Students examine the imperialist and expansionist mindset of explorers in the Age of Discovery by rewriting selected primary documents; e.g., diaries, letters, logs. Based upon their understanding of a different point of view, students create a new "authentic" document.
Gather primary documents
Excellent primary documents from the Age of Discovery, including diaries and letters, are available in print and on the Internet (see References). Gather a number of suitable primary documents that portray exploration experiences, intercultural contact, expansionism and imperialism.
Introduction to exploration
You may want to set the context for the challenge by playing the music and opening lines from Star Trek ("Space: The Final Frontier") or a video clip of the launch of a space ship. Invite students to offer reasons why countries spend great sums of money on space exploration. Ask students to speculate on the reasons motivating European exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Compare these reasons with reasons for contemporary space travel.
Invite students to suggest differences between the two eras of exploration; e.g., technology was less sophisticated; contact would be lost for extended periods of time; unlike space exploration now, the New World was inhabited.
Learn about the Age of Discovery
Use print or digital resources to build background knowledge about the Age of Discovery. Present information on the accomplishments of the Age, such as voyages of discovery, the establishment of trade routes and knowledge about other continents.
Explore the motivation for exploration by reviewing the four Cs of exploration:
- commerce—the opportunity to make money through the trade of valuable resources
- curiosity—the opportunity to learn about the world
- Christianity—the opportunity to spread the Christian faith
- conquest—the desire to claim a territory, with its peoples and natural resources, for your own country.
Rate the motivations of the explorers
Ask students to rate the extent to which each of the four Cs was a motivating factor in the explorations of explorers; e.g., John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Christopher Columbus. Then students decide from their understanding of the explorers’ points of view who accomplished the most; e.g., economic gain, intellectual advancement or religious influence.
Analyze primary documents
Examine primary documents describing the exploration and early colonization of the Americas. The following may be used as samples with the entire class.
Students might use the 5Ws questions to analyze the documents:
- What happened?
- Who was involved?
- Where did it happen?
- When did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
In exploring why exploration and colonization happened, draw attention to the imperialist and expansionist mindset behind these initiatives. Suggest that people in the past acted and behaved as they did in the spirit of the times. Student judgements should be made on available evidence about the prevailing values and beliefs of the times. Ask students to avoid projecting contemporary motives, values and beliefs onto a historical character.
Invite students to draw inferences about each of the 5Ws using evidence from the document to support the analysis. Develop criteria for plausible inferences with students, such as:
- supported by facts within the document
- supported by known facts outside of the document.
You may want to adapt the charts and the strategies in Reporter’s Log (Support Material) to structure and assess this activity.
Develop criteria for an "authentic" document
Review criteria for an authentic diary, letter or log with the class. Suggested criteria include:
- accurate information
- specific details
- empathic, first person perspective
- portrayal of worldview of the historical period.
See Creating Authentic Diaries (Modelling the Tools) for detailed suggestions on how to write an authentic diary/journal entry about a historical event based upon the point of view of an individual at the time.
Rewrite a historical document based upon an alternative point of view
Assign students to work in groups to examine different documents. After their analyses are complete, direct students to work alone to rewrite the document based upon an alternative point of view; e.g., the king’s point of view may illustrate the perspective of royalty, the priest’s point of view may illustrate a religious perspective, the Elder's point of view may illustrate an Aboriginal perspective.
You may want to adapt the strategies in Writing Based on a Perspective (Support Material) to assist students in exploring an event from a historical perspective.
Share finished products
Invite students to share their completed documents with the class.
This lesson is adapted from Snapshots of 19th Century Canada, edited by Roland Case and Catriona Misfeldt. Richmond, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2002, and from Early Contact and Settlement in New France, edited by Ruth Sandwell, Catriona Misfeldt and Roland Case. Richmond, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2002.