Christopher Columbus was born in October, 1451, in Genoa, now Northern Italy. His father was a weaver and owned a cheese stand, where Christopher helped out as a child. He later claimed that he went to sea at age 10. There are records of him on a Genoese ship in 1470, and in 1473 he was apprenticed as a trader.
C9lumbus traveled in the Mediterranean and along the coast of Africa as a trader. He married and had children, but the sea and trading were his primary interests.
Columbus didn’t go to college, but he taught himself to read Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish, and he read many books on astronomy, mathematics, geography, and history. He didn’t just read these books, but studied them, making notes in the margins and returning to the books repeatedly. His studies led him to believe that it was possible to sail westward from Europe and reach Asia, an idea that had been suggested occasionally since the days of Ancient Rome.
The Ottoman Turks had taken over the Silk Road, and it had become much harder for Europeans to get to Asia for trade. Spices and silks were important and profitable trade items for Europeans, so traders of the time were working on new routes to Asia. Sailors from Portugal, where Columbus lived, thought that ships could sail around Africa and back up to Asia. Columbus thought his westward route would be easier.
People often think that Columbus was the one who realized that the world was round. This is not true; many people since the time of the Ancient Greeks thought the world was round. Columbus had a different idea of geography from most people of his day, though. For one thing, he thought the world was smaller than it actually is. He thought that Japan was far to the east of India, and he thought that the distance between Europe and Asia to the west was therefore not very great. These misunderstandings on his part convinced Columbus that a westward route to Asia was a practical plan.
It took Columbus years to find backers for his idea, probably because his geography didn’t square with what people knew about Asia, but eventually he persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to finance his voyages.
In 1492, Columbus set out with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He reached an island which he called San Salvador. It is not know which island he was on at the time, though the current island of San Salvador (given the name in 1925) is one possibility. He was somewhere in the Bahamas.
In those days, Europeans called most of the Asia “the Indies.” Columbus thought he had reached Japan, the westernmost part of the Indies.
Columbus actually discovered a place which was previously unknown to Europeans, but he didn’t believe that. He continued to believe that he had reached Asia. Columbus made three more voyages, visiting Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and attempted to colonize Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He was unable to manage all his responsibilities, however, and was arrested and removed from his governorship of Hispaniola in 1500. He made another voyage after that arrest, but died in 1506.
Columbus wasn’t interested only in discovery. He wanted plenty of rewards in return for his service to Spain. He was given the title Admiral of the Ocean Sea and granted a coat of arms. He had four “books of privileges” made to record the deals he made with Spain, and later in his life he sued the Spanish court for the privileges he believed he was entitled to under those agreements. Some of the rights he negotiated include 10% of all the profits made from the new lands and the right to be governor of all the lands he claimed for Spain. The court cases continued (with Columbus’s descendants) until 1790.
Was Columbus a hero? To many people, he is, and we celebrate Columbus Day each year as a federal holiday.
Christopher Columbus was a trader who thought a new route to Asia would bring him wealth from the spice trade. Instead, he stumbled onto a whole new part of the world that Europeans didn’t know about (though Lief Ericson had visited North America earlier). Since there were people already living in the places he visited, it doesn’t make sense to say that Columbus “discovered” the New World, and of course he never came to the land which is now the United States.
Columbus certainly was the one who opened trade between Europe and the Americas, beginning the “Columbian Exchange” which brought horses and sugar to Native Americans and tomatoes and chocolate to Europeans. It also brought new diseases to both the Old World and the New World. Columbus himself was in favor of selling the people of the New World as slaves in Europe, though he didn’t live long enough to put that plan into action. He was accused by Spanish settlers in the New World of having exaggerated the wonders of the New World, and he was accused of cruelty to the people who were already living there. He had big plans for himself and his family, but was still in the early stages of those plans when, suffering from arthritis and fighting to regain the privileges he lost in 1500, he died just fourteen years after he had set out on his first journey.
Learn more about Columbus:
- What Was Columbus Thinking? gives students an opportunity to read letters from Christopher Columbus and get more insight into his ideas and intentions.
- An Ongoing Voyage is an online version of the U.S. Library of Congress exhibit about the world in the time of Columbus.
- A video about Columbus from National Geographic Kids.
Madame C.J. Walker was a self-made businesswoman who created opportunities for herself and for other African American women at a time when both educational and career opportunities were limited. Walker was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, and (according to the Guiness book of world records) the first woman to earn a million dollars through her own efforts. She was also a philanthropist and a tireless worker for several causes, including the end of lynching and equal rights for African American veterans.
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, on December 23, 1867. Her parents had been slaves, and became sharecroppers after the Civil War. Both of them died when Walker was seven years old. She moved to Vicksburg with her older sister Louvenia a few years later, but Louvenia’s husband was abusive, and Walker ran away and married when she was only 14 years old.
