the years. —Ian Godfrey, middle school social studies teacher, Stillwater, New York
I used the Christopher Columbus mock trial this year. My son (a senior in high school), was at my school that day to volunteer after school. He came into my last class of the day and observed the lesson. He said, “Now I know why all my friends loved your class. That was awesome.” —Jeri Shaffer, middle school social studies teacher, Cantonment, Flor.
I have used the Columbus trial lesson from the ZEP website, and it went fantastically well. I teach high school Spanish, and this lesson completely changed their outlook on: 1) Who Columbus actually was; and 2) What we as Americans value as a society.
Plus, the Spanish version of “Los cargos” made it that much easier to differentiate the lessons. Now that they understand the beginning of Europeans in the New World, we’ll continue through the study of Latin American history throughout the next two years. I felt it important that they understand where much of the ill will started in this history, and between Columbus and Pizarro, I now believe that they have a good grasp of that. Thanks for your help in making this an AWESOME unit! —Madelynne Brazile, high school Spanish teacher, Florida
—Mia Drabick, high school social studies teacher, Durham, North Carolina
My students were completely engaged in the [The People vs. Columbus, et al.] trial we held about the massacre of the Tainos. They loved it! They were so outraged that it’s a federal holiday that I suggested we send letters to the editors of local newspapers and our city council. They were so excited. Most of the students chose to send letters. When a student’s letter was published the next day advocating for our city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, the students who had not sent letters immediately began to write.
—Laura Farrelly, high school social studies teacher, Eugene, Ore.