Saturday, October 29, 2005

American Reality

I totally blew the mind of my Class 1 yesterday, and it was awesome.

I finished reading Encounter to them, making sure we stopped to analyze the characters, symbolism, and foreshadowing. Then, as with the other classes, I shared excerpts from "Lies My Teacher Told Me." When I asked them where they had learned Columbus was from, they all said Spain. I, in fact, had not even thought about where he was from. I think I asked my mom about it a couple years ago and she told me Genoa, in Italy. Which is, of course, the standard line of thinking. However, there is no evidence that Columbus was Italian. There is evidence that he was Portuguese, Greek, or a Spanish Jew. There are also myths about the first voyage across the Atlantic. I read excerpts about the myth versus reality.

I showed them a chart of people who had visited the "New World," and Columbus is dead last on the list. I briefly mentioned a few groups: the Vikings, the Chinese, the Afro-Phoenicians. Then came the good part.

"So if all these people had been here, how come Columbus is the only one to get the credit? What's the difference between him and the other groups?" I asked them. They answered random, safe answers like you'd expect from schoolchildren.

"What is the difference?
He is the only white one!" I exclaimed dramatically.

Well, they exploded into surprise and shock. "Who wrote all the history about this country? The white people! And not just the white people, but the white MEN! Can you name some white men important to American history? How about white women?"

I heard one student say, "I can't think of even one!"

I continued: "How many black men have you heard about in history? How about black women?"

"Rosa Parks!" "Harriet Tubman!"

"Native American men? Does anyone know who Squanto is?" Nope, of course not. "He's the one who welcomed the 'Pilgrims.' He'd left his village, for five or ten years, and when he came back, the entire coast was deserted, because white people had already been there and spread diseases. He had no people left, so he helped the white people. A lot of them died, but they ALL would have died if he hadn't helped them survive. How many Native American women do you know?"

"Pocahontas!" of course.

"Let me tell you about her. She was *thirteen* years old, did NOT have double-D breasts, and John Smith was in his 40s!"

"Ew!" came the cry.

"Any others?" "Sacajawea?" "Who was she with?" "Lewis and Clark?"

"Oh yeah, Lewis and Clark. You know how many people were on that expedition? FORTY. [As soon as I said it, I realized that I might be wrong; according to Wikipedia, it was 33. Still.] Sacajawea saved their butts and helped them figure out where to go. Yet who gets the credit for "exploring"? The white men."

One boy raised his hand and asked, "What else have they lied about? [for example,]
Do the red stripes on the flag really mean the thirteen colonies?"

This is awesome, I thought to myself! See them questioning everything they've learned!

I replied thoughtfully, "Well, yes, the flag does have that specific meaning and symbolism. What has not been truthful is the story behind our so-called history. Why do we accept that white people "discovered" a continent where millions of people already lived? Why do we accept that white people "settled" the west, where plenty of people had been living just fine?"

The students' minds were completely blown. They were talking and exclaiming excitedly and I just LOVED it.

Unfortunately, I had to calm them down; I told them I really enjoyed having this discussion, but that we still had to do some ELA stuff. And after a minute, they really did quiet down and got to work copying the template for the four square.

I tell you, it was awesome. THAT is what teaching is all about.


Fred said...

Awesome. That's pretty cool. Since I teach world history, I may have to "borrow" some of your questioning here.

Cool stuff - thanks for making my day.

yomister said...

Very nice, indeed! I also teach Social Studies, in addition to my apparently futile attempts to teach ELA. I love those moments of real student engagement.

Anonymous said...

Why is Columbus' origin important? No matter what his ethnicity or country of origin, he sailed to the west. That voyage was not linked to his ancestry. He was contracted for a job, which he performed. Meanwhile, nothing in the world will change if we ultimately discover he was a blue monkey with sailing skills. Thus, your teaching seems to be driven by an agenda that offers no benefits to your students.

In addition, no one knows the population of the Americas before Columbus arrived. Some scholars claim there were hundreds of millions of natives here. Others claim there were less than a million. Since the members of those primitive societies left little for contemporary researchers, we will probably never know the number of natives who once lived here. Furthermore, it doesn't matter.

Anonymous said...

Au contraire -- that lesson did offer an enormous benefit to her students, one that will last them the rest of their lives. That lesson taught those children to actively question what they learn. The only way to learn is to take responsibility for one's learning, and that is what those kids will do now. For the first time, perhaps, they realize that if they are passive and just accept whatever is told to them, they will never find out the entire truth of anything. Now they know they have to think, not just accept. Well done, teacher! This observation is more than satisfactory!

Anonymous said...

It is good to get students to think, but Vikings usually are classified as white.