Walker had one daughter, Lelia, who was born in 1885 when Walker was 18 years old. Her first husband died at the hands of a lynch mob, and Walker went on to marry twice more.
Walker was an entrepreneur and an inventor. She created hair care products, first as a solution to her own hair loss and then for sale to others. She began by selling her products door to door, added a mail order business, and then opened a “hair culture” college. Among the 3,000 people employed by Walker’s company were tutors who helped Walker to get the education she had not been able to achieve when she was young.
Walker’s third husband, C.J. Walker, and her daughter Lelia worked with her in her business. Lelia, later known as A’Lelia, managed the mail order side of the business while her parents traveled in the U.S., South America, and the Carribean promoting the Walker products. In 15 years, Walker built an empire of cosmetics and beauty products, including an improved permanent wave machine developed in 1928 by a Walker employee, Majorie Joyner.
Walker’s goal was not only to improve her own life, but also to provide better jobs for other African American women, who at that time had limited job opportunities. She described her career path in this way: “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Walker employed (and the company still employs) independent agents to sell the products directly to their friends and neighbors. Agents buy their stock at a deep discount, sell it at retail prices, and keep the difference as their commission. The company also offered sales training for agents. This arrangement allowed women to go into business for themselves without education, experience, or investment. At a time when many African American women saw domestic service as their only job opportunity, and unskilled workers of any ethnicity could expect to make less than $50 a month, Walker Agents could make $1,000 a month. By 1910, there were more than 1,000 Walker Agents.
In 1916, Walker built a 34 room house on the Hudson River and in 1917 she led a march of women to Washington to protest the segregation of the military. Just as she had used her business to help provide economic opportunities for African Americans, she used her wealth to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. She donated money to colleges that accepted African American students, gave scholarships, and supported young writers and artists. In 1919, when she died, Walker was widely known as an example not only of business and marketing skill, but also of social activism.
Madam Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame. Her face was on a U.S. postage stamp, and she continues to be a source of inspiration.
“If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I am willing to work hard,” said Walker. “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Florence Kelley worked for laws to improve working conditions in the United States and for civil rights. She was important in the fight to get children out of factories and into schools, and the fight for safe working conditions for factory workers.
Kelley was a fighter. She was one of the first factory inspectors, becoming the Chief Factory Inspector for the state of Illinois in 1893, and she was known to be very tough when she found children working in factories, or people working in dangerous conditions. At that time, factory workers — including children — often worked for 12 or 14 hours a day in dangerous conditions for very little money. Workers might be locked into a room, as were the people who died in the Triangle Factory Fire, or working with dangerous machines, or with too little air or light for their health and safety.
Kelley was instrumental in passing laws that protected workers, but the laws were not very effective. There weren’t many factory inspectors, and workers who complained might lose their jobs, so the laws were not always enforced. Some of the laws were even repealed when factory owners complained that they couldn’t afford the new rules.
So Florence Kelley took another approach. She spoke to women’s groups about the terrible working conditions in the factories, and helped make sure that special tags were added to clothes that were made under safe and decent conditions. She persuaded the women, who bought most of the clothing, to buy only clothes with the labels showing they had been made under safe conditions. These women couldn’t vote for changes in laws, but they could “vote with their pocketbooks” by choosing where to spend their money. Gradually, factory owners were forced to make changes because their customers insisted.
Kelley didn’t give up on making changes in laws, though. She worked for equal funding for schools in poor neighborhoods and for all children. She worked for laws allowing women to vote. She fought for minimum wage laws and an eight hour workday.
She did this in spite of personal tragedies. All her sisters died as children, and Florence Kelley herself was often ill. She was divorced at a time when this was very uncommon, and was a single mother. One of her children died young. There were threats against her life, and many people disagreed with her. She didn’t have TV or the internet to spread the word about her causes, and she couldn’t even vote. She began her crusade when she was 12 years old and kept it up till she died at the age of 74.
Florence Kelley was one of the first people to use scientific data to persuade people to make social changes. She gathered information about the effects of poor working conditions and these facts were presented to the Supreme Court. This was the first time this kind of information was considered by the court. Later, when the Supreme Court considered segregation in schools, they looked as this kind of evidence again.
Florence Kelley was also one of the first to organize consumer boycotts. Kelley graduated from Cornell University and received a law degree from Northwestern University, and she spent many years working for legal changes. However, she also organized people and shared information which allowed ordinary people to make a difference. Kelley was one of the organizers of the NAACP and also of several organizations supporting women and children.
Learn more about Florence Kelley:
Wilma Rudolph was an exceptional athlete in track and field, a teacher, and an effective worker for civil rights. She is an impressive example of persistence in the face of adversity.
Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940, in St. Behtlehem, near Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the 20th of 22 children, and her parents struggled to support the family. Her father was a railway porter and her mother cleaned houses. These are not high paying positions, and during the Great Depression, with such a large family, the Rudolphs found it hard to feed and clothe their family, and to provide medical care for them. In addition, Tennessee at this time had segregation, a legal separation of people of different ethnic backgrounds that severely limited the opportunities of African-Americans like the Rudolphs. There were no doctors in Clarksville who would serve African-Americans, and the schools were divided, with schools for African Americans having fewer resources than those for European Americans.
Wilma was born prematurely and was often sick. She had polio as a child and lost the use of her left leg. Because of her poor health, she didn’t begin school until the age of seven.
Her mother, Blanche, took Wilma to the hospital every week for two years.They had to travel 50 miles to reach a medical facility that would care for her. She was treated at the medical school of Fisk University, where she was given a brace for her left leg. There, the doctors taught her mother the physical therapy exercises Wilma needed. Her brothers and sisters helped her work to strengthen her leg.
At age 12, Wilma was able to walk again. She played basketball in high school and set records there. It was at a basketball game that she got the attention of the Tennessee State track and field coach, who began training her. At age 16, she received the bronze medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics.
She received a scholarship, too, to Tennessee State, where she completed a degree in education but also trained in track.
In the 1960 Summer Olympics, she won three gold medals. She was known as “the fastest woman in the world.” Rudolph received an impressive array of awards over the course of her career, from being named as the AP Athlete of the Year and receiving the Sullivan Award as the top athlete of the year to membership in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Before traveling the world as a speaker and goodwill ambassador, though, Rudolph returned to her old school as a coach.
She worked for civil rights in her hometown, beginning with her homecoming parade following her Olympic victory. This was the first integrated activity in Clarksville, and the banquet that evening was the first social event that all the citizens of the town could attend together. Rudolph participated in protests in Clarksville until segregation was ended.
Rudolph married Robert Eldridge in 1963, and they had four children. She worked as a teacher and a coach, but she also took part in programs such as Operation Champ, which used athletics to help kids growing up in difficult circumstances. She established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1982. The foundation, housed in Atlanta, Georgia, supports young athletes with athletic and academic goals.
Rudolph died in 1994 of brain cancer, leaving a legacy as an athlete, and educator, and an activist.
Learn more about Wilma Rudolph:
Our students admire athletes, from their teammates in school sports to professional sports figures. Athlete heroes are a varied group, so that every student can find someone he or she can admire. Use our lesson plans to work on research skills and to learn about health.
Create an ad.
Instead of an ad for soft drinks or shoes, let your athlete heroes support a character trait they embody. We put Wilma Rudolph on a cereal box to advertise persistence. Rudolph grew up in poverty, suffering from severe illnesses including polio, which left her without the use of her left leg. She wore a leg brace till age 9, learned to walk normally again by age 12, and won her first Olympic medal in track at age 16. Learn more about this heroic athlete:
- Wilma Rudolph biography
- Online quiz on Rudolph’s life
- The official Olympics page for Rudolph includes video and background information about the events in which she competed.
Have students choose an athlete they admire and research that athlete’s life and work. They should then choose a character trait which their athlete could represent. Use any art techniques to make a cereal box ad for this character trait.
Write an essay.
Get to know the classic 5 paragraph essay form with an essay about an athlete hero. Hve students research their hero and write three sentences explaining this person’s admirable traits. For example, here’s our list for climber Jordan Romero:
- At 13, Romero became the youngest person ever to climb Mt. Everest, showing dedication to a difficult goal.
- Romero inspired his family to join him in his goal of climbing the world’s highest mountains.
- Romero gives credit to his family and his team, not just his own efforts.
Students should expand each of their sentences into a paragraph. Have students write each sentence at the top of a notecard and list events that show evidence for the sentence. For example, Romero’s interview at Athletic Capital has many quotes in which Romero gives credit to his family and his team. Once students have a good list of evidence for their claims, they can write each one up into a paragraph.
Have students put their three paragraphs together to form the body of the essay, and add an introduction and a conclusion.
Sports heroes inspire students with their dedication, persistence, and hard work. They should also be health role models. Help students learn how to create SMART goals by choosing a health goal inspired by their athletic hero.
Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter has plenty of good health habits, but one she’s famous for is eating a healthy breakfast every day. Students who start their day with a Coke and a candy bar can learn from Hannah. Use this example for a SMART goal.
SMART stands for
- Specific: A goal can’t be something vague like, “I want to eat better.” “I’ll eat a balanced breakfast every day” is a specific goal.
- Measurable: Without a quantifiable goal, you can’t tell whether you succeeded or not. A healthy breakfast, according to WebMD, should contain 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fber. That cuts out the Coke and candy bar, but still leaves plenty of options from fruit and yogurt to eggs and veggies in a whole wheat tortilla.
