Our class is
offered through Vermont Adult Learning. The class is held at a local community
center, four days a week for an hour each day. Two days are dedicated to
citizenship/civics, and two days are for purely language skills, as the
students decided. The 15 students are mostly intermediate level with some
lower level students. Half are refugees from Vietnam, Bosnia, and the Congo.
They range in amount of time here and in purpose for being here. Some are
settled, while others are here temporarily for work reasons - perhaps a
husband or wife works at IBM or the University of Vermont. They are, however,
very interested in learning about this material and the two groups work
very well together.
Because this is an ongoing, open enrollment class, we are free to take our time on the material. Most of the students are not very interested in the "100 questions", as few of them are actively preparing for the citizenship test. The group is more interested in learning about American government, history and civic participation and the concepts behind the test. This was determined through a needs assessment in the beginning of the course.
As an introduction to this lesson, we did some readings and activities around early American history beginning with Christopher Columbus. Students were asked to write the story of Columbus as they remembered it, using a journalist style of answering who, what, when, where, and why. Each cultural group was allowed to work together and talk over what they had been taught in their country. The groups then compared their stories with other cultural groups.
Most of the basic information was the same, although
some knew more than others, including one Russian man who knew more than
I did! Small groups were asked to write their definitions of "discovered"
and "the New World," since these appeared in nearly all of their
We continued to talk about why Columbus came here. Further readings and discussions led to the conclusion that he came here to make money for Europe. This then led to a discussion of making money and how it often benefits some and hurts others. They couldn't really think of who Columbus could have hurt by coming here for riches to bring back to Europe. We then asked who was here before Columbus. Some thought nobody was here. We did a few readings on Native Americans and their spread across North and South America. This was an eye-opener for some that allowed us to revisit our understanding of Columbus "discovering" America. The students rewrote their stories of Columbus, specifying that he was the first European to come to this land, not the first to discover it. "This man came from Europe to find a better way to trade with Asia, and found a new place to make money - America."
Students were then asked to write the story of Columbus from the perspective of Native Americans. This proved to be very interesting. They wrote about how sad they were when Columbus came and what happened after he came. A brief reading of Native American treatment after colonization was new information to most. They were surprised to hear about how many died and were forced off their land. This also came up again in our unit on colonization. Students questioned how people who came here for freedom and to escape persecution could then persecute and treat the natives so badly. This also led, thanks to our Russian scholar, to a very good discussion of "propaganda" and who writes history and how it depends on whose version you are reading.
The students came away with a better perspective
of the early history of America, and a more even-sided approach to history.
We talked about how there are always two sides to a story, and both should
be included in history. One student even brought in her child's history
book from school which had no mention of the impact of Columbus on Native
Americans. Our discussions had raised her awareness of the issue, and
helped her participate more fully in her daughter's education. In general,
the students learned to always question the source, and to try to get
as many perspectives on an issue as possible.
England Literacy Resource Center