Teaching History in Complex Times

By Dr. Jennifer Davids, Head of the Middle School

The tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina last year and Charlottesville, Virginia have brought to light important discussions about the role of historical figures in modern life. While many educators might shy away from teaching about these topics with students because they are too “thorny,” at SRDS we believe that entering these discussions with children fosters critical thinking and prepares our students for the world beyond the classroom.
Our eighth grade history classes at SRDS spend time exploring the world of Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers. For several days, we read primary sources: letters sent between Spain’s King Ferdinand and Christopher Columbus, excerpts from Columbus’s diary, maps showing the exchange of goods between Europe and North America, images from the Aztec Codex, and a report from the Spanish priest, Bartolome de Las Casas. We then read news articles that showed how Columbus has been seen as a hero in much of American history, especially to the Italian community; others showed how more recently people have been uncomfortable with Columbus’s hero status and have suggested that we observe Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. In order to determine how students felt about the issue, we needed to put Columbus on trial - was he a hero or a villain or something in between? The voices from the past were brought to life as students assumed the role of one of the historical figures that we had studied and presented speeches as witnesses for the prosecution and for the defense. Lastly, Christopher Columbus spoke in his own defense. Students then assumed the role of juror and took a vote - one class found him guilty and the other found him innocent. Students finished the week by writing a personal reflection on their feelings about Columbus and the debate about the observance of Columbus Day.
Teaching students to analyze multiple sources and examine issues from multiple perspectives allows them to come to their own conclusions based on evidence. Ultimately, our role as educators is to provide tools for our students to grapple with issues head on, not to avoid them.
Dr. Jennifer Davids received her BA from the University of California, and her MA and PhD from Emory University, where she also served as an adjunct professor.
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