Teaching with Primary Sources

I’ve been teaching my seventh graders about the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s using primary sources.  So far, they’ve read excerpts of the letters of Hernan Cortés and his traveling companion Bernal Diaz del Castillo, parts of the Laws of Burgos, parts of the Report on the destruction of New Spain by the priest Bartholome de las Casas, and translations of some Aztec and Tlaxcalteca reports on the fall of Tenochtitlán. We’ve even read some parts of William H. Prescott’s mid 19th century analysis of the Aztec worldview.  It’s been an education for me, and for them.

They’ve been horrified by the stories of brutality and destruction.  For me, it’s been an education in what sort of work students in seventh grade can produce.  The answer is, absolutely awesome work.  If you provide them with quality reading, they start producing quality writing.  Give them junk food, their bodies process junk food into junk flesh; give them healthy food, their bodies churn out healthy flesh.  Same with what their minds do: G.I.G.O. as the software engineer might say —

GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT.

The diversity and range of opinions they’ve expressed in their writing has been huge — some defending the Aztecs as a peaceful people invaded by violent strangers; others justify the action of the Spaniards in conquering the Aztecs as a necessary action to bring the benefits of civilization.  Still others try to adopt a posture that casts doubt and blame on both sides.  They are, in fact, acting like historians — marshaling evidence, explaining cases, demonstrating familiarity with the source materials, and discounting the arguments of their opponents.

Tomorrow I’ll be providing a secondary source — the first they’ll read that isn’t their textbook… and they’ll see how an official historian handles the question, “How cruel were the Spaniards?”  And then… while they try to get to the bottom of the mysteries of European control of North America… I’ll be evaluating their development as writers, and begin the process of teaching them how to build a persuasive argument.

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