Sunday, September 30, 2018

Christopher Columbus: Hero or villain?

Around this time of year, the debate over what October 12 should be called comes creeping into conversations online, in the break room, around the dinner table and in the classroom. The central question is: "Should we continue to honor Christopher Columbus or reclaim the day as Indigenous People's Day?"

Currently at our school, in fifth grade, students are studying the transdisciplinary unit of inquiry where we are in place and time as they explore the central idea: expansion causes consequences. During this unit, they inquire into decisions made by European explorers and colonizers, the causes of their actions, the changes that ensued whilst considering the perspectives of indigenous peoples and Africans who were affected by these Europeans.

To meaningfully dig into the ideas presented in the "Columbus Day v. Indigenous People's Day" debate, a fifth grade teacher with whom I work led her students through the AVID strategy Philosophical Chairs.

First, she had students watch the TED-Ed video History vs. Christopher Columbus by Alex Gendler. As they watched, students took notes organized by a hero/villain t-chart.

To prepare for Philosophical Chairs, she had the students practice with low-risk topics (and used this slide deck as support).


With each example, she promoted the use of academic language, encouraging students to use the sentence stem below.

To prepare further for philosophical chairs, we had the students watch the video one more time, adding to their notes they had previously taken. First, we had them pick a side: Columbus Day or Indigenous People's Day.

Then, as they watched the video, they were to look for evidence that would back up their opinion. To aid in their comprehension, we used an EdPuzzle version of the video, which periodically stops and suggests important pieces of evidence that they could potentially include in their t-chart.

Finally, after all the preparation, students were ready to begin the routine of philosophical chairs. We had them write their opinion and one supporting piece of evidence on an index card and then separated the students by "Pro Columbus Day" on the west side of the room and "Pro Indigenous People's Day" on the east side.

The teacher facilitated the conversation by asking students to both share their opinions and supporting evidence and listen to the points provided by the alternative side of the argument. Students' attention to each other was evident as they shared their own evidence only after repeating what they had heard their peer say from the other side of the room. As students heard evidence that swayed their opinion, they changed sides of the room. Students remained engaged and civil throughout the conversation and brought up strong reasons for why they felt that either October 12 should be remain Columbus Day or be renamed.

We closed the conversation by praising the students' participation and inviting the students to act on their learning: "Now that you know what you do about Christopher Columbus and the consequences of his actions, what will you do with this information?"

In the elementary classroom, there are certainly lots of ways to thoughtfully examine multiple perspectives of a contentious issue. The AVID strategy Philosophical Chairs is an impactful strategy that provides students an opportunity to develop inquiry, oral language and argumentation skills.


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