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Throwback Thursday: History shouldn’t be boring. Or leave out stuff. Resources for your Indigenous Peoples’ Day

I’ve been on a serious Nathaniel Philbrick kick over the last few months and just finished Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War. It’s an incredibly interesting and detailed exploration of the interactions between the Indigenous nations of what we now call New England and English Pilgrims and Puritans during the 1600s.


Schoolhouse Rock left out some stuff. Seriously. A lot of stuff.

One issue that Philbrick was very open about reminded me of a conversation I had with a group of upper elementary teachers several years ago. I had asked them to read an article titled How Do We Teach With Primary Sources When So Many Voices Are Missing? Published by Education Week, the article highlights the difficulty in telling a complete story when Indigenous voices are hard to find, the same issue that Philbrick struggled with.

Bottom line? We need to train both ourselves and our students to look beyond what the easy to find sources are telling us. (I’m looking at you, Schoolhouse Rock. And our textbooks. And a lot of contemporary trade books.) It’s what Sam Wineburg once called “reading the silences.” We need to be more intentional about finding and using sources that fill in those silences, than let kids listen to the stories that are often untold and left out. 

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 hear 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 that tells a story without a nuanced plot or interesting individuals?

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day provide a canvas for sharing all sorts of nuanced and complex stories that can be incredibly engaging to kids. Indigenous Peoples’ Day doesn’t erase the stories of Columbus and others from Europe who encountered Indigenous North and South Americans. What it does do is give us the chance to think through the complexities of those encounters. Kids get the opportunity to explore the subtleties of initial encounters, the not so subtle later interactions, the establishment of government sponsored removal, the resistance of those in mission schools, and the concept of “discovery” while examining how these and all sorts of other stories are constructed and how they change over time.

I also understand that October 10 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.

I love Learning for Justice stuff – they’ve got some super useful resources:

The Atlantic has a nice post with background and context in their Rethinking History Class on Columbus Day article. And I don’t usually get too attached to textbook company stuff but I gotta admit Houghton Mifflin’s Q & A about how to teach Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not your typical textbook content.

Need some teaching resources? 

Why? Because we need to go beyond boring, one-sided storytelling. Our kids are smarter than that.

And these are stories that we can’t afford to miss.

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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.

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