Columnist

Columbus discovered America. Pilgrims were loyal friends to Native Americans. The relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas was a love story with a happy ending.

Like many of us, 16-year-old Tori Blakeney accepted those accounts as truths.

At the Capital City Public Charter High School in the District, where she is an 11th-grader, such "truths" have given way to a new reality. Students are getting to see history from the perspective of people and groups who are often left out of the traditional American narrative — African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women, among others.

In addition to standard-issue textbooks, teachers draw on resources provided by the progressive Zinn Education Project, named for the pioneering historian Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States."

The organization offers hundreds of lesson plans and guides teachers can download free from the ZEP website. There are also lists of recommended, age-appropriate books, films and websites.

The impact on students can be profound.

"When I was growing up, I saw the [Disney] movie about Pocahontas and thought, 'This is how it happened,' " Tori recalled. "John Smith was portrayed as a good man, and everybody lived happily ever after. Then I began reading about what really happened to the Native Americans, and I was shocked. The genocide, the slaughter made me sad, and I started thinking about what could be done to compensate for all that suffering."

A classmate, 16-year-old Kiara Accad, said she had come to the United States from the Philippines believing that Columbus had discovered an uninhabited land.

"It makes me angry that most schools just go along with what the textbook says and don't give students the whole story," she said. "I wish schools were more open-minded about U.S. history, because we could better understand how it affects us today."

Bill Bigelow, a former public school teacher and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, agrees.

"We have to question the old stories we have been taught — the stories told about who we are as a people," he said.

"Kids will say, 'If I have been lied to about Columbus, what about women's history, black history?' " Bigelow said. "Some students may become cynical and conclude that 'they're all a bunch of liars.' "

"But there are others who become more hopeful," he added. "They focus not just on the oppressors, but those who resisted oppression and the social movements that sought to make this a better world. They begin to see that everything decent in our society is because people organized and fought for it."

More than 75,000 teachers have used resources from the Zinn Education Project, which was launched in 2008.

At the SEED Public Charter School in the District, history teacher Bill Stevens used a ZEP role-playing guide to teach students about the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux to block construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. During the lesson, students took on the roles of five groups with different positions on the pipeline. Critical-thinking skills were emphasized as they engaged in lively debate.

In March, the class joined hundreds of other students from throughout the Washington area in a show of support for the #NativeNationsRise march to the White House. Some of them have also begun a campaign to change the name of the Washington football team, convinced that the "Redskins" name is racist.

At Capital City Charter, students put Columbus on trial in mock court for terrorism, slavery and murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and a jury found the 15th century explorer unworthy of a national holiday.

They began a petition drive to rename the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples' Day. So far, they have collected about 500 signatures. They also asked the D.C. Council to hold hearings on the issue.

"It's ridiculous to honor Columbus," Kiara said. "There's a statue of him at Union Station. It's like saying, 'Welcome to Washington. We like racists.' "

The students say they know the road ahead will be difficult. Behind every cherished historical myth is an ugly truth many simply cannot face.

We will gather with our families Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, yet few will acknowledge — or remember — that after Native Americans offered help to those early, starving colonists, the colonists would attempt to wipe out Indian tribes.

But the students at Capital City Charter are determined to spread the message of a more-inclusive history, the good and the bad. And in learning how ordinary people waged heroic struggles against oppression in the past, they are learning how to fight for their future.

"I'm grateful for all the people in the past, even people that I have not heard about, who were brave enough to stand up for what is right," Tori said. "To live in a world where we are not discriminated by color or sex, I will have to be like them."

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.