Why My Students Are Learning About the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Movement

(Photo: Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS)

Generally, I find young twenty-somethings who live in Brooklyn to be quite the forward-thinking, against-“the-man”, fight-for-your-rights kind of folks. Which is why I was surprised to get into a discussion this weekend with some young Brooklyn kids who believed that the role of a history/social studies teacher was to have students memorize facts and events—to simply make sure students knew history “correctly.”

As you might have guessed already, the conversation all started because of Columbus Day. So I explained that I teach English to international students through the content area of history/social studies, and that while I was new to teaching history, I was very dedicated to trying to do it well. In my opinion, this means more than memorization.

I learned almost nothing in my high school history classes. They were focused on memorization, textbooks, and multiple-choice tests. I learned what I needed to in order to get an A on the test and then it all went fluttering out of my brain, into the abyss.

Today, I am of the school of thought that history and social studies classes should be places where students learn to observe, analyze, question, and discuss historical documents, primary sources, and the events that have taken place in our world. In my very humble opinion, I believe that this is how we learn from history, because as any historian will tell you, “facts” change depending on who is writing the book. We all look at history through our own lens, including our own experiences, and our own opinions.

That’s why I stand by the choice I made to give my students a short homework* this weekend wherein they read about the following topics:

  1. Seattle’s choice to abolish Columbus Day.
  2. What Columbus achieved (ie. that he explored, rather than discovered, what is now the Americas).
  3. Why some people want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  4. Some facts about the Lenape people, a tribe of indigenous people who lived on what is now Manhattan, and throughout the Delaware watershed.

*I collaborated with the mother of a friend, who is part Lenape and does research on the tribe, to develop the content of this homework. 

Maybe it’s my journalism background coming through, but I see today’s news as a part of our evolving history, and I see Seattle’s choice to abolish Columbus Day as a prime opportunity to have students question whether or not they agree or disagree with the changes that are currently taking place. Suffice it to say, I look forward to hearing the ideas of my students on Tuesday, because I know that they are capable of so much more than just memorization if we just afford them the opportunity to show us.

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