Students explore Columbus Day, history of Native Americans

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

That’s a rhyme some people might recognize from childhood while learning about Christopher Columbus’ expedition across the Atlantic.

He landed onto the West Indies and subsequently discovered American land.

But he was hardly the founder of the Americas, according to history reports.

Monday is Columbus Day, but others recognize it as Indigenous Peoples Day to celebrate the Native Americans Columbus encountered when he stumbled onto the New World.

And both holidays play a role in local education.

In kindergarten, Gray’s Wood Elementary School teacher Lynn Dobash said her class will learn during Columbus Day week about explorers, mapping and life 500 years ago.

But class curriculum gets more intricate for each grade.

Columbus Day isn’t necessarily part of Cathy Drapcho Klein’s fourth-grade social studies class at Gray’s Woods Elementary, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t teach the topic.

“Columbus Day is a perfect segue for us to get into some of these items,” Drapcho Klein said. “The students understand — maybe not as well as adults, but they get it.”

She said the fourth-grade unit for social studies starts with Native Americans; moves to encounters and exchanges between the Europeans and native people; and ends with the founding of Pennsylvania and the people who lived here.

The latest history unit was written in 2008, Drapcho Klein said, but the interest in native people and European settlers was addressed before that.

Drapcho Klein also said she’ll introduce a book to her class called “Columbus Day” and will study varieties of perspectives about what the holiday means.

She said the State College Area School District also invited native people to help teach the teachers.

“We look into what the common views are, and hope they (the students) see past the stereotype based on what they’re learning, and learn to see the past accurately,” she said. “There are so many teachable moments that can also be learned outside of curriculum.”

Some of her students even said they have Native American heritage.

“In a way, they’re learning they’re all connected to the past,” Drapcho Klein said.

Jennifer Kerr is a sixth-grade ancient world history teacher at Bellefonte Area Middle School.

She said her class will not only address Columbus Day, but also delve into theories of how America was founded and how the Europeans brought “devastation” to the indigenous people in their search of riches and wealth.

“We will discuss at length how it is difficult not to judge history using modern values and beliefs, and how we must learn from history to improve our societies,” she said. “In short, they’ll learn the good, the bad, the positive and negative consequences.”

And on Monday, Lynda Hauman’s social studies class through State College Area’s Delta Program will hold a debate.

“I am going to challenge my students to consider the role of both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day in contemporary America,” she said. “My students will debate the resolutions.”

That includes whether Columbus Day should remain a national holiday, and if Indigenous Peoples Day should replace Columbus Day as a national holiday, she said.

According to, Columbus Day is a U.S. holiday that celebrates the discovery of the New World by Columbus on Oct. 12, 1492. It was unofficially celebrated in some cities and states as early as the 18th century but did not become a federal holiday until 1937.

Indigenous Peoples Day, or Native American Day, is celebrated in areas of the country as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day.