It’s Columbus Day, and for the first time in years, at least part of me has the day off. It was a regular school day in District Q, but schools in District Y are closed for the holiday. The Dog and I celebrated with a mid-morning nap, and we’re looking forward to a peaceful, relaxing day at home.
I understand the objections to the real Columbus, but please bear with me. He’s not really what this post is about.
I think schools closed for Columbus Day when I was a child, but my main memories are that we celebrated the holiday by talking about discoveries and explorers. And of course we learned the names of the three ships and the half-mythical version of Christopher Columbus’ adventures, of his “discovery” of the Americas and (we were told) of the fact that the world was round, not flat.
Eventually I discovered the other sides of the story: the many other people who had “discovered the New World” before Columbus arrived, the atrocities that followed in the wake of his “discovery,” the fact that most people did know the earth was round in 1492. But there’s something about the half-myth of Columbus, his three ships, and his half-mutinous crew that still intrigues me.
He’s a symbol, I think, of a particular kind of discovery or exploration or creation that’s still important … maybe even more important now than a few decades ago.
I thought about that as the District Q Latin Family presented their mysteries this morning. They’ve made tremendous progress in our brief time together, and much of it has to do with the rediscovery and exploration of their creativity. Four very different mysteries, each focusing on a slightly different set of Tres Columnae Project characters; four very different groups, each taking their mystery in a unique direction. Two were designed to be solvable with some effort, and two were so mysterious that they stumped us all. I’ve asked the creators for permission to publish all of them on the Tres Columnae Project site; if they agree, I’ll let you know when they’re ready to be viewed.
But why did I feel such a strong connection between Columbus the myth and the work the Latin Family has been doing?
When I first learned the myth (and made construction-paper models of the ships, if I’m not mistaken), it struck me that there were three ships, not just one. Columbus the myth, at least as he was presented to Our Class, wasn’t the lonely, isolated heroic figure we might have expected; he was the leader of a community, and sustaining that community took a lot of his time and effort. In pursuit of a common goal, that mythologized community accomplished things that seemed impossible, and then they returned to bring unimaginable gifts (including the potato, which was my favorite vegetable at the time) to a grateful and forever-changed world.
Columbus the myth tapped into the monomyth, the version I loved best where the hero has traveling companions. And as the District Q Latin Family created and shared its mysteries, they formed and re-formed bands of companions that will stay together for new adventures.
E hasn’t found traveling companions yet, and I’m not sure if he wants them. I’m also not sure when will be the right time to ask. And one fairly large band of companions may be too large; they may need to divide into two smaller bands, but I’m not sure whether to point that out or let them figure it out for themselves. If we’d been together from the start of our journey, I would know, but they have a long shared history that predates my time with them. So I have discoveries to make, too … discoveries from my perspective, but things they already know, much like the “discoveries” with which Columbus the myth was credited.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but as a language teacher I’m always inviting students to discover things that others have discovered before. After we finished the presentations today, we had just enough time to do a quick half-review, half-introduction of Latin participia, using one of the many “Match the Sentence” activities I’ve developed over the years. “Why not just tell them?” Ms. X and Mr. Y would ask. “There’s too much to cover and not enough time for that kind of nonsense in my class.” And of course that’s a standard criticism of discovery learning … and of all the forms of learning that don’t dispense neat, prepackaged knowledge from expert to novice.
Why not just tell them? Or show them? Or “give notes” and then take The Test?
It’s an important question, and I know I’ve wrestled with it in this space before … and I probably will again, because that’s the thing about important questions. They don’t stay settled and they don’t stay discovered just because you answer them once or a dozen times. Some things need to be rediscovered … and I think that’s why I loved Columbus the myth (and Marco Polo the myth, too) when I was a child. Sometimes what you discover isn’t new at all, but it’s new to you … or you see it from a new perspective, and that’s what make all the difference.
We could have just read the stories and done some exercises, I suppose … but one thing we needed to discover was our own voices as creators and users of the Latin language. Even the quiet, quiet intermediate group at District Y was excited when they found their voices and made their Minor Assessment presentations last Friday.
Somehow creating, discovering, and rediscovering are all connected in the work of a joyful learning community. And somehow, in the end, it doesn’t matter if what’s created and discovered is “totally original” or not. That’s one of many lessons I’m taking from Columbus the myth and from the work we’ve been doing. I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days to come!