Letter from Christopher Columbus

by Tim Bailey
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Unit Objective

Columbus’s letter printed in Latin in Rome, April 1493. (GLC01427)

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These units were written to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Students will demonstrate this knowledge by writing summaries of selections from the original document and, by the end of the unit, articulating their understanding of the complete document by answering questions in an argumentative writing style to fulfill the Common Core State Standards. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

While the unit is intended to flow over a five-day period, it is possible to present and complete the material within a shorter time frame. For example, the first two days can be used to ensure an understanding of the process with all of the activity completed in class. The teacher can then assign lessons three and four as homework. The argumentative essay is then written in class on day three.

Lesson 1

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and gain a clear understanding of the content of Christopher Columbus’s 1493 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. Through reading and analyzing the original text, the students will know what is explicitly stated, draw logical inferences, and demonstrate these skills by writing a succinct summary using the author’s and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In the first lesson this will be facilitated by the teacher and done as a whole-class lesson.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be learning what Christopher Columbus reported to the king and queen of Spain after his first voyage to the Americas by reading and understanding Columbus’s own words. Resist the temptation to put the letter into too much context. Remember, we are trying to let the students discover what Columbus had to say and then let them develop ideas based solely on his words.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of Columbus’s letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and then are asked to read it silently to themselves. A complete version of the document has been provided for reference.
  2. The teacher then “share reads” the letter with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  3. The teacher explains that the students will be analyzing the first part of the letter today and that they will be learning how to do in-depth analysis for themselves. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #1. This contains the first selection from the Columbus letter.
  4. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #1 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today the whole class will be going through this process together.
  5. Explain that the objective is to select “Key Words” from the first section and then use those words to create a summary sentence that demonstrates an understanding of what Columbus was saying in the first paragraph.
  6. Guidelines for selecting the Key Words: Key Words are very important contributors to understanding the text. Without them the selection would not make sense. These words are usually nouns or verbs. Don’t pick “connector” words (are, is, the, and, so, etc.). The number of Key Words depends on the length of the original selection. This selection is 114 words long so we can pick seven or eight Key Words. The other Key Words rule is that we cannot pick words if we don’t know what they mean.
  7. Students will now select seven or eight words from the text that they believe are Key Words and write them in the box to the right of the text on their organizers.
  8. The teacher surveys the class to find out what the most popular choices were. The teacher can either tally this or just survey by a show of hands. Using this vote and some discussion the class should, with guidance from the teacher, decide on seven or eight Key Words. For example, let’s say that the class decides on the following words: discovered, people, possession, without resistance (yes, technically these are two words, but you can allow such things if it makes sense to do so; just don’t let whole phrases get by), named, and islands. Now, no matter which words the students had previously selected, have them write the words agreed upon by the class or chosen by you into the Key Words box in their organizers.
  9. The teacher now explains that, using these Key Words, the class will write a sentence that restates or summarizes what Columbus was writing about. This should be a whole-class discussion-and-negotiation process. For example, “I discovered islands with many people on them, took possession of the islands without resistance, and then renamed the islands.” You might find that the class decides they don’t need the some of the words to make it even more streamlined. This is part of the negotiation process. The final negotiated sentence is copied into the organizer in the third section under the original text and Key Words sections.
  10. The teacher explains that students will now be putting their summary sentence into their own words, not having to use Columbus’s words. Again, this is a class discussion-and-negotiation process. For example, “Columbus took over and renamed the islands he found.”
  11. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose, you could have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meanings.

Lesson 2

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and gain a clear understanding of the content of Christopher Columbus’s 1493 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. Through reading and analyzing the original text, the students will know what is explicitly stated, draw logical inferences, and demonstrate these skills by writing a succinct summary and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In the second lesson the students will work with partners and in small groups.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Christopher Columbus was writing about in the second selection from his letter to the king and queen of Spain by reading and understanding Columbus’s words and then being able to tell, in their own words, what he wrote. Today they will be working with partners and in small groups.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the letter and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the meaning of the first selection.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the second selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the second part of Columbus’s letter today. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #2. This contains the second selection from the Columbus letter.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #2 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will be going through the same process as yesterday but as partners and small groups.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select “Key Words” from the second paragraph and then use those words to create a summary sentence that demonstrates an understanding of what Columbus was writing about in that selection.
  7. Guidelines for selecting the Key Words: The guidelines for selecting Key Words are the same as they were yesterday. However, because this paragraph is shorter than the last one at 113 words, they can pick only five to seven Key Words.
  8. Pair the students up and have them negotiate which Key Words to select. After they have decided on their words both students will write them in the Key Words box of their organizer.
  9. The teacher now puts two pairs together. These two pairs go through the same negotiation-and-discussion process to come up with their Key Words. Be strategic in how you make your groups to ensure the most participation by all group members.
  10. The teacher now explains that by using these Key Words the group will build a sentence that restates or summarizes what Christopher Columbus was writing about. This is done by the group negotiating with its members on how best to build that sentence. Try to make sure that everyone is contributing to the process. It is very easy for one student to take control of the entire process and for the other students to let them do so. All of the students should write their negotiated sentence into their organizers.
  11. The teacher now asks for the groups to share out the summary sentences they have created. This should start a teacher-led discussion that points out the qualities of the various attempts. How successful were the groups at understanding Columbus’s text and were they careful to only use Columbus’s Key Words in doing so?
  12. The teacher explains that the group will now be putting their summary sentence into their own words, not having to use Columbus’s words. Again, this is a group discussion-and-negotiation process. After they have decided on a sentence it should be written into their organizer. Again, the teacher should have the groups share out and discuss the clarity and quality of the groups’ attempts.
  13. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose, you could have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meanings.

