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Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish

Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish

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Comprehensive Unit
94 pages
Grade Level: Middle School – High School

History is a construct...Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still, there are definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change the direction of time. We can look at these events and we can say that after them things were never the same again.

– Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride, page 4

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, history is defined as "a chronological record of significant events usually including an explanation of their causes." Yet reading different accounts of one event in history reveals the complexity of the process of writing history. This process is not just a simple recording of events, but rather a complex process. Like a chemical which reacts with air or water, the history of an event also changes with time, with the introduction of new ideas, and with shifts in the ways of thinking.

What are the steps in the process of writing history? What happens when an event is witnessed by a group of people? Some choose to write about it, while others talk about it. Others who did not witness the event, write about it. How does the telling of the event change as information is exchanged and retold? What happens if people write about an event long after it occurs? Are some things lost or forgotten? Why are there so many interpretations of one event? The act of visually recording an event adds a new dimension to the "writing" of history. And yet even with video recordings, interpretations may radically differ.

The Quincentenary anniversary in 1992 of Columbus's landing in the Americas was a perfect illustration of how the "history" of one event can take on new perspectives. In order to better prepare students to evaluate the onslaught of sometimes conflicting information, students need tools and skills to analyze and process information. In doing so, their understanding of history and the writing of history is increased.

The question "How is history constructed?" guides the unit Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish by exploring a variety of accounts of the clash of cultures that occurred between the Spanish and the Aztecs. Students read excepts from the letters of Hernando Cortés, analyze poetry by the Aztecs, and discuss contemporary art of this period of history. A set of sub-questions further breaks down the big question: From whose perspective is this account written? Who is writing the history? What is left out? How are the people and places described? Throughout the unit the students will be working with key words such as perspective, interpretation, fact, omission, language, balance, bias, audience, and truth to analyze the documents presented in this unit. The principal goal of this unit is to examine an event in history through a variety of lenses.

In Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish, the students will participate in six activities. The first two activities present primary documents written by the Spanish. Activity One contains the letters of Hernando Cortés and Activity Two uses the writings of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who was part of the Cortés Expedition. In Activities Three and Four, the students examine Aztec documents that provide a different point of view. Activity Three uses text from the Florentine Codex describing the first meeting of Cortés and Montezuma. Activity Four describes the sentiments of the Aztecs about the fall of their city using poems and paintings. The last activities of the unit take a different approach by presenting contemporary art and customs. The purpose of including these activities is to illustrate to the students how time also affects the telling of history. In addition, students will see that history is not only written but transmitted through story telling, dance, and art. Activity Five contains photographs of a dance to illustrate how history is transmitted from one generation to another. And finally, Activity Six uses the murals of Diego Rivera to demonstrate how an artist portrays historical information.

Presenting a balance of the different accounts of this historical event, a goal of this unit, was not an easy task. For many years, the versions of the history of the events that took place were written using the firsthand accounts of Hernando Cortés or Bernal Díaz del Castillo. The "other side of the story" was left out. The ancient writings of the Aztecs were burned by Spanish friars who believed that these would inhibit the conversion of the people to Christianity. The history written by the Aztec priests after the conquest was collected by Franciscan friars. The text, paintings, and poetry used in the activities are selected from some of these ancient manuscripts.

Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish is adapted from the SPICE unit Two Visions of the Conquest using the Complex Instruction model. Language is one of the key elements in analyzing a piece of history. How people and places are described is another way to understand a particular author's point of view. Terms such as conquest, invasion, pre-Columbian, and Indian are worthy of careful discussion. What do these terms mean? Why were these people called "Indians"? Why is the coming of Columbus to the Americas used as the point of reference? Answering these questions and others will increase the students' understanding of how history is constructed.

Group Work

The design of Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish is based on many years of research in the Stanford School of Education by Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, and more recently Dr. Rachel Lotan, on how to increase student access to learning through group work. This research by The Program for Complex Instruction led to the development of a teaching approach and a model for curriculum materials. The teaching approach itself is a complex one and involves intensive professional development for full implementation. These materials are not designed to introduce that approach to the novice. They do, however, fit the model for curriculum materials and may be useful to teachers using the complex instruction approach. It is our hope that material developed in this way will also be useful to teachers using other cooperative, small group teaching strategies.

Group work units contain 6–8 activities organized around a big idea, central question, or major concept of a discipline. Students rotate through a series of group activities designed to stimulate thinking and discussion about the big idea. When students report the results of their investigations, the teacher needs to ask questions that probe the students' understanding, make connections among the different activities, and address the fundamental content of the unit.

At the heart of these curricular materials are resource materials which draw heavily on primary sources and provide students with greater access to the academic content of the unit. When students examine photographs or listen to tapes in addition to textual material, they have increased access to the learning task. Even students who cannot read at grade level will participate more.

Each activity includes a group project that is multi-dimensional and encourages the use of multi-media. These projects give more students the opportunity to contribute to the success of the group and demonstrate and be recognized for their own competence and understanding of the content. Increased participation is related to increased learning. These materials combine a group project which reinforces the students' interdependence and an individual report which holds students individually accountable.

An important feature of this curriculum model is the open-ended nature of the questions. Most questions do not have one right or wrong answer and the group products also depend on the group's decision. This design feature contributes to the development of higher-order thinking skills.

In Visions of History: The Aztecs and the Spanish, an activity at the beginning is included to set the stage for studying the question "How is history constructed?" The Orientation Activity explores how people can write or tell about the same event from different points of view.

At the core of the unit are six activities that specifically address the big question. Each activity includes a section for the teacher with background information, extension questions to assist the teacher with background information, extension questions to assist the teacher in debriefing the presentations, and a list of related issues to serve as further research or discussion items. The activity also includes a set of cards for the students: an Activity Card, which includes background information, questions, and a task the group must complete; a set of Resource Card(s), which are needed to complete the task; an Individual Report, which serves to enforce individual accountability and to give the teacher a measure of the students' understanding of the big idea.

At the end of the unit is the Closure Activity in which students will portray their understanding of how differing perspectives can influence and shape the way history is written.

Multiple Abilities

In order to ensure access to learning, multiple ability tasks are incorporated in each of the activities. The following is a list of some of the multiple abilities that the students will need to complete the various activities in this unit:

Linguistic abilities

  • Understanding how a text fits into the big picture
  • Translating the message of the text into another form
  • Identifying the main point of the text

Visual and spatial abilities

  • Grasping the message of a picture
  • Recognizing symbols
  • Noting details in pictures

Musical abilities

  • Hearing and creating rhythmic patterns
  • Hearing and creating melodies

Dramatic abilities

  • Expressing feelings, messages, and situations through acting


  • Understanding logical and numerical patterns


  • Perceiving the visual-spatial world accurately


  • Responding appropriately to others


  • Knowing one's feelings, strengths, and weaknesses