History Project: Columbus Trail

This trimester, our history project was the Columbus Trial. We put Christopher Columbus as well as the other groups and people involved on trial. Our history teacher, Dominic Alteri, was the judge. He split us into table groups of five people, with a mix of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and each student played an important role. There was one attorney, one to two paralegals, a defendant, and one to two historical experts. Each group got assigned a person, group of people or a system. These groups represented the Tainos native people, Columbus’s men, the King and Queen of Spain, and Christopher Columbus himself.

My group represented Columbus’s men, which was a challenge considering we disagreed with most of their actions. However, we understood that for this assignment we would need to push ourselves and try to alter our perspectives to understand what they may have been thinking at the time. We focused more on how badly Columbus treated his men and how that may have affected the way they treated others. This helped our case and the jury found us only twenty percent guilty.

Each group’s defendant took the stand to answer the questions of the attorneys. The attorneys questioned what happened at the time and the intentions of the defendant, while the defendant sat on a stool in front of the room. Based on the defendants’ answers to the questions, as well as the group’s open and closing statements, the jury gives a percentage based on how guilty the defendant appears. The jury was made of each group’s historical experts. 

Additionally, each group made a sign, with the name of the group they represented, as well as a few related drawings. On the back of the signs, there were the opening statement, questioning, and closing statement. Producing the poster prepared our group for the trial and set us up for success. Additionally, the creative aspect of the assignment pushed our group to be innovative and work together. Overall, this project taught me and my classmates the different perspectives of the Christopher Columbus story, as well as how the court works in the real world in an engaging and creative way.

Note: This was the 3rd year I taught using the Columbus Trial Project. It was created by Bill Bigelow in the Rethinking Schools / Rethinking Columbus publication. The project was inspired by a People’s History by Howard Zinn, and they did publish this assignment to the Zinn Education Project. The project includes primary sources such as Columbus’s journal, the writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas and other various texts and artwork from the time. I have spoken with several Synergy alumni over the years, and they often repeat this project in high school in AP US History.

Dominic Altieri, Middle School History Teacher

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