As you know, school is closed on Monday due to Columbus Day, a federal holiday in the United States which celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. As a child in America, I sat in my elementary classrooms around Columbus Day and learned about the Niῆa, Pinta, and Santa María. In music class, I learned songs about those ships, and my teacher read picture books that taught me about an adventurous and brave explorer who “discovered” America.
Then, when I entered middle school, my social studies teachers began to share some more details with me, such as the fact that while Columbus sailed for Spain, he was actually Italian. And he also didn’t “set out” to discover America, but rather was searching for a shortcut from Europe to Asia going west.
In high school, I learned that Columbus didn’t land his ship in America; instead, he first came across the Caribbean Islands, mistaking them for the “far East.” In a diary entry in November of 1492 about the people he encountered in the Caribbean, he wrote, “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …They do not bear arms and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron.”
In college, I learned about the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean by many European Monarchs, and how Columbus enacted policies of forced labor for the sake of profit. Another entry from his diary notes, “They (indigenous people from the Caribbean Islands) would make fine servants … With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
So, as I aged, the truth and often brutal reality of this and many other moments in history was made privy to me. When I think back to those first lessons in elementary school, those adventurous stories of the discovery of America, to the facts disseminated by my teachers as I moved through middle and high school and up to my late teens in college, I recall feeling quite dismayed.
However, when I became an early childhood educator a few years later, that dismay turned to consternation as I prepped units and lesson plans for the month of October for my first teaching position. At that time, most early childhood themes were connected to holidays. With Columbus Day around the corner, there I was, sitting in front of my lesson-planning book and wondering how to “educate” my young students about the federal holiday.
This was pre-internet, so I drove to the local library and searched for a picture book. I remember finding countless ones on display on top of bookshelves in the children’s section with colorful depictions of Columbus and his three ships. I stood there for a very long time, stuck in a dilemma. I was not going to teach falsehoods that my students would have to unlearn as they got older, and I also didn’t want to ignore Columbus Day altogether. That’s when the children’s librarian stepped forward and guided me onto a different path, one that I still walk today.
The librarian asked what grade I taught, so I shared that I worked in a multi-age, preschool through kindergarten classroom. She then prompted me to try and boil down that event in history to something developmentally appropriate. So, I spent the next few hours contemplating just that.
In my mind, the lesson surrounding Columbus and his “exploration” had to do with injustice. The librarian suggested I use storytelling, with animals as characters, to help my students recognize injustice. She recommended a story about a sea lion and a hermit crab. The story is still used even today in many early childhood classrooms across the globe and is as follows:
A sea lion is walking across the sand and spots a shell. He soon comes to learn that a crab lives inside the shell. The sea lion thinks the shell is beautiful, so he claims it as his own.
When I shared that story with my young students, I asked them whether the sea lion should claim the shell. The response, quick and in unison was, “NO!” Some children suggested they share the shell and take turns. I then explained that the shell was the crab’s home and that it wasn’t possible for them to share it. I asked the students whether the crab should get out of the shell for the sea lion. Again, an almost unison response of, “That’s not fair.”
I never actually spoke about Christopher Columbus that year to my students. It wasn’t developmentally appropriate to teach that history to young children. It was and still is appropriate to educate young children so they develop many skills, such as perspective-taking and problem-solving, as well as the ability to empathize. Storytelling is one way to help young children develop a sense of fairness and justice. When they are old enough, around ten years of age, then they are at a point in their development where they can use those skills to analyze events in history. It is also appropriate to teach young children about the people who were here before Columbus. To teach about their culture, to teach about the concept of indigeneity.
In the United States, Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1968. However, currently, there are 26 states that no longer recognize Columbus Day. They are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Some locations have chosen to honor indigenous cultures on the second Monday in October with a holiday called Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
So, today, you may be away catching a glimpse of the fall leaves, or you might be home with your children, while others might have a regular workday. I will spend some time reflecting and thinking about the complexity of Columbus Day, my role as an educator, and my responsibility as the leader of the Lower School at Renbrook in terms of our social studies curriculum. And I will continue to walk the same path I started on back in 1995… one of truth, mindfulness of what’s developmentally appropriate, and what’s fair and just.