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Columbus and the other early explorers provide your students with the opportunity to explore new worlds -- as well as worlds of knowledge and discovery. This week, Education World delivers a shipload of sites and activities guaranteed to keep your lessons afloat -- and your curriculum current.

Editor's note: For additional "explorer" resources, be sure to check out the Education World article Across the Sea: Europeans Explore the New World.

Students, perhaps distracted by the October 12 school holiday, often forget that Christopher Columbus wasn't the only explorer who sailed into uncharted seas to find an unknown land. They may not even realize that he wasn't even the first of those adventurers to set foot in the New World. Historians believe Leif Erikson, an Icelander, was the first European to arrive in North America, landing in what is now Canada in 1001.

Then why is Columbus so widely-known and celebrated and Erikson so often ignored or forgotten? Pose the question before you begin exploring "Explorer" Web sites. Students should be able to answer that question -- and many more -- at the end of their online voyages.


Geography -- make a cartopuzzle. Explain to students that explorers to the New World came from many European countries, including Spain, Portugal, England, Scotland, France, and Italy. Print modern maps of each of the countries from Maps (alternate resource), and create a cartopuzzle -- a map cut into puzzle pieces -- of one of the countries for each student. (For an example of a cartopuzzle created for more advanced students, see the Cartopuzzle! at the Virtual Museum of New France Web site.) Have students complete their puzzles and name an explorer from that country. Or invite students to create their own cartopuzzles to share with their classmates.

Language arts and history -- write a brief biography. Invite students to use library and online resources to write a brief biography of one of the famous or not-so-famous explorers. Students should include information about the explorer's early life and family (where known), homeland, and travels and discoveries. An excellent online resource can be found on the Discoverers by Alphabet Web page (part of the Discovers Web Website). Among the explorers you might include on your list: Alexander the Great, Roald Amundsen, Neil Armstrong, Vasco Nuez de Balboa, Vitus Bering, Richard E. Byrd, John Cabot, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Francisco Coronado, Hernando Cortez, Vasco Da Gama, Hernando De Soto, Sir Francis Drake, Leif Ericsson, Erik the Red, Henry the Navigator, Matthew Henson, Sir Edmund Hillary, Henry Hudson, Louis Jolliet, Juan Ponce de Len, Meriwether Lewis, David Livingstone, Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Marquette, Robert Edwin Peary, Francisco Pizarro, Marco Polo, Juan Ponce de Leon, James Clark Ross, Junpero Serra, Hernando de Soto, Henry Morton Stanley, Amerigo Vespucci.

Geography -- trace an explorer's route. Challenge students to use library or online resources to create a map showing the routes explored by one of the explorers in the above list.

Language -- alphabetical order. Select a handful (or more) of the names above, mix them up, and invite students to arrange them in ABC order.

Geography -- chart the explorers' homelands or discoveries. On a classroom world map indicate with pushpins the homelands and/or discovered lands of the major explorers. Use yarn to connect the pushpins to explorer name cards (and pictures, where available) around the borders of the map.

History and math -- make a timeline. Three options:

  • Chart the birth dates of famous explorers on a timeline. (Each student might place the explorer he/she researches on the timeline.)
  • Chart some of the important events in Christopher Columbus's life, as indicated on the Christopher Columbus Timeline or Columbus's Voyage Timeline. (See a sample Columbus timeline created by second graders in Sterling, Massachusetts.)
  • For more advanced students: Encourage exploration of the timelines at Age of Exploration Timeline (alternate source) and have students use the pertinent information on those sites along with their knowledge of other explorers to create a timeline of exploration in the Americas.



Think About It

Challenge students to consider a different point of view:

North and South America are often called the "New World" because the great discoverors of Europe were the first to explore it. The fact is, however, that indigenous people of the Americas had been here long before the so-called New World was "discovered." They had developed rich cultures that were often devastated by the newcomer Europeans. The use of the term "New World," therefore, is a very Euro-centric view of the exploration of the Americas.

Discuss with students the use of the term "New World." Do they agree or disagree that it is an appropriate term?


