Teaching world history: from StudentsFriend.com

Two Source Analysis Activities

A. Christopher Columbus

B. Queen Elizabeth I (before she was queen)

These multi-part lessons use film and written sources to give students practice in analyzing different types of sources. The underlying issue here is the nature of knowing: how can we know the truth?

The Columbus activity involves the analysis of five primary and secondary sources that do not always agree. The three Elizabeth sources are also ambiguous.

These activities raise questions about why we tend to believe some sources and doubt others. What kind of sources do we consider most trustworthy? How much evidence is needed to be confident we have found the truth?


A. Christopher Columbus source analysis activity:

This activity revolves around the question: What was the main reason that Europeans wanted to colonize the Americas?

The five sources are one commercial film and four pdf files:

- A scene from the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Ridley Scott

- The words of a Spanish colonial official in New Spain.

- The words of a Spanish priest in New Spain.

- A letter from Christopher Columbus to the king and queen of Spain.

- An encyclopedia excerpt.

Other materials:

- Source Analysis Form - pdf file

- Basic Essay Question Format - pdf file

- Five Paragraph Essay Format: - pdf file, MS Word file


- If the film is not available, this activity may be conducted using only the four text sources.

- There is no particular need to complete this activity in one day; it can be continued over several days with one or more sources considered each day.

- If you ask students not to mark on the source documents, they can be saved and reused with subsequent classes, saving you time and paper.


Introductory discussion. Columbus stumbled on America while searching for Asian spices. Why did Europeans choose to colonize the Americas despite the fact that the desired spices weren't found? Students are asked to theorize and make suggestions. These suggestions are written in student journals or on the board for future reference. Inform students that they will be analyzing several historical sources to help them answer the question.

Introduce Source 1, a scene from the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise in which a Native American chieftain asks Columbus why Columbus intends to send more men to his island --"more than the leaves on a tree." Columbus offers several lame excuses until the Native American states that he knows the real reason is gold; then he walks away in disgust.

Film available from studentsfriend.com Store

(Director Ridley Scott is a master of visual imagery. Earlier sequences in the film depicting Columbus's first voyage to America and the first encounter with Americans are wonderful and worth showing to students. I usually show these preliminary sequences at the beginning of Unit 7, the Early Modern World. Unfortunately, this long film eventually bogs down.)

Class discussion. Students discuss the scene from the movie. What are the reasons given here by Columbus and by the Native American for European colonization? Is the film believable as a source? Students complete a Source Analysis Form for the film excerpt. We proceeded through the form step-by-step as a class.

Source Analysis Form (pdf file)

After students have analyzed the source using the SA Form, I asked the class what they thought was the main reason that Europeans wanted to colonize the Americas. Students tend to agree with the Native American, and gold is likely to be the consensus answer. I asked students how confident they were that gold is the right answer, and I asked them to write a percentage at the bottom of the SA Form reflecting their level of confidence. Then I sampled a few students for their percentages and their reasons for choosing that percentage.

Source 2, a Spanish colonial official in New Spain

After the class reads and considers this source, they complete another Source Analysis Form. Students are again asked to choose and explain their level of confidence that gold was the main reason for European colonization. Usually the confidence level drops somewhat after considering this source, which emphasizes the role of religion.

Spanish Kindness (pdf file)

Source 3, a Catholic priest in New Spain

Follow the same procedure as with Source 2 above.

Starving Wolves (pdf file)

Source 4, letter from Christopher Columbus

The teacher presents students with the letter from Columbus to the king and queen of Spain. Written in approximately 1494, the letter offers suggestions about the colonization of lands in America. While the letter considers several issues, it displays an overwhelming preoccupation with gold.

Columbus letter (pdf file)

The letter contains 17 sections of suggestions made by Columbus. Students are asked to use their own notebook paper to write the numbers 1 through 17 in the left margin. Students place one or more symbols next to each number to designate the main content of that section. The teacher writes the symbols and their descriptions on the board or projects them on a screen where students can refer to them during the exercise:

N - Native Americans

T - Towns

G - Gold

P - Ports

R - Religion

Ask students to mark only the main issue or issues in each section. Because a section mentions priests, the section isn't necessarily about religion. When the students have finished, choose a few students and tally their results on the board. The issue of gold should end up with the biggest score by a wide margin.

Again, students use a Source Analysis Form to analyze this source and determine their level of confidence that gold was the main reason for European colonization. The class discusses their findings.

Source 5, an encyclopedia excerpt

The teacher presents the encyclopedia excerpt to students. Students complete another SA Form and determine their confidence level. A class discussion considers how the students' confidence levels changed as they went through the five sources, and which sources seemed most credible. Students are asked how they could apply what they learned to help them determine the truth of any future situation. Do people usually take the time to get at the truth? What happens if they don't?

Encyclopedia excerpt (pdf file)

Assign the Christopher Columbus essay question.

Two essay formats are available, the Basic Essay Question Format and the Five-paragraph Essay Format.

- Basic Essay Format (pdf file)

- 5-paragraph Essay Format (pdf file) or (MS Word file - may be modified)

Note: According to one source, in 1492 eight million Native Americans were living on Hispaniola, the island where Columbus first landed. In 1535 there were none.

B. Young Bess source analysis activity:

Young Bess is a film about Elizabeth I before she became queen. This activity involves conflicting interpretations of the relationship portrayed in the film between Princess Elizabeth and Admiral Tom Seymour and the characterization of his brother, Lord Protector Ned Seymour.

The three sources are:

- The film Young Bess.

- A review of the film posted on the Amazon.com website

- Two excerpts from an encyclopedia

Other materials:

- Source Analysis Form - pdf file

- Young Bess essay question - pdf file


1. Copy and distribute to students the handout with the film introduction, cast of characters and film questions.

Film handout (pdf file)

2. Students view the film and complete the film questions. Class discussion of the questions follows. Students are asked to consider whether the film is believable.

Film available from studentsfriend.com Store

3. Students complete a Source Analysis Form for the film before handing in the film question sheet for grading by teacher (optional, of course). For now, leave blank the sections that ask which other sources agree with or contradict this source.

Source Analysis Form (pdf file)

4. Teacher presents the Amazon.com review by nirvana-17 and distributes a copy to students. Do not distribute encyclopedia excerpts yet. Students and teacher discuss the review and complete a Source Analysis Form for the film review.

Film review and encyclopedia excerpts (pdf file). (Copy them on separate sheets of paper.)

5. Class discussion. Where do the two sources agree, and where do they disagree? Which source is more credible? How do we know what to believe regarding the relationship between Elizabeth and Tom and the true character of Ned? Allow students to stew over these questions in confusion for a day or so.

6. Teacher presents the encyclopedia excerpts and distributes a copy to students. Students complete a third Source Analysis Form regarding the encyclopedia passages, completing all sections of the three forms. Class discussion: What can we believe now? What are we unsure about? Do we ever really know what we think we know? How can we be sure?

7. Assign Young Bess essay question. After students complete this assignment, discuss student responses regarding their level of confidence about the sources. Should we ever believe the first thing we hear? What if two sources agree? What if two sources disagree? What if two sources agree and a third disagrees? What if three sources agree? Are some sources (such as encyclopedias and primary sources) more trustworthy than others? When can we be confident, and when should we not be confident in our knowledge? Can we adopt some general guidelines about knowing the truth?

Young Bess essay question (pdf file)

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