Lesson 3

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and gain a clear understanding of the content of Christopher Columbus’s 1493 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. Through reading and analyzing the original text, the students will know what is explicitly stated, draw logical inferences, and demonstrate these skills by writing a succinct summary and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In this lesson the students will be working individually.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Christopher Columbus was writing about in the third section of his letter to the king and queen of Spain by reading and understanding Columbus’s words and then being able to tell, in their own words, what he wrote. Today they will be working by themselves on their summaries.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the letter and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the meaning of the first and second selections.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the third selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the third selection from Columbus’s letter today. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #3. This contains the third selection from the letter.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #3 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will be going through the same process as yesterday, but they will be working by themselves.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select “Key Words” from the third paragraph and then use those words to create a summary sentence that demonstrates an understanding of what Columbus was writing about in that selection.
  7. Guidelines for selecting the Key Words: The guidelines for selecting these words are the same as they were yesterday. However, because this paragraph is longer (177 words) than either of the first two, they can pick up to ten Key Words.
  8. Have the students decide which Key Words to select. After they have chosen their words they will write them in the Key Words box of their organizers.
  9. The teacher now explains that, using these Key Words, the student will build a sentence that restates or summarizes what Columbus was writing about. They should write their summary sentence into their organizers.
  10. The teacher explains that they will now be putting their summary sentence into their own words, not having to use Columbus’s words. This should be added to their organizers.
  11. The teacher now asks for students to share out the summary sentences they have created. This should start a teacher-led discussion that points out the qualities of the various attempts. How successful were the students at understanding what Columbus was writing about?
  12. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose, you could have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meanings.

Lesson 4

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and gain a clear understanding of the content of Christopher Columbus’s 1493 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. Through reading and analyzing the original text, the students will know what is explicitly stated, draw logical inferences, and demonstrate these skills by writing a succinct summary and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In this lesson the students will again be working individually.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Christopher Columbus was writing about in the fourth section of his letter to the king and queen of Spain by reading and understanding Columbus’s words and then being able to tell, in their own words, what he wrote. Today they will be working by themselves again on their summaries.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the letter and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the meaning of the first, second, and third selections.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the fourth selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the fourth selection from Columbus’s letter today. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #4. This contains the fourth selection from the letter.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #4 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will be going through the same process as yesterday and they will again be working by themselves.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select “Key Words” from the fourth paragraph and then use those words to create a summary sentence that demonstrates an understanding of what Columbus was writing about in this last selection.
  7. Guidelines for selecting the Key Words: The guidelines for selecting Key Words are the same as they were yesterday. However, because this selection is the longest (more than 200 words) it will be challenging for them to select only ten Key Words. However, the purpose of this exercise is for the students to get at the most important content of the selection.
  8. Have the students decide which Key Words to select. After they have chosen their words they will write them in the Key Words box of their organizers.
  9. The teacher now explains that by using these Key Words they will build a sentence that restates or summarizes what Columbus was writing about. The students should write their summary sentences into their organizers.
  10. The teacher explains that they will now be putting their summary sentence into their own words, not having to use Columbus’s words. This should be added to their organizers.
  11. The teacher now asks for students to share out the summary sentences that they have created. This should start a teacher-led discussion that points out the qualities of the various attempts. How successful were the students at understanding what Columbus was writing about?
  12. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meanings.

Lesson 5

Objective

This lesson has two objectives. First, the students will synthesize the work of the last four days and demonstrate that they understand what Columbus was writing about in his letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Second, the teacher will ask questions of the students that require them to make inferences from the text but also require them to support their conclusions with explicit information from the text in a short essay.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be reviewing what Christopher Columbus wrote in his letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Second, you will be asking them to write a short argumentative essay about this letter; explain that their conclusions must be backed up by evidence taken directly from the text.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given a copy of the abridged letter and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The teacher asks the students for their best personal summary of selection one. This is done as a negotiation or discussion. The teacher may write this short sentence on the overhead or similar device. The same procedure is used for selections two, three, and four. When they are finished the class should have a summary either written or oral of Columbus’s letter in only a few sentences. This should give the students a way to state what the general purpose or purposes of the letter were.
  3. The teacher can decide to have the students write a short essay now in response to one of the following prompts or do a short lesson first on constructing an argumentative essay. If this is the case, save the essay writing until the next class period or assign it for homework. Remind the students that any arguments they make must be backed up with words taken directly from Columbus’s letter. The first prompt is designed to be the easiest.

Prompts

  1. In what ways does Columbus argue that sending him to explore will be very beneficial for King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and Spain?
  2. In this letter Columbus puts a very positive spin on his expedition. Using Columbus’s own words, make an argument that everything might not be as wonderful as Columbus is making it out to be.
  3. Using the text of the letter write an analysis of the possible impact of Columbus’s visit on the Native American populations that live on the islands Columbus describes.

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Discussion

Good guided activity to see reasons for exploration


Quite a elaborate work!!
Using in class will be interesting!!


Great reading strategies to support learning. I'd love to see the same support in the writing section. For example, graphic organizer for claims/counterclaims and another for logging text evidence. Thank you for the work as is, just thinking ahead.


Great well planned lesson.Organized very well. Thank you for sharing,


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