The trial of Christopher Columbus
It’s the trial of the millennium at Treasure Mountain International School. Students of veteran history teacher John McDonald have spent the past few weeks preparing for and conducting a trial against Christopher Columbus, charging him on counts like genocide, slavery, torture, and kidnapping. McDonald’s students have done this for 10 years now. The trial format engages students better than a standard lecture, he said. "The traditional method is something that can be kind of dry and boring," McDonald said. "(The trial) has taken on a life of its own." McDonald’s eighth-grade history classes divide into three groups: prosecution, defense, and judges (who wear graduate robes). One student acts as court technician to film the proceedings. "He wants to go back and critique it and see our errors and what we could have done better," said Sebastian Hooker, who was his class’s camera man. This year, McDonald held the trial in a room in the school’s library, whereas before he conducted it in his own classroom. The room is complete with a podium, students rise when judges enter, and McDonald presides with a gavel. Alondra Cornejo said, "I think (the trial) is better and it’s more real. I think it’s cool that we get to know how it feels to be over here." Students research Columbus’s own records to find evidence. "He kept good journals," said Dillon Shaw, who found evidence that Columbus sent 550 slaves to Spain once. Edward Hong prosecuted the charge that Columbus committed international terrorism against Tainos Indians. "We found in the research that he brought small pox and other diseases to the New World," Hong said. But because those diseases were brought accidentally by Columbus’s crew "it’s a little bit" hard to prove. Eric Madsen argued that Columbus’s men killed in self-defense. Moreover, Columbus believed that the Americans were actually Indians, and the majority religion of India was Islam at the time, Madsen continued. Spain had been at war with Muslims when Columbus set sail. "When you are fighting a war, is it right to prosecute a soldier?" Madsen asked the judges. Blake Porter argued that since all Europeans accepted enslavement of colonized peoples, that Columbus was a product of his culture. "You cannot blame the acts of all settlers on Columbus," Porter said. Not only does the exercise teach history, but students learn about legal proceedings. "You know how it works if you ever have something you need to do in the law, you know how to do it," said Chris Badger. "You’ll be more familiar. It won’t be as hard to do." Students learn to frame arguments, prepare statements, and speak in public. It also incorporates technology and an international focus, according to McDonald. He adapted it from material the University of Minnesota Law School created. "There’s a lot of bite to it," McDonald said. The charges where Columbus is convicted vary from class to class, depending on the arguments, McDonald said. "The judges must have an open mind and the presumption of innocence is paramount with the trial. Prosecution must proof beyond any reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is on the Prosecution. Therefore each class may have very different outcomes depending on the jobs both sides do," he said. Being a judge can be hard, said Jesika Frain, because "sometimes it gets really boring." Judgeship is fun too, according to Sam Totten, because "you get to ask them questions and make them feel nervous." Judge Greg Popiel said, "It’s kind of hard because you have to evaluate the prosecution and the defense. Plus he’s (Columbus) not really there for you to ask questions."
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