Teaching Guide: Exploring the Columbian Exchange

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The Columbian Exchange, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. In the drawing of Christopher Columbus, how does the artist depict Columbus and the 1492 voyage? In what ways does this depiction reflect the “conquistador” narrative of personal glory and fame?
  2. Compare the drawing of Christopher Columbus and the illustration of Columbus’s initial meeting with Native Americans. How are American Indians depicted in the latter image? How is that depiction related to the main ideas of the Columbian Exchange?
  3. Examine The History of the Small Pox and the drawing of a sugar plantation. How did the Columbian Exchange affect Africans and American Indians?
  4. Analyze the excerpts from The Potato and from the 1672 book describing plant and bird discoveries. What are some similarities and differences among origin and exchange stories for different plants and animals?
  5. Analyze the cow shield, the Aztec codex, and the Aztec brazier. What specific evidence from the three images demonstrates the value that American Indians placed on the cow and on corn/maize?
  6. What does the 1890 book on horse training say about the ways horses transformed life for American Indians?
  7. In the book about Spanish missions, how does the author portray the role of missions in California?
  8. View and analyze the image of the sweet potato plant and the image of the tomato. What are some of the consequences for agricultural labor of the shape and size of these plants?

Classroom activities

  1. Ask students to name a favorite dish or meal and find a recipe for it. Students should then research the origins of every ingredient in the recipe, determining if they would have been able to make their dish or meal in 1400 if they lived in their current location.
  2. Students should choose one of the following foods: rice, corn, peaches, vanilla, peanuts, strawberries, coffee, and avocado. Students should determine the following about their choice: the place of origin, the place that it transferred to after the Columbian Exchange, some uses of the item in the original area, its importance in the original area, some uses in the receiving area, some myths or stories about the item, and some current popular foods or dishes from different parts of the world using the item.

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