For some schools, Columbus Day is a day off, an occasion to commemorate Italian American heritage and the 15th-century voyage of a navigator who aimed to discover a new route to Asia but happened upon the Americas, instead.

Others, such as Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia, have opted to forgo the holiday, focusing instead on lessons about a polarizing historical figure who did not prove the earth was round or discover America — as schoolchildren were taught for decades — but who, scholars now say, brutally treated native people and spread colonialism.

Kids at FACTS, as the Chinatown charter is known, replace normal classes with a daylong observation of "Many Points of View Day." Children start the day by singing a song called 1492: "In fourteen hundred and ninety two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue/It was a courageous thing to do/But someone was already here." They go on to sing the names of indigenous tribes: Inuit, Cherokee, Aztec, Menominee, Onondaga, Cree.

"Our perspective is, 'Some people say Columbus is a hero, and other people say Columbus really hurt the people who were already here. What do you think?" said Lucinda Megill Legendre, a FACTS teacher and the school's social studies coordinator.

Around the region and across the country, social studies education varies widely, said Eric Shed, a Harvard University lecturer whose work with teachers includes exploring how to challenge popular Columbus narratives.

Schools and districts are not even in agreement over the basic principle of whether to close for Columbus Day; it's no longer a holiday for the Philadelphia School District, and others, but some districts still give students the day off.

Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, as it has been since 1937, with municipal buildings around the region closed. (Nationally, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver, among other cities, have stopped recognizing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. San Francisco honors both Columbus and Indigenous Peoples on the day.)

And although some schools teach traditional lessons that focus on the importance of Columbus' voyages and might gloss over the darker parts of his legacy, generally, "we're becoming much more critical of Columbus' past, and that's filtering down into classrooms," said Shed, who appeared in Philadelphia Thursday as part of a Museum of the American Revolution celebration of Indigenous People's Day.

The discussion takes place against a larger backdrop of cities and institutions grappling with whether some traditionally held heroes — Confederate leaders, people who espoused racist views — should be venerated at all.

Shed's take? Schools shouldn't teach Columbus as a hero or ignore him altogether. For better or worse, he is an important historical figure who ought to be taught in an age-appropriate way.

"He had a huge impact, shaping the world we live in today," Shed said. "It brings the past to life when you're getting kids to interrogate history and really think about it critically."

Penelope Madrid, 12, answers questions about a map of Native American culture areas during Kate Hanssen’s sixth-grade history class at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Penelope Madrid, 12, answers questions about a map of Native American culture areas during Kate Hanssen’s sixth-grade history class at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.

Students in Kate Hanssen's sixth-grade social studies class at Germantown Friends School learn how civilizations survived in the early Americas. But around Columbus Day, there are specific lessons focused on Indigenous Peoples' Day, an alternative to Columbus Day celebrated by some states and cities. Students think about contemporary Native Americans, and examine the concept of sacred spaces and ongoing fights for Native American lands.

The role of Europeans is not ignored, Hanssen said, but the curriculum is deliberately structured so students first consider the experiences of native peoples. (And Germantown Friends does not give students Columbus Day off.)

"We want them to examine things with a little more nuance than they would if we started with these quote unquote explorers in a more traditional hero role," said Hanssen. "Part of it is tied to our Quaker identity and the role of social justice."

Teaching about Columbus around the second Monday in October doesn't fit into the pacing of Ken Hung's world history class at Central High. But Columbus' legacy is a part of the curriculum later in the year, the veteran teacher said. Students examine primary sources, such as excerpts from Columbus' journal, and analyze not just Columbus but the lives of Native Americans and colonialism at large.

"The point is not to attack or condemn Columbus, but to contextualize, to look at the big picture," said Hung. "For better or worse, we have this big new period of history, all these plants and animals and diseases and people — immigrants, explorers, and slaves — who are coming in large numbers to America."

Bob Lendzinski, the social studies department chair at Lincoln High in Northeast Philadelphia, does not bring up Columbus in the contemporary issues classes he teaches. Some of his distant ancestors were Native people, Lendzinski said, and he's sensitive to the subject, but he also takes issue with the traditional teachings around Columbus.

"Why would we celebrate someone who murdered, maimed and raped the Tainos people?" said Lendzinski. "Also, he did not discover America."

At a school named for Columbus, it's a day without classes, said Ed Poznek, CEO of Christopher Columbus Charter School in South Philadelphia.

"We are celebrating Christopher Columbus, our patron, by being off for the day," Poznek said.

Pennsauken schools have the day off, too, but when students return to Fatima Hayes' eighth-grade civics class at Howard Phifer Middle School, Hayes will teach a lesson called "Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day?" examining myths and realities about the day from the perspective of both native and Italian American people, who rallied around the holiday after being persecuted.

Hayes had mixed feelings when she first tackled the subject.

"I consider myself active for racial and social justice — I was very conflicted about how to present Columbus to my students in a classroom where I promise to tell the truth," she said. So she, too, takes the primary source route, letting students look at evidence themselves.

The eighth graders conclude the assignment by writing a letter to officials stating why they believe Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day should be celebrated.

Most, Hayes said, "side with the natives."