Math -- measurement and graphing. Invite students to search resources to learn how long Columbus's ship, Santa Maria, was. Students will be amazed at its small size! (One possible online source, Columbus's Ships, puts its length at 18 meters, or about 60 feet long.) How does the Santa Maria compare in length to some common items such as a classroom table, the distance between two bases on a baseball field, or a school bus? How does it compare in length with some other boats such as a rowboat, a canoe, an ocean liner, the Titanic? Challenge students to collect a wide range of measurement data and to create a bar graph that shows the length of the Santa Maria in comparison to the lengths of those common things.

Language -- writing interview questions. Invite students to answer this question: If you could talk with any explorer throughout history, who would you talk to? What questions would you ask that person? Write five good questions.

Science -- make a compass. Throughout the centuries, navigators have used compasses to set and follow their chosen route. Help students Make a Compass. (Students will need a sewing needle, a magnet, a bowl of water, and a small piece of paper.) Then invite them to accompany you on a walk near the school and have them use their compasses to chart the course and create a map of the route. Encourage students to repeat the activity at home with an adult family member and to share their neighborhood maps with the class.

Games -- do a crossword puzzle. Encourage students to complete the Biography Crossword Puzzle (Activity 7).

Math -- calculate distance. Have students read Columbus and Dead Reckoning (DR) Navigation. Then provide them with a road map of the United States, a list of U.S. cities, and several sets of figures showing time, direction, and rate of travel. For example, the figures might direct students to start at their own city or town, travel north at 40mph for 6 hours and 25 minutes, and identify their location. Students might then be directed to travel southwest at 60 mph for 2 hours and identify that location. The trip would continue until students had traveled all the distances indicated and reached a final destination. If time allows, ask students to create a map of their route. As a supplementary activity, you might have students recall how Columbus determined the speed of his ships and ask them to brainstorm ways they could estimate the speed of an automobile if the speedometer wasn't working.

Reading -- create a dictionary. Ask students to brainstorm a list of commonly used English words derived from Native American languages -- words such as moccasin, buffalo, tepee, skunk, canoe, tobacco, and opossum. Encourage students to research library and online resources to locate other words as well. Then have them create and illustrate a dictionary of the words.

Social studies -- learn about your state. Have students research library and online resources to learn about the first European settlers in their own state. Ask students to find current evidence of the cultural influences of that group, in the form of place or family names, art, food, music, and so on. Create a bulletin board displaying the results of their research.

Creative writing -- write a diary entry. Ask students to imagine they are sailors on a ship sailing toward the New World during the 15th or 16th Century. What would their days be like? What jobs would they perform? What would their hopes and dreams be? Encourage students to write a diary entry describing life at sea.

Music -- write a chant. Sailors used chants to help time the speed of their ships. Encourage students to discuss how chants are used today. Students might mention chants used in jumping rope, cheerleading, political campaigning, religious ceremonies, and so on. Then arrange students into groups and ask each group to write its own chant. Have groups present their chants to the class.

Character education -- explore values. Encourage students to read The 10 Characteristics of Greatness: The Achieving Personality. Then ask them to explore some of the discoverer bios on the Discoverers by Alphabet Web page and to identify the characteristics of the achieving personality that that explorer demonstrated most or least. Remind students to provide reasons and examples to back up their answers.

Art -- build a ship. Have students explore Columbus's Ships, Evolution of Ship Building to Face South Atlantic Seas, Technical Advances in Shipbuilding and Navigation, and other sites, and create a replica of a ship that might have been used by early explorers.

Reading for understanding -- take a quiz. Provide students with Teaching Master 1 and ask them to find the answers to the questions as they explore the sites and complete the activities.
ANSWER KEY: 1. league, 2. Christopher Columbus, 3. Juan Ponce de Leon, 4. Snyder, 5. caravel, 6. Leif Erikson, 7. Latitude, 8. Jeanne Mance, 9. celestial, 10. Victoria.

Related Articles from Education World

Be sure to see Education World's Discoverer's Day archive page for more great lesson ideas.