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Boring stories, missing voices, and 7 tools for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Several days ago, a group of us got together to do some Inquiry Design Model creation. And one of our conversations focused on the interactions between indigenous people and European colonists during the early years of the United States. That led to further discussions around Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

As part of that conversation, I asked teachers to read a couple of different articles focusing on primary sources and thinking about the voices that may be missing from the stories those sources are telling. The first article, Teaching Hard History With Primary Sources, is from Teaching Tolerance and provides resources for including voices of enslaved persons in American history.

The second was published just a few weeks ago at Education Week. Titled How Do We Teach With Primary Sources When So Many Voices Are Missing?, the article highlights the difficulty in telling a complete story when Native American voices can be hard to find. Bottom line? We need to train both ourselves and our students to look beyond what the easy to find sources are telling us. It’s what Sam Wineburg called “reading the silences.

Finding these missing voices is important for a lot of reasons. But one particular quote in the EdWeek article stood out for me:

The nice little progressive American story is boring. Once students realize it’s complicated, it’s interesting.

We want our kids to go beyond just hearing and memorizing the story. When students get the chance to see the nuance and connections and people and interactions and relationships and context and motivations and emotion and similarities to contemporary issues, you don’t have to work very hard to keep them engaged.

No one likes a boring story. No one sits through a crappy movie on Netflix. No one finishes a book with poorly written and unimaginative characters.

So why should a student have to sit through a tedious and dull history class?

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day provides a canvas for that nuanced and complex story that can be engaging to kids. And I understand that October 14 is right there, knocking on the door. But this is the kind of story that I know you can weave into a lot of the learning going on between now and next May.

So . . . take some time to explore a few resources that can help:

Begin with a powerful article from the Teaching Channel by Ali Michael. Lots of specific tips and tools. Some examples:

  • Teach truth about both Columbus and Native Americans. They were not friends.
  • Don’t teach that Columbus discovered America. “De-center” Columbus and allow the story of Native Americans to become visible and share the stage.
  • Be intentional about identifying Native American stereotypes in your instructional materials.
  • Don’t teach myths that will need to be unlearned later.

Teaching Tolerance has some super useful resources.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has a nice post with background and context. Get a bit more of the same from The Atlantic in their Rethinking History Class on Columbus Day article.

The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian has put together an extensive resource list.

The University of New Mexico’s Latin American and Iberian Institute created an 80 page Rethinking Columbus: An Educators Guide available on Issuu. The Guide focuses on “discussing matters relevant to teaching about Columbus, rethinking how we present Columbus to our students, and providing teaching resources and lesson plans.” It’s based on the book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.

Find lessons, resources, and books on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day at the Zinn Education Project

Get a high school lesson plan, Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, from the Anti-Defamation League.

Why? Because we need to go beyond boring, progressive storytelling.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amanda Jessee #

    Over the last 18 years, I have done a book study with my 5th graders over the novel, Morning Girl, mentioned in Rethinking Columbus: An Educator’s Guide. Even though the readability level is more in line with 2nd or 3rd grade, I love it because the book gives my students a view of what life may have been like for the pre-Columbian Taino people. The book is a great way to incorporate a relatively simple primary source through the excerpt from Columbus’s journal that is used as the epilogue. My favorite part is seeing Morning Girl’s reaction to the strangers towards the end of the book; it helps my students realize that when cultures come into contact with each other for the first time, both groups tend to make assumptions about the other group based on personal cultural norms. At one point, Morning Girl comments, “What a backward, distant island they must have come from” in response to seeing the strangers’ oddly shaped canoe and strange clothing choices! (Spoiler: the strangers were Columbus and his crew!)

    I usually follow this novel study up with a lesson from in which we read, analyze, interpret, and write about a letter from Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella’s treasurer in which he describes what he sees upon arriving in the Caribbean. We really do a lot of scaffolding (it is listed as a lesson for 7-12 grade), and the kids always come away asking a lot of good questions, mostly “Why did he think that doing that was ok?” It also allows them to realize the lands that were “discovered” by Columbus were, in his words, “thickly peopled”. To many of my students, that is a startling realization that we continue to emphasize as we move deeper into the European colonization of North America.

    October 11, 2019
    • glennw #


      Thanks for sharing! Trade books are perfect for developing emotional connections. And a great way to “fill in the silences” that Wineburg talks about that can lead to the student conversations you mention – helping kids understand there are multiple sides to the story. The “discovery” aspect is one of the Myths mentioned in the Teaching Channel article and one that is easy to bust. Your lesson certainly does that!


      October 11, 2019
  2. Charnee Bria James #

    I really appreciated this post! As a future educator this exactly what I want to do, not only everyday but especially on “Columbus Day”. I love that you used quotes and gave examples of how to actually teach Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I think these 7 tools could be very useful AND IMPACTFUL! We have to see other backgrounds and not teach myths within the classroom! Why should a student sit through a boring lecture….

    Thank you!

    December 5, 2019
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the quick comment – I appreciate you stopping by! Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a perfect example w can use that can help kids see how nuanced history has been and continues to be. So much of what we need to do is to help kids see and understand multiple perspectives!


      December 6, 2019

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