Lesson Plans

Explorers & Early America

Columbus’ Journey to Find a Western Sea Route to Asia

Author: Kim Buehlmaier

School: Belmont Station Elementary

Grade Level: 3rd

Time Estimated: 2 days

Historical Background

What was going on during the time of Columbus’ Exploration: The period of time being studied is the early Modern Era, where there were many advances in politics, industry, society, economics, commerce, transport, communication, mechanization, automation, science, medicine, technology and culture (wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_era). This period of time changed the world from the old world to the new world. Explorers during this era were searching for land to conquer, riches, spices, colonization, etc. Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer, was granted funding and sponsorship from Spain for his voyage to find a western route to Asia. He underestimated the circumference of the earth based on maps created by other explorers and their travels. He thought he would end up in the West Indies, not knowing that he would run into North America first. This began the Age of Discovery/Age of Exploration in the early 15th century.

Historical Inquiry Question

How could Christopher Columbus have underestimated the size of the world and not know that he would run into North/South America before he would get to Asia?


Students will be able to understand what information was available during Columbus’ exploration that would lead him to believe that he could sail west to Asia without running into North/South America. Students will explore the maps, analyze them, compare them to each other, and come to an understanding as to where Columbus meant to go versus where he landed. Students will also gain an understanding of how this changed the view of the world, and how explorers that followed would use this new information to make new journeys and discoveries.

SOL Skills

3.6: The student will interpret geographic information from maps, tables, graphs, and charts.

1: The student will use effective communication skills in group activities:

a. Listen attentively by making eye contact, facing the speaker, asking questions, and summarizing what is said.
b. Ask and respond to questions from teachers and other group members.
c. Explain what has been learned.

SOL Content

3.3: The student will study the exploration of the Americas by:

a. describing the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus
b. identifying reasons for exploring, the information gained, and the results from the travels.

3.5: The student will develop map skills by:

d. locating the regions in the Americas explored by Christopher Columbus (San Salvador in the Bahamas)



Introductory hook activity:

Using a program called “Neighborhood Map Machine,” students will be broken up into groups and create a map of part of the school. Within each group, some students will be designated as information gatherers, while others in each group will create the map on Map Machine using the gathered information. The information gathers will be given the same area of the school to map out and describe to their map makers. At the end of the class period, students will print their maps so we can compare and look for similarities and differences. The objective is to have the students understand that maps have always been made based on the information reported back to them and sometimes this information can be inaccurate-even compared to another explorer’s journey of the same place.

Students will be asked to make assumptions about places outside of their map, just as an explorer might make an educated guess about a place they have not explored yet. This can cause maps to be inaccurate, which may account for Columbus’ understanding of the world before his attempt to journey to the West Indies. It is not simply a matter of Columbus making a mistake; it is more an effect of utilizing information—which now we know was misinformation—made available to him during this time in history.

Students will then do a close reading activity over several days on each of the maps and use the three column close reading chart to keep track of observations and questions.

Distribute a copy of the Bianco world map and put in on the Promethean Board. Students will work in groups to make notes discuss what they notice about the map and ask any questions they might have about it and share with the rest of the class.

Origin of the map: This atlas was created by Andrea Bianco in 1436 using ten leaves of vellum. Bianco oriented the map with the east on the top. Andrea Bianco was an Italian sailor and cartographer in the 15 century. He collaborated with Fra-Mauro on another world map between 1457 and 1459.

After analyzing this map, as well as several others, students will be asked to compare them to each other and discuss where Columbus landed versus where he meant to land. Once each map has been discussed individually, students will compare the old maps with a current world map, as well as identify where Columbus meant to go versus where he ended up going.

Here are some of the questions up for discussion:

What do you notice about the map?
Why would a person make this map?
Why would it be helpful?
Who would use this map?
What do you notice about the way the continents look?
When do you think this was made?
When comparing these maps, how do they differ?
How are they the same?
Where did Columbus land?
Where did he want to land?
How far is the distance between where he landed and Asia?
How was Columbus able to make such a big mistake?

For closure, I will show students the cartoon that pokes fun at the fact that Columbus was so far off in his estimations of the size of the earth.


Check for understanding upon completion of the lesson:

Exit card: In order to leave the room, students must complete an “exit card”, which has the correct answer to this question: How did the information that Columbus had available to him affect his exploration?

Students will demonstrate their understanding of: how could Christopher Columbus have underestimated the size of the world and not know that he would run into North/South America before he would get to Asia? They will do this by each getting a foldable paper (folded into thirds) and in one section write where Columbus thought he would land, on another where he actually landed, and in the last section write an explanation of how this could have happened.

References: Web

Kim Buehlmaier Source Analysis
This document comprises an extended analysis by Kim Buehlmaier of the primary source used in this lesson. Analysis examines the genesis of the source, as well as its significance. It also includes procedures for using the source with students and questions for guiding analysis and discussion of the sources.
Andrea Bianco Map, Wikipedia
This map is a valuable resource because it shows what people thought the world looked like in the early 15 century. This is important because it must have been one of the resources made available to explorers who used the information on this map to plan their journeys.
Fra-Mauro Map, Wikipedia
This map is important for the same reasons as the Andrea Bianco map. In use with the Bianco map, it shows the progression and slight changes in the map of the world before Columbus explorered.
Current World Map
It is critical that students evaluate this current world map in relation to maps in the time of Columbus’ exploration and compare/contrast them. This is a critical source because it will allow students to analyze the discrepancies between the maps. This will help in their understanding of how Columbus could have made such a big mistake in assuming that the world was smaller than it really was. The information made available to him was incorrect.
Map of Columbus Routes, The Mariners' Museum
These maps show the route that Columbus actually took from Spain to the New World. Even though it is a drawing, it is imperative that students see this map with his route that also shows where Asia is in relation to San Salvador.
Closing cartoon
This cartoon is valuable to the lesson because it provides closure by making a joke about the fact that Columbus didn’t just find the wrong country, but he couldn’t even find the right continent. After a discussion of the meaning of the cartoon, this will solidify with students that Columbus made a mistake given the information made available to him during his explorations, but that mistake proved to have been a pivotal moment in history.