NEW WINDSOR — Long after Christopher Columbus sailed from the classroom lessons of most Carroll students, seventh-graders at New Windsor Middle School remained engulfed in books, magazines and videos about the Italian explorer.
The students -- 117 of them -- spent several weeks researching and writing individual biographical reports on Columbus and thengrouped together to tackle more in-depth projects relating to his discovery of the New World.
"I think this was the first time most of them were involved in a project of this size and magnitude," said Alan Powers, a seventh-grade social studies teacher. "I offered some guidance but I let them work through it themselves. I gave them a little freedom to make some mistakes."
Many students said they knew little about Columbus beforethe projects. Although they learned about Columbus and other explorers as part of the regular fifth-grade curriculum, they won't receive in-depth lessons on European history until next year.
Powers said he chose to let the students spend more time on Columbus this year "because it's a hot topic." Columbus deserved extra scrutiny, he said, because next year is the 500th anniversary of the historic voyage andbecause of recent controversy surrounding the explorer's discovery of the New World.
"There was plenty of material available for them to use," he said. "There was plenty of material in the contemporary press. This is stuff they're going to be hearing more about.
"I felt the students should have some background about what people will be talking about. They're going to become experts on some of this."
They already have. In groups, they've answered tough questions about what Europe and North America were like in 1492 and how the discovery of the New World affected American Indians.
One question: "Did Columbus bring on the Europeans and destroy what was here in America?"
Most students said that the destruction of the indigenous North American population was wrong and that they believed a compromise shouldhave been worked out between Europeans and American Indians.
"Butmost of the kids noted that if it hadn't been for the Europeans, we wouldn't be here." Powers said. "That's a reasonable conclusion."
Powers said he was impressed by the sophistication some of the students showed in researching and reaching conclusions. For some of them, he said, it was the first time they had to draw conclusions on "something outside of themselves."
Among the most enthusiastic student researchers was Ryan Long, 12, of Winfield.
Ryan and three other students researched Columbus' three sailing ships -- the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria -- and learned that life was no picnic on the sailing vessels. They are quick to recite details about ship length and width,the number of men on aboard, food supplies and other essentials.
The boys also constructed models of the two of the ships -- the Pintaand Santa Maria. They used Lego building blocks to construct a replica of the Santa Maria.
"It's not the same boat but it sort of looks like the Santa Maria," confessed Chris Bosley, 12, of Westminster.
The four students chose to study ships because they "thought it would be interesting to learn about them, and we like ships a lot," Ryan said.
Michelle Miller and a group of students made a detailed poster-size chart about the American Indians in 1492, outlining the group biographies of a wide range of Eastern Indians.
"I know a lot more than I want to know about Columbus," sighed the 12-year-old Winfield resident.