Years of student-driven dialogue about holidays, history and justice
Every September, seventh graders study about Christopher Columbus and the Tainos as part of their yearlong study of US history. They pore over source documents, including letters and diaries generated by Columbus' crew, and roleplay through a trial that tries to assign responsibility for the Taino genocide.
As students learn more about Columbus' impact, they begin to talk about how to appropriately recognize October's Columbus Day holiday.
Over the years, these conversations have echoed throughout the halls and meetings rooms of the school. The history has grown long enough that a recap seems to be in order.
The story begins with third grade. Third grade students explore multiple perspectives on history while studying colonial-era North America, and they had a strong and positive response to the news that Brown University was renaming Columbus Day "Fall Weekend".
As one third grader wrote to the Providence Journal:
Dear Mr or Mrs Editor:
'In 14 hundred 92 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was a very courageous thing to do, but someone was already here.' [from 1492]
The people that were already there were the Native Americans, and therefore I think it was right to rename Columbus Day. But I think that you should name that day the Ultimate Change Day. Thank you for your time and cooperation.
PS I am a kid
PSS Change is upon us
Seventh graders write then-Head Ralph Wales with a proposal to "continue to have Columbus Day off of school but modify the name and focus of the day." They provided supporting documents. Mr. Wales shared their thinking, and his reflections, in the monthly Gordon newsletter.
With more communities renaming the holiday and rethinking their relationship to it, Gordon's blog showed students doing a close reading of presidential Columbus Day proclamations.
Students were once again writing school leadership about the holiday and the calendar. The assignment had become a lesson in persuasive writing, but also one about identifying and addressing the seats of power at the school.
In response to the letters, school administrators met with the seventh grade, and invited them into dialogue about how to recognize Columbus Day. Students eventually took the conversation to meetings with Board of Trustees and the Board's Diversity Committee, and talked about the experience with educators who were visiting Gordon to learn more about multicultural education.
The school's new calendar replaced "Columbus Day" with "Fall Weekend"
Dr. Thomas López explains the change to the second Monday in October with a letter to the community and a promise to engage the Class of 2020 in a new strategy for recognizing the holiday at Gordon.
COVID-19 interrupts conversations with the Class of 2020. They graduate without determining a new name for the holiday.
The experience of this year's Columbus trial leads to conversations about teaching that is being contested and banned throughout the country. Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning Alethea Dunham-Carson gives a lesson on the current efforts to ban teaching about race and racism.
As part of the conversation, seventh graders express curiosity about Gordon's relationship to Columbus Day: how did Gordon end up celebrating Fall Weekend? Ms. Paull reviews the history detailed above with them, and the conversation begins anew.