Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 8 pages.
Role play in the form of a trial to determine who is responsible for the death of millions of Taínos on the island of Hispaniola in the late 15th century. Roles available in Spanish.
This role play begins with the premise that a monstrous crime was committed in the years after 1492, when perhaps as many as three million or more Taínos on the island of Hispaniola lost their lives. (Most scholars estimate the number of people on Hispaniola in 1492 at between one and three million; some estimates are lower and some much higher. By 1550, very few Taínos remained alive.)
Who—and/or what—was responsible for this slaughter? This is the question students confront here.
The lesson begins as follows:
1. In preparation for class, list the names of all the “defendants” on the board: Columbus, Columbus’ men, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Taínos, and the System of Empire.
2. Tell students that each of these defendants is charged with murder — the murder of the Taíno Indians in the years following 1492. Tell them that, in groups, students will portray the defendants and that you, the teacher, will be the prosecutor. Explain that students’ responsibility will be twofold: a) to defend themselves against the charges, and b) to explain who they think is guilty and why.
As you can see from the photos below, students become very engaged during the People vs. Columbus trial. (Teacher: Julian Hipkins, 11th grade at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Rick Reinhard, 2012.)
It is amazing how engaged students become to not only learn the truth but also be able to defend themselves using the evidence provided. Students love creativity and this case allows students to come to their own conclusions.”
—Miroslaba “Lili” Velo, U.S. and world history teacher, Tennyson High School, Hayward, Calif.
“The People vs. Columbus is the most interactive lesson that my class has ever used. The students love it and become enlightened about a perspective on history they have never heard of before.”
—Larry Johns, social studies teacher, Denman Junior High, McComb, Miss.
D.C. high school teacher Julian Hipkins III used The People vs. Columbus, et al. lesson with his 11th grade U.S. history class at Capital City Public Charter School and introduced them to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Four of his students (Jared, Ana Marie, Jonah, and Mayra) were inspired to make a film called Columbus—The Real Story. Using feature film clips and interviews with school staff, the film critiques and analyzes textbook accounts of Columbus. Columbus—The Real Story was selected as a D.C. citywide entry for the 2011 National History Day competition.
This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in Rethinking Columbus. For more lessons like “The People vs. Columbus, et al.,” order Rethinking Columbus with more than 80 essays, poems, interviews, historical vignettes, and lesson plans edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. See Table of Contents.