Friday, September 9, 2022

Learning - Becoming "Woke" in America

When I was younger, Columbus Day was a big deal. The reason, most importantly to my young self, was we had a day off of school.  And, in school, we "studied" Christopher Columbus.  He was a great explorer who braved unknown waters and lands, met and greeted new people, shared materials with the "savages" he met and even helped to "civilize" them.  How proud I was to be an American, living in this great country, discovered by this great man.

American Flag waving

I never thought any differently about this.  I loved the parades, loved the day off, and believed every word I was taught.  And then I went to college.

In my last year of college, in one of my very last classes, I took a course on teaching in an inner-city school system.  The professor opened my eyes to more than just a different way of growing up in America.  He introduced me to a book I read with shock: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  

Cover of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

It was this book that introduced me to Columbus as a brute who did not even make it to the United States.  I learned about the smallpox blankets he passed out to the Native Americans.  I learned that the people he met were already "civilized" and not in need of his support.  I learned about babies taken from their parents and parents taken back to Europe as slaves.  Basically, I learned Columbus is not a man to be celebrated but one to be taught about so it never happens again.

Picture of Columbus with a quote

And then I started teaching.  My first few years, Columbus Day was ignored.  We had a day off but I never mentioned why, other than calling the day Columbus Day.  I avoided the issue completely.

Once I started teaching second grade in my fifth year of teaching, I had to figure out a way to deal with this.  Second grade centers around holidays.  Each holiday is taught, bulletin boards are created, books are read.  And all the books about Columbus painted him as a great explorer, leading us to this New World, saving us from the savages. So when the books were sent to my room, I put them in my Columbus basket but didn't read any of them.  We colored a picture, that I sent home, and still, I ignored the situation.

Columbus coloring page

I had to figure out how to handle the topic, while keeping the peace with my administrators and my parents.  So I taught about the "savages" instead.  I taught my students about the wonderful accomplishments of the Taino people, who they were, and where they live today.  Eventually I got the book Encounter by Jane Yolen.  This book helped me tell the story of Columbus with a very different viewpoint.

Cover of the book Encounter by Jane Yolen

"Why," my students asked, "do we have a holiday celebrating this man if he was so bad?" Ah, the ultimate question.  And, as I grew as an educator, and, especially once I moved to upper grades, I explained more.  I explained clearly who was, and is, still harmed by exploration.  I explained why history and history books tell it to us so differently, who is telling the story, and whose story is not being told at all.  I explained that as we know better, we do better.

I became a better teacher for learning more about this holiday.  And I believe my students became more understanding learners.  We all woke up.  

Today, in America, we are afraid to be "woke".  This is a bad thing.  In fact, it is so bad that certain governors of certain states have made teaching this type of history against the law.  So back we go, to a time when Columbus was a great man to be revered.  But I cannot go back.  And I hope, with all my heart, that my students remember what I taught them and find they cannot go back either. 

Governor DeSantis at a podium that says Stop Woke Act
So this year, when you come upon Columbus Day, read the chapter in Lies My Teacher Told Me about it.  And see how you will change.  (And then go on to Thanksgiving.  Your lessons will need major overhauls.  Don't hate me for it!

1 comment:

Wicked Stepmom said...

Dad and I enjoyed your piece and love you for sharing it. You did it without venom, but with empathy! Charlotte aka wicked stepmom