How to Teach the Real Story of Columbus

I was an adult when I first learned the real story of Columbus and it was a bit devastating to me.

Not only did I grow up thinking this guy was a hero but he was actually a really terrible person. Even if we give him a pass and say he was a product of his time – he was still a terrible person.

I, personally, don’t buy into the idea that we cannot judge people of the past because times were different.

Rape, murder, slavery – it’s wrong, period.

But our (American) culture is still really hung up on this idea that Columbus was still not that bad because he discovered the free world. I don’t even think I have time to get into the issues with that.

My biggest struggle is that my kids are learning this nonsense. And that will not do, obviously. But where do we even start with teaching the truth about Columbus in age-appropriate ways?

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

To make this super simple, I’ve gathered resources for a Truth About Columbus Unit Study. It provides just about everything you’ll need for a full Columbus Unit Study.

Reasons We Shouldn’t Teach About Columbus

I want to start by explaining why I think we need to rethink how we’re teaching about Columbus.

And what does it even mean to teach ‘the truth about Columbus’.

He didn’t actually discover the New World

I think we can credit Columbus with leading the Spaniards (and then the French and British) to the Americas. But he does not get credit with discovering the New World.

First, there were already people here. And here for a very long time.

But even if we wanted to claim that Columbus was the first non-American to land in the Americas, that is wrong as well.

We have established many times that people other than Native Americans landed on and sometimes settled in the Americas.

The last argument I’ve heard is that Columbus is the only explorer to land in the Americas and create a colony that lasted.

However, Columbus landed in the Bahamas and he sailed for Spain. The people who settled in the original 13 colonies were from Britain.

The people of Mexico and Latin America have a better excuse to celebrate Columbus but they don’t even acknowledge him. Instead, they celebrate Día de la Raza (Day of the Race).

He didn’t prove the Earth is round

Another common misconception is that Columbus proved the Earth is round by sailing west.

Most people at that time knew that Earth was round and not flat. More importantly, educated people (such as those who financed Columbus’ trip) certainly knew the earth was round.

However, there was a dispute over the size of the earth. And that is where Columbus was incredibly wrong. He greatly underestimated the size of the earth.

He was a horrible human

I think this is the most important reason that we shouldn’t praise Columbus for anything at all.

In a perfect world, we could forget all about Columbus and pretend he never existed.

Reasons We Should Teach about Columbus

On the other hand, Columbus is a well known historical figure. I don’t think we do our kids any good by ignoring his existence.

First of all, many people are holding on to the idea that he was a hero. If we ever hope to truly celebrate people worth celebrating, we need more people to understand the truth about Columbus.

Second, Columbus is still a part of the story. It would be hard to understand the atrocities committed against the Native Americans if we don’t include something about Columbus.

Third, there are lessons to be learned with Columbus.

So, what do we do on Columbus Day?

Option 1: Teach your kids how to learn about history

We all know that history is not without its bias. The accuracy of written history is dependent on who wrote it. And everyone has bias somewhere.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we just abandon learning about history.

Most of the information about Columbus isn’t wholly false. Most of it is just written with a bias.

This is a great chance to read multiple texts about Columbus and sort of the truth, the lies, and the parts that are written with bias.

Option 2: Celebrate the Native People in the Americas

There were millions of Native people in the Americas prior to Columbus and hundreds of tribes.

Many people in Mexico and Latin America celebrate Día de la Raza instead of Columbus Day. It’s a day to recognize native tribes and learn about their culture and traditions.

Some states are moving to Indigenous People’s Day which is similar to Dia de la Raza. Instead of honoring Columbus, we honor the people who were here before him.

Option 3: Do both

You can both learn about the bias in history and also celebrate native tribes. In fact, I suggest it!

Both lessons are important for our kids. They need to understand bias. And they also need to know more about native people then what we learn from Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

How to Teach About Columbus

So how do we teach about Columbus and the bias that is within most history texts?

I’m going to outline a one day study. Frankly, I don’t think more time needs to be devoted to Columbus. Plus, Columbus Day is just one day a year.

Columbus Resources

Columbus Books to Read

Encounter by Jane Yolen

** One note about this book: It says that the Taino people are gone but this is false. The Taino people still exist. **

A Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King

Did Christopher Columbus Really Discover America? by Emma Carlson Berne

This book tries the hardest to present Columbus in an unbiased way. While it mentions that Columbus committed atrocities, I feel like it’s not really hard enough on him.

However, that might be just what younger kids need.

I think this is a good resource for kids but keep in mind that it’s attempting to toe the line.

Taino and Native Books to Read

Not all of these books are about Columbus. But I think it’s important to read about the Taino people without mentioning Columbus. They aren’t relevant just because of him.

On This Beautiful Island by Edwin Fontanez

Before Columbus: The Americans of 1941 by Charles C. Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas by Charles C. Mann

While you read Before Columbus to your kids, read this one yourself. Before Columbus is meant to be a young readers companion to this book.

The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz

Videos About Columbus

I think both of these videos are great. However, I recommend prescreening them. What you consider okay for young kids and teens might be different than me.

History vs Christopher Columbus by Alex Gendler

Adam Ruins Everything: Christopher Columbus was a Murderous Moron

What to Actually Do

Now that I’ve shared resources, let’s talk about an actual learning plan.

Step 1

Start with a ‘Know, Want to Know, Learn’ type chart or discussion. Ask your kids what they already know about Columbus. Then ask what questions they have.

Step 2

Depending on your kids age – read a book. I typically start here with my younger kids.

I would start with On This Beautiful Island. I’d rather my kids get to meet the native people first instead of solely focusing on Columbus.

Then I’d read Encounter.

If they didn’t already have an idea of who Columbus was and what people believe about him, I’d also include a typical Columbus text.

This is also where I’d watch the videos with my older kids.

Step 3

Discuss!

Discuss the differences between what we traditionally hear about Columbus and the ones that are more honest.

Compare texts on Columbus.

Talk about how words matter. When one book says ‘Columbus brought back some of the Indians to see Spain’ and another says ‘Columbus enslaved the Taino people and forced them to Spain’ it paints a very different picture.

Step 4

Have a People vs Columbus Trial.

I don’t want to just tell my kids Columbus was awful – I want them to look at the facts and come to their own conclusions.

I think the one really great way to accomplish that is to have a mock trial. This may be difficult in a homeschool setting, but not impossible.

When they have to present their position and defend it, they’re more likely to understand a lot more.

Step 5

Talk about how we can change this.

There are countless people from our past that we could celebrate who are worthy of celebration.

The first step is getting rid of Columbus Day.

A Final Note About Columbus Day

I support the effort to abolish Columbus Day.

It’s not a matter of ‘erasing history’. It’s a matter of recognizing people who are worthy of recognition. We can teach Columbus without dedicating an entire day to him.

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