Setting Up the Project

The purpose of this project is to help students develop critical thinking skills while learning how historians ask and answer questions.  Since I usually teach the second half of the world civilization survey, the topic of the conquest of Mexico is among the first subjects we study.  I have also typically taught large sections of the class, which has limited my ability to experiment with pedagogies, although I am in the process of reworking the format of my class for that purpose now.  Consequently, I have used this project as an entry project that students will complete by the third or fourth week of class.  It is useful to work through some of the questions for students on at least one of the documents in class or to take an altogether different document for class analysis and then let students develop  their projects on their own. 

By using the project this way, we are developing an "inquiry-based" approach to history, where students learn how historians ask and answer questions before they work with what's found in textbooks.  The hope is that after completing this project, they will understand that what they are reading is interpretation, not unambiguous "facts."  The Mexican materials are especially good for this purpose since even textbooks cannot agree on "common facts."   I have put together a short collection of excerpts from commonly used textbooks that cover the conquest of Mexico.  It could be useful to have students examine what each of them say, prepare lists of where they agree and disagree, and discuss which one they think is correct and why.  After they have finished their projects, they should then reevaluate their earlier conclusions and explain how the primary sources led them to change their minds (if they did).  Students should quickly realize that there are factual errors in some of the textbooks, serious omissions in others.

The material also lends itself to possible collaborative work.  Students could be put into groups that are assigned roles.  Groups could include:  (1) the Spanish conquerors, (2) the Mexicas, (3) the Tlaxcalans, (4) Malinche, (5) Pedro de Alvarado, (6) Moctezuma, (7) the Cuban Governor and his men, (8) Charles V and his advisors, and (9) Spanish friars determined either to convert the Nahuas or understand their culture.  The groups could debate among themselves and then negotiate with the other groups.  The end could be a paper interpreting the documents from the relevant point of view.

These documents could be used in other ways as well.  What is important to remember is that this project is question driven and all of the sources included in it are questionable and open to multiple interpretations.