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Teaching the Explorers
Whatever grade you are teaching, if you are teaching an American History class- the Explorers are going to be your first unit. Teaching the explorers is simultaneously a wonderful place to start the study of American history while at the same time it presents a number of challenges.
On the positive side, the Explorers give us the opportunity to tell some great stories and show how much a small number of men could accomplish. In a very short period of time the world known to Europe expanded in a way never seen before and never seen again. Before Columbus the existence of the continents of North and South America were unknown (leaving aside the issue of Leif Erickson) Within a little more then 120 years after his first voyage much of the world we know today had been discovered.
All of this was accomplished by a small number of men on what would today be considered ridiculously small ships. History at its most basic is story telling. The explores make great stories. Let your students join the adventures. Through their adventures they will understand what the explores accomplished. They may also be drawn into the story in a way that might just pique their interest in learning more.
If only it was that simple. For teaching the explorers have two very serious complications, one easily overcome the other one that cannot be avoided. The first problem is that the Explorers were European. Can our students truly understand what was driving the explorers and the nations that sent them without understanding Europe of the Renaissance and Reformation? The simple answer is probably not, but can they understand American history without that knowledge- in a perfect world not, but we do not teach in a perfect world and in a world were we are responsible for covering more and more history in less time it just may not be possible. If you are teaching a University Class on the Explorers then go ahead teach it . Please make sure your students understand the world that the Explorers left and the various social economic factors that encouraged them to explore.
If you are teaching Middle School and High School students you may have to compromise. There is only so much you will be able to teach your students and one of those compromise may be teaching a full understand of Europe during the time.
The second problem in teaching the explorers is one that cannot be easily solved. How do we deal with the fact that the Explorers were discovering lands that were settled with people living there- civilizations flourishing? Can we say that Columbus discover Americas when the natives of the Caribbean were perfectly happy not be discovered?
There are no simple answers. Certainly from a European perspective, these lands were discovered. They were not only discovered they were soon settled, mined and exploited to the fullest degree. The Disney movie Pocahontas has a scene that tells the dilemmas best- it has John Smith telling Pocahontas all the wonders that the English could show the "backward" Indians, how to build houses and how to best grow crops and how to advance. Pocahontas almost walks away from Smith saying we have houses and have good food and we are not savages. There in lies the dilemmas- If the Explorers had not discovered the new World there would be no United States no nations of South America- Of course as technology advanced the discovery would have been inevitable, and so would have been the conquering of the native populations.
So how do we teach the age of Discover-.- To Europeans new lands were being discovered. To the Native Americans who were conquered, who died of disease that the European brought with them, the arrivals of the European explorers was a national catastrophe. As we teach the period we must pay close attention to this dichotomy and use it a as a basis for thoughtful class discussion. As you go through this site you will see a number of lessons plans that can be used as a basis for this discussion.