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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Columbian Exchange

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The Columbian Exchange is a must-teach for any U.S. History class.

In this guide you will find:

  • a timeline activity of New World devastation. (Thanks, Columbus!)
  • current resources on disease and destruction.
  • discussion questions exploring the environment, the economy, and the culture.

We take our coffee with two creams, one sugar, and no smallpox. Thanks.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

American ideology has for centuries been infused with the belief that America is a special place with a special destiny. George Washington described the continent as a "conspicuous theater . . . peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity." Abraham Lincoln described America as "a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the position that all men are created equal," and more simply as "the last, best hope of earth."  During the nineteenth century, millions poured westward in the belief that it was America’s "manifest destiny" to conquer the continent. And just as many poured into the continent in the belief that America was a refuge for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." In the first part of the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson attempted to reshape centuries of European economic and political practice with his Fourteen Points. And later in the century, American presidents pledged to "support free peoples" in every country, on every continent where they faced threats to their liberties.

For centuries, Americans have nursed a sense of national uniqueness, but this sense of "American exceptionalism" was voiced from the start. Read the following quotes:

"Touching these savages, there is a thing I cannot omit to remark to you, it is that it appears visibly that God wishes that they yield their place to new peoples."
– a member of La Salle's Mississippi River expedition, 1682

"For the natives, they are neere all dead of Small poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess."
– John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony

Discussion prompts:

Based on the reading of Shmoop's page on Ideology in the Columbian Exchange, what is missing from these assessments of providential protection and blessing?

What do you think?  Is America a "special place?"

Does it have a special role in the world?

Does it represent something distinctive to the world’s people?

Is this sense of America changing? Increasing? Diminishing? Why?

Is this change due to things America has done?

Or are there larger forces at play? (i.e., globalization, growing European and Asian economies)

Has this sense of American exceptionalism served America well or has it hurt America?

Has it made America an arrogant international bully and meddler?

Or has it made America a refuge, role model, and responsible world citizen?

(Lesson aligned with CA History-Social Sciences 9th-12th grade chronological and spatial thinking standard 1; historical interpretation standards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Instructions for Your Students

Historians have been debating the question of "American exceptionalism" -- in other words, the question of whether America has a special or unique role in the world, or whether it's a "normal" country like any other -- for a long time. Is there anything "exceptional" about the ecological history of the Columbian Exchange? Is this the kind of "American exceptionalism" that people usually think of?

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Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    Test Review    
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