I'm not a fan of Christopher Columbus (I mean, of course. Everybody knows, by now, that his behavior was... let's call it problematical, just so I don't go on for another eight paragraphs about his crimes in human trafficking), but he's an iconic figure in American culture, and for that alone is necessary to study. A unit on his history is, as well, an opportunity to fill in another gap in our US history study--we've spent much time on the prehistory of the United States, including that of its native peoples, and since this Columbus study we also covered the Mayflower and the pilgrims; we'll go from there through the American Revolution by the end of our big 2016 road trip.
Columbus' history is important, as well, for the opportunity that it gives me to demonstrate to the children how important context is. We talk about how different Columbus' journey might seem if one didn't also study the people who lived there before him, or didn't also learn that he and his crew gravely mistreated many of those people. We talk about colonialism, and the excuse that religion often makes for grave crimes against humanity. History often requires that one explore this wider context in order to truly understand what one is studying.
This workbook was our main textbook for this Columbus study. Its activities were a little young for my two, and it's light on Columbus' misdeeds, but since I didn't want to spend more than a week or so on this unit, it served as a good spine. The workbook also doesn't deify Columbus, does mention the Taino people by name, and does at least refer to their abduction. That latter fact is better explained to children the ages of my two in conversation, anyway. Less formally, we listened to relevant chapters from A History of US and Story of the World, and Will read in Howard Zinn's excellent A Young People's History of the United States.
The best activity of this unit, by far, was our visit to tour real-live recreations of the Nina and Pinta. They were so small! Details like this are what really make history come alive, and therefore make it memorable. I will likely have to remind the children many times in the future of the name of the Taino people, and the itinerary of the ships, and perhaps even of 1492, itself, but that these men traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on these tiny, tiny ships... well, I don't know how you could ever forget that fact after you've seen it for yourself.
After seeing these recreations, then, we made our own. We used the template from this cardboard boat tutorial, and here's how we made them distinctively the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria:
And then, of course, since we had models of all three ships, we had to recreate their journey! This activity was a lot more fun for Syd than I'd expected it to be, and I highly recommend it to anyone who's got three model ships and access to a large space of asphalt.
Here you can see Syd sort of semi-accurately drawing Central and South America (okay, it's not at all accurate, but she's got the gist!) and the islands to their east:
I drew Europe on the other side of the driveway, and you don't need to see my sort of semi-accurate drawing of that.
Before we sailed the ships across, Syd wanted to sail on her scooter. I agreed that this was an excellent idea:
Do not let me forget that some nice day we'll have Matt, who has much better than sort of semi-accurate drawing skills, draw us an entire world map on this driveway to scoot over and around.
Narrating as she went, Syd sailed her ships from Portugal to San Salvador:
A chicken came over to investigate--
--and that gave her another brilliant idea!
In this performance, the role of the Santa Maria will be played by Syd:
I'd forgotten that we were also playing Sea Shanties on Spotify, but we were. Did you notice, though, that Syd had turned the cardboard Santa Maria upside-down and took off her sails to make her into the fort, La Navidad? My clever girl...
Seriously, though, didn't that activity turn out great?!? That kind of hands-on, whole-body, immersive learning is my Holy Grail of Homeschooling, and every once in a while, I manage to find it. Right here, I 100% found it!
On another evening, just because we love themed dinners, we had a Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria dinner. We made up a giant glass bowl of blue Jello with gummy fish swimming inside, and sailed clementine ships with toothpick masts across it. Matt carved us a watermelon caravel, and we ate baked potatoes cut in half and the fixings piled on top, and goldfish crackers, and yet another caravel carved from brownies (alas, but we love our sweets!).
The feast marked the end of our brief unit on Columbus. We'll of course study him again, when the children are older and can better appreciate the plight of those that he wronged. For our current purposes, however, his arrival spells the beginning of colonialism in the Americas, and we then turn to the most famous group of colonizers, the pilgrims from the Mayflower...
Here are some other resources that we utilized during this unit on Christopher Columbus. In particular, if you've never read Pastwatch, I highly recommend it: