Columbus' image in classrooms changes

Monday, October 12, 2009
Kindergartner Harrison Sunich loads supplies Friday into a paper replica of the Santa Maria during a lesson about Columbus in Tampa, Fla. (STEVE NESIUS ~ Associated Press)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Jeffrey Kolowith's kindergarten students read a poem about Christopher Columbus, take a journey to the New World on three paper ships and place the explorer's picture on a timeline through history.

Kolowith's students learn about the explorer's significance -- though they also come away with a more nuanced picture of Columbus than the noble discoverer often portrayed in pop culture and legend.

"I talk about the situation where he didn't even realize where he was," Kolowith said. "And we talked about how he was very, very mean, very bossy."

Columbus' stature in U.S. classrooms has declined somewhat through the years, and many districts will not observe his namesake holiday today. Although lessons vary, many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations.

"The whole terminology has changed," said James Kracht, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development. "You don't hear people using the world 'discovery' anymore like they used to. 'Columbus discovers America.' Because how could he discover America if there were already people living here?"

In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the "Columbian Exchange" -- which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.

The federal holiday itself also is not universally recognized. Schools in Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle will be open; New York City, Washington and Chicago schools will be closed.

However, there are people who believe the discussion has shifted too far. Patrick Korten, vice president of communications for the Catholic fraternal service organization the Knights of Columbus, recalled a note from a member who saw a lesson at a New Jersey school.

The students were forced to stand in a cafeteria and not allowed to eat while other students teased and intimidated them -- apparently so they could better understand the suffering indigenous populations endured because of Columbus, Korten said.

"My impression is that in some classrooms, it's anything but a balanced presentation," Korten said. "That it's deliberately very negative, which is a matter of great concern because that is not accurate."

Korten said he doesn't believe such activities are widespread -- though the lessons will certainly vary.

In Kolowith's Tampa class, students gathered around a white carpet, where they examined a pile of bright plastic fruits and vegetables, baby dolls, construction paper and other items as they decided what would be best for their voyage.

"Do you think it would be good to take babies on a long and dangerous boat ride?" he asked the class. "No!" they replied.

Fifteen miles away, in Seffner, Fla., Colson Elementary assistant principal Jack Keller visited students in a colonial outfit and gray wig, pretending to be Columbus and discussing his voyages. The suffering of natives was not mentioned.

"Our thing was to show exploration," he said.

Meanwhile, Crawford's Pennsylvania class dressed up as characters from the era, assigned roles for a mock trial and put Columbus on the stand. Out of a jury of 12 students, nine found him guilty of the charges.

"Every hero is somebody else's villain," said Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a scholar and author of several books related to Columbus, including "1492: The Year the World Began."

"Heroism and villainy are just two sides of the same coin."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: