Columbus on Trial in D.C.
This month, all of the 8th grade social studies teachers at Alice Deal Middle School (DCPS) engaged their students in the popular role play, The People vs. Columbus, et al. The lesson, written in the form of a trial by Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools, is available for free download on the Zinn Education Project website. The lesson is a prime example of how to engage students in learning through role play and debate.
To prepare for the trial, students read and analyzed an excerpt from Columbus’ journal. Then they divided into five groups, each one charged with the murder of the Taínos: Columbus, Columbus’ men, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Taínos themselves, and the System of Empire. Students read the indictments for their characters and crafted reasons for why they were innocent and to identify who was guilty. They used these arguments the following day during the trial.
On the day of the trial, students were encouraged to bring props and dress up as their historical figures. Some students created crowns to represent their role as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, while others wore capes to represent their role as Columbus’ Men.
The teachers asked community members to serve as judges for the trial and students were given two minutes to present their arguments and answer questions. Students used background knowledge and cited evidence from Columbus’ journal and other sources in their arguments. The claims students made included:
- The King and Queen are guilty because “back in Spain the King and Queen were burning thousands of non-Christians at the stake… [they] taught us [to kill] non-Christians”
- Columbus is guilty because “he thought [the Taínos] would be easy to rule due to their intelligence and [he said they] would make ‘good servants.’ He was the leader and the army followed his orders to kill [the Taínos] and take over [their land].”
- The system of empire is guilty because “it made the King and Queen hungry for power. The King and Queen sent Columbus out to get money and land at any cost. They wanted to say they were better than Portugal or any other European country.”
No group blamed the Taínos for their own destruction. Some students defending the Taínos claimed they did not have advanced weapons to fight off Columbus and his men. Other groups argued that they trusted Columbus because he was kind at first and later betrayed them by enslaving and killing them.
This lesson challenges what students have learned about Columbus and provokes political activism. Teacher Megan Huber noted, at the end of the trial in one of her classes, students “started asking me why [Columbus] has a holiday or a statue and they want to know what they can do to change it.”