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Last month, students in Julie Levine’s fifth-grade class at Walker School sent Governor J.B. Pritzker a request with an embedded history lesson. After studying the early history of this country, the students decided that a name change was in order for a holiday celebrating an explorer who was also an exploiter and who really did not know where he had landed.
They would like to see the holiday changed from commemorating the explorer Christopher Columbus to honoring the people he claimed to have “discovered.” Columbus Day would be renamed First People’s Day.
These fifth-graders studied colonialism and westward expansion. They read history books and excerpts from the journal of Christopher Columbus. They listened to guest speakers of Native American descent and asked questions about their histories. The also learned that a 2016 proclamation by then-Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl supported “the creation of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day.’”
Ms. Levine, who had just retired from teaching at Walker, was asked to return as a long-term substitute for the class. “At the time I came in, the students were supposedly finishing a unit on exploration, and starting a unit on the early colonies. Native Americans and Westward Expansion were the major parts of their third-grade curriculum, which I had taught for years, so I knew what they had learned, and could make connections.”
It was just after Columbus Day that Ms. Levine took over the class. “The students were very interested when I let them know they were mature enough to learn more of the truth than what I learned at their age.
“As we zoomed in on studying Columbus, it was a natural transition to conversations and the beginning of our study of colonization of North America. I have always been passionate about the plight of Native Americans, and it just all clicked in a class conversation.”
The students read National Geographic’s “Voyages to the Indies” and “Expeditions in the Americas.” They also read “When Cultures Meet.”
“I showed them videos of the amounts of lands held by Native Americans prior to 1607 – when Jamestown was settled – and how it shrank bit by bit throughout the history of our country. We watched videos and read books about the Trail of Tears, the Navajo Long Walk, a beautiful picture book called ‘Cheyenne Again,’ about native children being taken away from their homes and sent to boarding schools. …
“We learned a lot about explorers, Columbus and the impact on Native Americans,” Ms. Levine said.
Concurrent with the unit on the early history of this country, the students studied journalism, and they read a Newsela article about states that were changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
“One thing led to another,” Ms. Levine said. “We found out that in Illinois, only Evanston and Oak Park have changed the holiday. If Evanston had not, we were going to write to Mayor Hagerty. We found out with other states had made the change. I just suddenly had the idea that maybe we could write to the governor and give him our opinions.”
The students learned the Pritzker administration’s protocol about how to present their request.
“You don’t just sit down and write a letter, the way it used to be,” Ms. Levine said. Everything is done by email. To convince the Governor to agree to a proclamation, they had to submit a sample.
Each student drafted a proclamation that began with “whereas” clauses – Ms. Levine demanded “a minimum” of four, each stating a separate reason – and ended with a “therefore” clause, indicating the Governor’s action. She allowed the students to choose their own fonts, and, as each one finished, she printed the proclamation.
Ms. Levine encouraged the fifth-graders to incorporate information from their studies into their whereas clauses.
Dec. 12 was proclamation-upload day, and Ms. Levine used questions to guide the students through the process: “What entity are we?” They rejected “District 65 students” and “fifth-graders,” preferring “Walker School students.”
“Where are we located?” Everyone knew the address.
“We need a mission statement. What is our mission? We’re a fifth-grade class who wants to …” Working in groups at tables designed to accommodate no more than six, the students thought and wrote. By what appeared to be an unspoken consensus, two girls wrote on the white board: “We are a class at Walker School, room 204, that wants to honor indigenous people instead of Columbus. “
Asked which of these clauses might be most persuasive to the Governor, many students emphasized that Columbus had bargained with the King and Queen of Spain for 10% of the profits from the gold and slaves he would bring back. Others noted that Columbus had not landed on the continent proper and had believed he had arrived in India.
Still others described or read the whereas clause they thought would catch the Governor’s eye, if not his heart:
“It’s not being a hero if you’re trying to kill people.”
“Columbus was only going to make a deal with Spain for money.”
“He put in his journal that they wanted to steal from the [native people].”
“Columbus enslaved natives and forced them to work for the white man.”
“He landed in Haiti and thought he was in India.”
“Natives should have kept their land, but the U.S. government took away 98% of it.”
“We [Illinoisans] are named after the Illini people.”
“We should celebrate our indigenous people instead of Columbus, because they are helpful to us.”
“[The whereas clause] about Columbus’ having slaves and treating all the native people badly.”
As the students studied their proclamations for the final time, getting ready to upload them onto the Governor’s website, Ms. Levine asked them, “Who else do our hearts worry about?” What countries, she asked, had colonized other countries?
“Who colonized Mexico?”
“And Canada?” she asked.
“France,” a few called out, and one added, “England ruled Australia.”
At the initial upload, the students learned their chosen fonts would not be honored. The printouts of each sample proclamation, in differing font styles and sizes, lay on a classroom table, while the Governor’s website reduced these choices to a standard form.
Intent on their work as a reporter left, Ms. Levine and her students nonetheless promised to inform the RoundTable about how the Governor reacted to their proclamations.