ACM Pedagogic Resources > ACM/FaCE > Projects > Integrating Sustainability into the Undergraduate Curriculum > Activities > Exploring in the Footsteps of Columbus: Letters Back Home

Exploring in the Footsteps of Columbus: Letters Back Home

Nancy Gates-Madsen, Luther College
Anne-Marine Feat, Luther College


This is an introductory activity for Gates-Madsen's Spanish 460 Seminar about The Natural World in Latin American Literature (to be taught Spring 2011). It's designed to help students begin to think about how their perception of and attitudes toward the natural world might be different from those of 16th Century Spanish explorers. Students will write a letter back home describing a "pristine" wilderness scene of a Caribbean beach. They will compare their descriptions to Columbus's diary chronicling his first impressions of Hispaniola, paying attention to: 1. what is seen (and not seen) 2. the filter/frame of reference used to describe the landscape 3. the rhetoric of the letters.

Learning Goals

  • reflecting upon their own framework of seeing the natural world (both what and how they see (or don't see))
  • analyzing Columbus's frame of reference (both what and how he saw (or didn't see))
  • describing a landscape in Spanish
  • generate a list of parallel assumptions about the natural world, the "New World," and the relationship between humans and nature

Context for Use

We envision this as an introductory activity on the first days of this junior/senior seminar. Students will have written their descriptions before (or on) the first day; they will read excerpts of Columbus' texts for the second day in order to facilitate a discussion of the comparisons between the two. Students need to have advanced language proficiency, but this activity could easily be adapted for a course offered in English.

Description and Teaching Materials

Preliminary version of student assignment:

Day 1: Pretend you are traveling to the Caribbean and have arrived at the location in the picture [students will view a picture of a remote Caribbean beach]. Describe what you see in a letter back home to someone who has never traveled outside of the Midwest.
Extension: 1 page; upload to the course website

Day 2: Read excerpts of Columbus's diary where he describes his first perception of the "New World." Read everybody else's letters. Before class, write a 1-page text addressing the following questions:
  • what elements of the natural world are included in both descriptions?
  • what frame of reference / context is used in both texts in order to describe this new place?
  • what type of language is used in both descriptions?
  • what appears to be the writer's attitude toward the landscape?
  • what seems to be the writer's intention?

Teaching Notes and Tips


Two-part assessment:
  1. Communication (how well can the students express themselves in Spanish?)
  2. Analysis (how deeply do the students enter into the topic? how thorough is their treatment of the subject?)

References and Resources