Lesson Plans from When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collidebroadcasts on KCET Monday September 27, at 9pm. We asked Dan McDowell, the education consultant for When Worlds Collide to share some of his thoughts on the project, as well as to highlight some of the classroom resources available on kcet.org.


When Worlds Collide Education

By Dan McDowell, History Teacher

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a simple explanation.

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning about the brave conquistadors who braved long voyages across the Atlantic Ocean only to be confronted by hordes of half-naked savages. Victory was inevitable and ordained by God. Years later, I read another version of this confrontation that painted the Spanish as murderers and the ensuing events as one tragedy after another.

Certainly there are truths in both histories of the initial contacts between inhabitants of the New and Old Worlds, but they are far more complex than they are often presented in popular culture. They also rarely address what happened next; both in the Americas and Spain, or how those contacts and every additional interaction shaped a new culture that drew heavily from both influences.

When Worlds Collide captures the essence of those ideas. It explores the ongoing, complex relationship between the Spanish, indigenous, and African populations and how the story didn't end with the fall of the Mexica and Incas. It carries the implications of the this story to modern times and, as a result, creates unique opportunities within the educational world to make real connections between the past and present. To assist teachers, a series of eight lesson plans were developed to help teachers pull essential themes from the film and provide engaging instructional strategies.

The diverse set of topics reflects the ambitious scope of the film and the current relevance they hold. The challenge faced as I developed the lesson set was how to push these lessons beyond a traditional (and boring) set of materials that could excite teachers and students. The final products involve a mix of innovative tasks that ask students to critically examine materials and then demonstrate their understanding of the content through a variety of creative projects. The strategies involve having students critically consider the implications of those past events, utilize modern Internet (Web 2.0) tools, and makes connections between the events of the 15th and 16th centuries and today.

The lessons bounce back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, push students to consider various points of view, and address the key subjects central to understanding the topics that are found in social science standards across the nation and the Advanced Placement European and World History exams. The lessons topics include:

  • Creating a Culture: This lesson has students broadly examine the nature of culture in Latin America and analyze specific characteristics that are derived from indigenous, Spanish, and African influences.
  • Social Structure In Latin America: Acting as 16th century civil rights activist, the students write a plea to Charles V to force the Spanish settlers in the New World to treat the indigenous populations with respect.
  • The 16th Century Superpower: For this topic, students develop a visual mind map of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. They plot the major factors and show the relationship between the various causes and effects. As an optional extension of this lesson, students can compare Spain with other historical empires.
  • The First American Empires: Taking on the perspective of a Spanish historian, students record the achievements, history, and fall of the Mexica and Inca Empires.
  • Food and the Columbian Exchange: This lesson has students trace the influence of a crop originally from the Americas throughout the Old World.
  • The Spanish Empire and Religion: Students investigate five stages of the Spanish fight to spread and maintain Catholicism in Europe and the New World.
  • New World Catholicism: This lesson has students closely examine the characteristics of Catholicism in the New World as it blended with indigenous cultures.
  • Spanish Economics in the 16th Century: Acting from the perspective of a financial blogger, students examine the factors that influenced the Spanish economic downturn and compare them to the recession faced by the United States in recent years.



The When Worlds Collide website not only contains all of the lesson materials, but also a timeline, biographies of the main players, articles that provide extra depth to key ideas, and the entire documentary.

In Southern California, we can easily take for granted the diverse and mixed culture that continues to develop around us. People of all different ethnic backgrounds share our region and have developed a unique cultural identity. We can easily get lost in the details of the history, but as When Collides Collide depicts, the spirit of it has a lot of local meaning, here in Southern California and around the nation. It is essential for our students to celebrate those differences, examine the complex convergence of cultures, and understand how we arrived in present times.

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