Learning (and teaching) the Aztecs

I was all set to teach the Aztecs as part of our exploration of the civilizations of the Americas. Except I realized that I knew little more than where the Aztecs were located and that the Spanish conquistadors destroyed them, I knew next to nothing about them. Where to start...

First stop was the library where I gathered every book I could find on the Aztecs. I quickly learned that sacrifice was not just a passing part of their culture but also a daily ritual. Did you know that the Aztecs worried each day that the sun wouldn't come up the next. No wonder the Horrible Histories about them is called the Angry Aztecs.

Second, as I read I took notes not so much on the facts but the big picture ideas.  What distinguishes the Aztec culture?  I discovered that their writing system was similar to and probably adopted from the Mayans. I could work with that - I was already thinking comparison opportunities. The calendar was extremely important. And of course all this (sacrifice, festivals and even culture) linked to the strong polytheist mythology.  So, my broad themes were starting to come together.

Third, I brainstormed activities around social class, government, daily life, etc.  So, I had the basic structure of the unit.  Students would choose from several activities around major themes and explore and analyze the Aztec civilization.  Opportunities would exist for comparing with other civilizations from the Americas as well as beyond.  And students would do a unit project on either the Mayans, the Aztecs, or Incans (their choice.)  The unit was coming together.  

The final piece was context.  I try to make sure students understand that history is just that, a story, that is connected and weaves together.  To that end, I felt that with the Aztecs it was particularly important for them to understand what was going on in other parts of the world at the same time. 

 We created side by side timelines of Aztec events and events in the rest of the world.  For example, it was pretty interesting to realize that while the Aztecs were building up Tenochtitlan, the Hundred Years war was happening in Europe.  This maybe was the most fascinating part of our unit.   And when I started out, I had no idea that this is where we would end up.  To me that is one of the biggest joys of teaching, learning with my students about the most interesting parts of our past, present and even thinking about the future.