Discouraged by images of Columbus greeting indigenous people with hopeful smiles and handfuls of gifts, I found it necessary to challenge middle school students with another point of view. Morning Girl encourages students to expand their perspectives on the themes of exploration and "discovery."
Morning Girl paints the story of two Taino siblings living before the arrival of Europeans. The two children in the story are the same age as most of the readers, and the students easily connect with the lives of Morning Girl and her brother, Star Boy.
When they see what Columbus does in the story, they ask questions such as, "How could Columbus discover this island if people were already here?" Or, "How could he think he could force his language and religion upon these people?"
Students then listen to the song "1492," from the music compilation I Will Be Your Friend, and their queries are affirmed. The lyrics highlight both sides of "new world" exploration with such lines as, "It was a courageous thing to do, but someone was already here."
Although the Columbus controversy is the essence of this unit, students learn skills and methods of critical thinking that are applicable to future learning and thinking about issues of tolerance, respect and empathy.
Newfield Middle School
Along with Morning Girl (by Michael Dorris, ISBN# 078681358X), also see Jane Yolen's book Encounter(ISBN# 015201389X) for another native child's perspective on the invasion of Columbus.
Rethinking Schools has published Rethinking Columbus ($12.95), which is considered the definitive teacher's tool for educating about the invasion of America.