Putting Christopher Columbus on Trial in 6th Grade Social Studies

Two students sitting at a desk with a sign that says "Columbus" in front of them.

A picture from last year's trial.

A historian must pick and choose among facts, deciding which ones to put in his or her work, which ones to leave out, and which ones to place at the center of the story.” -Howard Zinn.
The goal of a history teacher is to present an accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of history, one that is not always found in traditional textbooks and curricula. This means we must teach our students to analyze and evaluate sources, to think critically and to suspend judgment until they have examined as many perspectives as possible. Looking at history with an honest and engaging approach equips students, and grown-ups alike, to make sense of our world and act to improve it.  
6th graders in Mary’s Social Studies class will be putting Christopher Columbus and others on trial in the coming weeks to determine who is responsible for the death of millions of Taínos on the island of Hispaniola in the late 15th century. This unit Mary teaches is adapted from the Zinn Education Project which is coordinated by 2 collaborative non-profit organizations-Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. These organizations publish lesson and unit plans that are based on Howard Zinn’s approach to flipping the script of history:
“A people’s history flips the script. When we look at history from the standpoint of the workers and not just the owners, the soldiers and not just the generals, the invaded and not just the invaders, we can begin to see society more fully, more accurately. The more clearly we see the past, the more clearly we’ll see the present — and be equipped to improve it.”
Recently, Mary and several other Westside teachers attended The NW Teaching for Social Justice Conference where the Zinn Education Project and many other organizations and scholars hosted workshops.
A little background on how and why 6th graders are putting Columbus on trial…
6th grade Social Studies focuses on early American history. The year began with an inquiry into Pre-Columbian Native Americans in both Language Arts and Social Studies. In Language Arts class students read Morning Girl by Michael Dorris which is a short novel exploring the world of brother and sister Morning Girl and Star Boy who live on an island in the Bahamas just before the arrival of Columbus. The book gives students insight and understanding of the Taino culture. Meanwhile in Social Studies students did research about Native American cultural regions and learned about the diverse ways native people adapted to their environments in North America. This research was done by examining artifacts, activities and analyzing a set of nonfiction readings. Next, students completed a unit about world exploration and the Age of Exploration to learn about the timeline and legacies of famous world explorers, which brings us to the controversial figure of Christopher Columbus.
Many students already know of the legacy of Columbus but this trial gives them an opportunity to dive below the surface and the traditional question of Was Christopher Columbus a hero? It has them examine the complexity of the historical time period by analyzing many perspectives.
The trial role play begins with the premise that a monstrous crime was committed in the years after 1492, when perhaps as many as three million or more Taínos on the island of Hispaniola lost their lives. (Most scholars estimate the number of people on Hispaniola in 1492 at between one and three million; some estimates are lower and some much higher. By 1550, very few Taínos remained alive.) Who — and/or what — was responsible for this slaughter? This is the question students will confront in their courtroom.

There are 5 defendants charged with murder-the murder of the Taíno Indians in the years following 1492: Columbus

  • Columbus’s men
  • King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella
  • The Taínos
  • The System of Empire (the cultural beliefs of the time)
Chris Casillas speaking to a group of 6th grade students
In groups, students portray the defendants and Mary, their teacher, will be the prosecutor. In the trial, the defendant groups must defend themselves against the charges and explain who they think is guilty and why. They will do this by writing an opening statement for the trial and gathering evidence to support their claim and bringing witnesses to the stand. The evidence they use comes from primary sources from Columbus’ journal, excerpts from Bartolome de las Casas and other secondary sources, including chapter 1 of A Young People's History of the United States which is an adaptation of Howard Zinn’s book for young readers.
A jury sworn to neutrality will ultimately decide the verdict. They may find more than one defendant group responsible for the crime in which case they will assign percentage guilt. Stay tuned...

Chris Casillas, a state mediator, judge, and law professor, dropped by to give students tips about participating in a trial and making arguments before their trial begins tomorrow.

This unit is also timely because it begins right after Columbus Day. For current events, students read articles about
Indigenous Peoples Day vs Columbus Day and debated the question Should we celebrate Christopher Columbus? The trial also gives students an introduction to courtroom procedures and etiquette.