Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Aztecs Find a Home: The Eagle Has Landed


The Lesson


Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec God of War.

Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec God of War.

Credit: Courtesy of Conquistadors.

All about us we saw cities and villages built in the water, their great towers and buildings of masonry rising out of it. . . . When I beheld the scenes around me I thought within myself, this was the garden of the world.
— Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Spanish conquistador

It is said that the Aztecs chose the site of their capital, Tenochtitlan, because of the presence of a bird perched on a cactus and eating a snake. In this lesson, students will learn about that ancient Aztec legend and about how Tenochtitlan became the site of modern-day Mexico City.

Guiding Questions

  • According to legend, how did the Aztecs choose a site for their capital city? What were life and culture like for the Aztec people in their capital city, Tenochtitlan?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the Aztecs as the builders of a city and civilization in what is now Mexico
  • Locate the Aztec Empire on a map
  • Explain the Aztec legend about the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan
  • State that the modern flag of Mexico has a symbol of an eagle, a cactus, and a snake
  • Interpret the symbolism contained in other Mexican flags

Preparation Instructions

This lesson plan consists of four learning activities that build upon one another and should, therefore, be used sequentially.

  • Before beginning the lesson, review the suggested activities, then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. If desired, you can bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly; print out required pages and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. (See Selected EDSITEment websites for a guide to locating online materials.)
  • Print out enough blackline maps for the map exercise. Go to National Geographic's Xpeditions map site, click on North America, enlarge the map, then print copies. Click on Mexico, enlarge the map, then print out enough copies of this map.
  • The lesson considers the history of the Aztec people of Mexico and their capital, Tenochtitlan. Once a nomadic people, the Aztecs began to build permanent settlements about 1325 CE. According to legend, they were told by one of their gods to settle where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake. After a hundred years of wandering, they finally found this sign. They saw the eagle, the cactus, and the snake on a small reed-covered island in the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco. In obedience to the god's instruction, they started to build there the city of Tenochtitlan.
  • Tenochtitlan was an island city in Lake Texcoco, connected to the surrounding land by three great causeways. Just as in Venice, the city's canals were used as streets. The city boasted palaces, temple-topped, pyramids, gardens, fountains, aqueducts, a zoo, and a bustling market—a city more advanced than any in Europe.
  • Religion was important to the daily life in Tenochtitlan, and in the middle of the city there rose great temples and pyramids to the Aztec gods. Warfare was important, too, for the Aztecs were mighty warriors; soon they dominated the other peoples of central Mexico and built a mighty empire. The same warriors who were so fierce in battle were also peaceable, hard-working farmers, toiling on land dredged from Lake Texcoco. The staple of the Aztec diet was corn flour made into porridge or baked into tortillas. Other foods included sweet potatoes, beans, avocados, and chili peppers.
  • Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire lasted for about 200 years, until their conquest by the Spanish in the year 1521. Mexico City—one of the largest cities in the modern world, with a population of about 10 million people—was built on the site of the Aztec capital. (See the EDSITEment-reviewed Conquistadors.)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Meet the Aztecs

Have the students carry out Web research to find out about the ancient Aztecs and answer the questions on the Student Version of the Meet the Aztecs chart, provided in pdf format. A Teacher Version of the chart has also been provided. They should visit the Conquistadors site and the Encarta pages on the Aztec Empire.

Now let's put the Aztecs on the map!

Have the students go to National Geographic's Xpeditions map site to find the geographical context of the Aztec realm. On the world map, click on North America, then click on the modern-day country of Mexico. Locate Mexico City, the country's capital—built on the site of the old Aztec capital.

Distribute blackline printouts of the North America map and have the students color in the country of Mexico. Distribute blackline printouts of the Mexico map and ask the students to draw a circle around Mexico City.

Activity 2. A Tale of Three Cities

This ancient city has undergone huge changes over the years. Have the students examine the images below, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Then ask them to answer the questions on the Informative Architecture chart, available as a PDF.

Activity 3. The Eagle Has Landed

We've learned that when the Spanish conquerors were looking for their own Mexico City, they decided to build it on top of the old Aztec capital. But why was Tenochtitlan there in the first place? Why did the Aztecs choose this site? How does anybody choose a site?

Share with the students some rationales for selecting a site for a capital city:

  • Washington, DC, was chosen as the capital of the United States by first president George Washington because of its strategic location between the South and the North. Click on the Xpeditions map site, then on North America and the United States; locate Washington, DC.
  • Brasilia was chosen as the capital of Brazil rather than the large coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo as a way of developing the country's huge and under-populated Amazon region. Click on the Xpeditions map site, then on South America and Brazil; locate Rio, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia.
  • Many capitals are built on the coast or, like London and Paris, along major rivers that provide access to the sea, transport, and trade.

But Mexico City? Let's look at it again on the map. Mexico City is (and Tenochtitlan was) right in the middle of the country. It's not near the coast and it's not on a major river.

Review with the students the advantages of the Tenochtitlan site — its defensibility, abundance of food, and waterways. But according to tradition, the Aztecs chose their capital's site for other reasons.

On the Conquistadors and Encarta sites, have the students research the legend of the eagle, the snake, and the cactus. Then ask them to write a brief account of the story.

Explain to the students that the eagle, cactus, and snake are symbols of Mexico today. Click on the Symbol of Mexico icon on page one of "Aztec Life and Times" of the Conquistadors. Show the students the Mexican flag, which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library (click on Geography, then Flags, Flags of All Countries, Mexico).

Activity 4. What's In a Flag?

Show the students a selection of Mexican state flags and have them consider what messages the flags contain and what they tell us about their states. (When necessary, point out to the students key elements of the flags.) Then have the students find the states on the map of Mexico.

The flags and map are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library; click on "coat of arms" and then click on the image to enlarge.

  • Distrito Federal—ten green cactus leaves surround a castle with a bridge across water, standing for the lake on which Mexico City was founded.
  • Guerrero—the flag of this state, which was once controlled by the Aztecs, shows a high-ranking Aztec warrior wearing a traditional battle suit of jaguar skin. In his left hand he holds an Aztec shield and in his right a club.
  • Nayarit—shows a stalk of corn, bow and arrow, snow-covered mountains; the blue, green, and gold represent the colors of the landscape.
  • Baja California Sur—the gold and red stand for richness and nobility, the shell and the fish (tunas) for plenty and the wealth of the sea.
  • Chihuahua—features mountains, the head of a Spaniard and the head of a Native American, and the cathedral of Chihuahua city.
  • Quintana Roo—shows the state's main geographical features: the red sun for a warm climate, the star on a blue field for cloudless skies, and the thick vegetation.

Extending The Lesson

Explain to the students that, like Mexico, many other countries have national animal symbols, such as the British lion, the Canadian beaver, the French rooster, and the Russian bear. The United States, of course, has the bald eagle. Founding father Benjamin Franklin once suggested a different national symbol for his young nation. What if his suggestion had been accepted? How would you feel about the turkey being the symbol of the United States?

Show the students a selection of national, provincial, and city flags with animal symbols. All are available from the Internet Public Library:

Show them the flag of Kiribati, one of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Have the students write, in two to three paragraphs, a legend explaining the elements in the Kiribati flag.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

National Geographic's Xpeditions map site

Conquistadors On-line Learning Adventure

Internet Public Library

Internet Public Library

Internet Public Library

The Basics

Time Required

5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Robin Currie (AL)


Activity Worksheets