Features: History & Social Studies
Catholic mission in American southwest.

How Teachers Can Make the Most of "When Worlds Collide"

By Dan McDowell, PBS Consultant/AP World History

Dan McDowell is an AP World History teacher at West Hills High School in Santee, California. In addition, he has worked on technology staff development, served as a member of the PBS Teachers Advisory board, and develops curriculum for PBS documentaries, including When Worlds Collide.

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a few simple explanations. As a history teacher in a public school, I have found that it can be tough to find the time to explore the complexities of many topics. We simply don’t have the time in the light of high stakes testing and other shifting priorities. However, I would argue that when students are provided with simple explanations, we paint an uneven picture of history that ultimately will distort their perception. We must find opportunities to bring them into the intricacies of historical stories.

The recent PBS documentary, When Worlds Collide, does just that as it takes the audience through the first one hundred years of the Spanish Empire in the New World. Instead of casting the Spanish as murderers or heroes and the indigenous population as victims or savages, the program explores the set of entangled exchanges and negotiations that occurred between these peoples. Although there is truth on both sides concerning the initial contacts between inhabitants of the New and Old Worlds, the aggregate is far more complicated than what is often presented in popular culture. What happened next is rarely addressed in both the Americas and Spain, nor is how those contacts and every additional interaction shaped a new culture that drew heavily from both influences. The foundations set by the Spanish monarchs in the New and Old Worlds had resounding effects that have carried into modern day Latin America and the United States and demonstrate very clearly how the past has shaped modern times

When Worlds Collide is not strictly a chronology. Narrator Rubén Martínez and Director Carl Byker pull the viewer back and forth between the 16th century and modern times. The foundations set by the Spanish monarchs in the New and Old Worlds had resounding effects that have carried into modern day Latin America and the United States. They demonstrate very clearly how the past has shaped the 21st century.

Educational Resources

When I first learned about this film, the educational potential leaped off the page. As a teacher of Advanced Placement World History, I immediately grasped the value of the multiple points-of-view presented and connections made between the events on both sides of the Atlantic – including the short and long term effects. Political, economic, cultural, and religious themes are integrated throughout, providing rich historical nuggets of information that peak interest and make important points, including connecting the Spanish treatment of Muslims and Jews to the handling of the indigenous population, examining the impact of New World crops on the Old World, investigating the integration of Catholicism with native customs in the New World, and analyzing the effects of the political actions of the Spanish monarchs.

And these just scratch the surface of the topics covered in the film. Not only are these ideas relevant to the AP World classroom, much show up in national and state standards at both the middle and high school levels. While the entire program might be difficult to teach to middle school students, the individual segments can be used as modules and align with specific state standards (e.g. California Social Science Standards 7.9.7, 7.11.1, and 7.11.2).

When I was asked to be the educational consultant on this website, my task was to develop a set of lesson plans and ensure the site as a whole served the K-16 education community. I was charged with balancing coverage of the main themes while incorporating the historical connections to current times and events. Additionally, the challenge I faced 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 judiciously consider the implications of those past events, utilize modern Internet (Web 2.0) tools, and make connections between the events of the 15th and 16th centuries and today.

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. Using concept mapping Web 2.0 applications, 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. Here students utilize Google Maps, Google Earth, or Everlater, a Web 2.0 blogging and mapping tool.
  • 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 modern 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. Students record their observations on an individual or class blog.


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Additional Resources on the Website

The lessons reflect only part of the educational value of the website. As with any documentary, there is only so much time that can be dedicated to any one topic, especially when it covers so much ground. While When Worlds Collides provides us with a great foundation, the website takes it to the next level and helps fill in some of the details. These elements enhance the value of the film in the classroom. The added resources include detailed chapter summaries that complement the film, biographies of the main players, a timeline that traces events on both sides of the Atlantic, essays that cover specific topics, and the complete video.

Most of these additional resources are contained within the general audience portion of the website, but their educational value was one of the top considerations when determining what to include. In fact, the website producers and the content writer reviewed the lesson plan proposal and consulted with me before completing the full outline of the website. The entire website is geared towards the K-16 education community.

In particular, the chapter summaries highlight key ideas found throughout the lessons and the essays provide greater depth and help set the context. For instance, Social Order in the New World by USC Professor María Elena Martínez extends the spirit of the film by evaluating the elaborate and burdensome caste system that developed in the New World. In Birth of a New World Religion by Content Writer Sharon Hannon, we get an analysis of the ongoing process that occurred as a very different Catholicism took hold across Latin America. Throughout the website, relevant video clips are integrated as appropriate.

The end result is a well-rounded and comprehensive set of resources that help teachers and students fully grasp the importance of this era and see how the events resonate to today.

When Worlds Collide breaks the mold of the historical documentary genre. It fuses past and present and forces us to think beyond the simplistic terms that are often conveyed to us in popular culture. 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 meaning in the United States today. The wide array of resources should help teachers and students dig through this complex history and develop a sense of modern significance.

Featured Lessons

Featured Websites


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In response to Spanish Queen Isabella’s call to convert the peoples of the Americas, wave after wave of Catholic missionaries flooded the New World. However, many Indigenous American beliefs did not disappear altogether, they simply merged with European religion.
Photo Credit: Mitch Wilson