- Achievable: A good goal is something the student can actually accomplish. Not all students have the capacity to win Olympic medals, but all students can make healthy breakfast choices.
- Realistic: A SMART goal is not only within a student’s power, but can also be achieved with the resources available. Examine the breakfast choices available in your school cafeteria or in local groceries to identify realistic healthy breakfast options.
- Timely: A goal is a dream with a timeline. Add a timeframe to the goal.
A student who chooses to follow in Hannah’s footsteps when it comes to breakfast might end up with, “I’m going to improve my health by having a balanced breakfast with 5 grams each of protein and fiber, such as the oatmeal and fruit in the cafeteria, each day beginning January 7th.”
Gather students’ goals and post them on the bulletin board.
Tisquantum, commonly called Squanto, was a Patuxet man who helped the Pilgrims survive in their new home. The Patuxet were members of the Wampanoag Confederation who lived in what is now Plymouth. Nothing certain is known of Squanto until 1614, though some historians believe that Squanto had gone to England with an explorer in 1605 and was traveling with Captain John Smith when he returned to the Americas.
Captain John Smith, whom your students may know from the story of Pocahontas, had gone to New England in 1614 to map out possible places for an English colony. When he returned to England, he left behind an Englishman named Thomas Hunt, asking him to establish trade with the Native Americans living in the area, the Patuxet and Nauset people.
Instead, Hunt captured a group of Native Americans, took them to Malaga, Spain, due East across the Atlantic, and sold them as slaves. Squanto was among them.
This led the Native Americans in Cape Cod to become very hostile to visiting ships. In 1617 they seized a French ship of fur traders and killed or enslaved them all. Another French ship suffered the same fate that year. A year later, the entire Patuxet village was wiped out by a plague.
Tisquantum, however, had escaped from Malaga (a group of friars discovered what Hunt was up to and freed the people whom Hunt had not yet sold, giving them homes) and made his way to England, where he learned English and began to work with people who wanted to trade in the New World. He went to Newfoundland and then back to Cape Cod with his employers, hoping to make peace between the Patuxet and the English. Squanto intended to return to his home village.
When he found that his people were gone, Squanto settled in with the Nauset (some historians say he was their captive). The following year, the Pilgrims arrived and made their new home on the abandoned Patuxet lands. When the local people met the Pilgrims and recognized that they were English, Squanto was brought in to help negotiate a treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Confederation.
Squanto helped the Pilgrims not only to communicate with the Native Americans in the area, but also to understand how to live in their new environment. He showed them how to catch eels and how to use fish for fertilizer when growing corn, and he also helped them find a child who had become lost in the woods.
Squanto was a guest at the first Thanksgiving, he was a hero to the Pilgrims, and he became extremely important. Unfortunately, he began to use his power dishonestly.
Governor William Bradford wrote this:
Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him, than to Massasoit. Which procured him envy and had like to have cost him his life; for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.
Squanto died in 1622. Some historians have suggested that he was poisoned by Massasoit, but records of the time say simply that he took sick and died within a few days.
The story of Squanto is a complicated one. While he was not the simple Friend of the Pilgrims we often talk about in Thanksgiving lessons, he was able to help bring peace in a situation which had become dangerous for both the Native Americans and the Europeans wanting to come to the New World. In less than a decade, Squanto went from a simple and predictable life to an amazing series of adventures: meeting strangers very different from himself, being captured and carried to foreign lands, facing the possibility of slavery, living in a Spanish monastery, heading to yet another foreign country where he had to learn a new language and figure out how to support himself, coming up with a plan to return home only to find his village completely destroyed, being captured by a neighboring village, seeing new people take over his ruined village, having an opportunity to gain power, and then succumbing to temptation to misuse that power and having his life threatened.
- Cotton Mather wrote about Squanto in 1698. Have the students rewrite this in modern English.
- Here is a 20th century children’s version of the story, high on sentiment and low on accuracy. “Poor Indian not have gun like white man,” says Squanto in this story. While this is at a low reading level, we think that it should be used for older students, along with the other versions linked here, to examine how attitudes, interpretations, and language use change over time.
- Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving is a picture book version of the story which simplifies Squanto’s life without denying the facts.
- Here is a modern telling of the story, suited to middle school and high school students. Have students tell you the story of Squanto as they remember it from elementary school, and then read the passage together. Use a Venn diagram to identify differences between their memories and this straightforward report.
- The Smithsonian has a long and detailed essay that considers the strategic choices of the Native Americans.
- This lesson plan extends the story of Squanto to possible philanthropic gestures the students could make themselves. The plan makes a good wrap-up for Thanksgiving lessons, since it asks students to recapitulate the story of the pilgrims, the story of Squanto, and the story of the first Thanksgiving.