Sample Lesson Plan: The Discovery and Colonization of Puerto Rico

This lesson is based on the World Heritage List nomination file for the historic fortifications of San Juan and the "National Park Service" handbook, The Forts of Old San Juan. It was written by Rosanna Weltzin and other members of the staff of San Juan National Historic Site. The lesson was edited by the Teaching with Historic Places staff. TwHP is sponsored, in part, by the Cultural Resources Training Initiative and Parks as Classrooms programs of the National Park Service. This lesson is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into the classrooms across the country.


Students will develop a deeper understanding of the impact of the New World discovered on the Indian Tribes of the Americas.



  • RL5.2 Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
  • RI5.2 Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.
  • RI5.4 Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.
  • RI5.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
  • RF5.4a Read on-level text with purpose and understanding.
  • RF5.4b Read on-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.
  • RF5.3.3c Usan correctamente el acento escrito de acuerdo con el acento tónico en palabras al nivel de grado aplicando un análisis sistemático: 1. Cuentan el número de sílabas. 2. Nombran la sílaba que lleva el énfasis (última, penúltima, antepenúltima). 3. Categorizan la palabra según su acento tónico (aguda, grave, esdrújula, sobreesdrújula). 4. Determinan el sonido o la letra en que termina la palabra (vocal, consonante, /n/ o /s/). 5. Escriben el acento ortográfico si es necesario. 6. Justifican la acentuación de palabras de acuerdo a las reglas ortográficas.
  • W5.1a Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.


  • 5.H.1.H Evaluate the relationships between European explorers (French, Spanish and English) and American Indian groups, based on accuracy of historical information (beliefs, fears, and leadership).
  • 5.C.1.1 Analyze the change in leadership, cultures and everyday life of American Indian groups before and after European exploration.

Objectives for students:

  1. Become familiar with the Arawak culture present in the Caribbean prior to the Encounter.
  2. Learn Arawak vocabulary words, some of which are a part of English today.
  3. Identify cognates to make cross linguistic connections between English/ Spanish and acquire higher academic language.    BRIDGING
  4. Discuss the positive and negative consequences of “discovery.”
  5. Compare and contrast their daily lives with Guanín’s.
  6. Practice correct Spanish accentuation, intonation and fluency by reading an authentic poem about the topic.  ← R.F.5.3.3.c
  7. Discuss the use of symbols as communication.
  8. Discuss the concept of beauty within all the cultures represented in the classroom.   ← CULTURAL COMPETENCE
  9. Create a “guanín” medallion using Taíno symbols.
  10. Write a continuation of the story incorporating Arawak vocabulary.

Essential Question(s):

  • ¿Cómo puedo usar un mapa contextual para explicar las aportaciones de Puerto Rico a la historia y desarrollo de los pueblos del Caribe?
  • ¿Qué puedo aprender sobre la cultura de los grupos indígenas oriundos de Puerto Rico?
  • ¿Cuáles son algunas características de la cultura taína que podemos transpolar al mundo actual?

Materials for students:

The materials listed below either can be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students. The maps and images appear twice: in a low-resolution version with associated questions and alone in a larger, high-quality version.

  1. two maps of San Juan Island
  2. one reading and one poem on the history of Puerto Rico and the evolution of its defensive system
  3. about “Iconos Taínos”


Teachers will model the concept of "Cognates” during the reading of “The Discovery and Colonization of Puerto Rico”. After that, students will work on identifying cognates during the unit independently, in pairs or small groups. Finally, an interactive academic language word wall will be created by students classifying those cognates in Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 words.

Reading 1: The Discovery and Colonization of Puerto Rico

(Cognates are highlighted)

It was during his second trip to the Americas that Christopher Columbus landed on present day Puerto Rico. When he and his crew arrived there in 1493, they found it inhabited by several thousand Arawak Indians, known as Taínos. The indigenous population called the island Boriquén, but Columbus, before continuing on to explore more of the Caribbean, named it San Juan Bautista, Spanish for "St. John the Baptist."

Fifteen years later, a member of Columbus's party returned to the island. He was Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who would later become famous for his unsuccessful search for the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de León was the island's first Spanish governor, overseeing a troop of 50 soldiers and a group of settlers. The Spanish soon discovered the harbor we know today as San Juan, but at the time they called it Puerto Rico— "fine or rich port." As the years passed, however, the name of the island and the harbor shifted: Puerto Rico came to refer to the entire island, and San Juan identified the port and the city that grew up around it.

Though the harbor offered a beautiful setting, Ponce de León chose to locate the settlement somewhere else. He selected a wooded site surrounded by hills and swamps about two miles south of the port, giving it the name Caparra. It turned out to be less than ideal for a seat of government or for a military base: the swamps made the location unhealthy and hard to reach, it was located too far from the port to transport goods, and it was difficult to defend. The colonists urged Ponce de León to move the settlement, but he refused. Only an order from the King of Spain reversed Ponce de León's decision.

The colonists chose for a new home a beautiful barrier island along the north coast. It was an excellent location: it overlooked the entrance to San Juan harbor; was open to cooling winds off the water; and had features, such a jagged reef along its ocean side and a craggy steep shoreline on the harbor side, that made it naturally defensible. The transfer of settlers from Caparra to San Juan began in 1519 and was completed in 1521, the year Ponce de León left Puerto Rico to colonize Florida.

The Taínos initially welcomed and helped the Spaniards. Their friendship turned to hostility, however, once the Europeans increased in number, took over land, and kidnapped Taíno women. The Spanish forced many Taínos to labor like slaves to mine gold and produce crops; this work and European diseases quickly pushed the indigenous population towards extinction. Though at first afraid to fight back because they believed the Spanish were immortal, the Taínos learned otherwise when a number of them drowned a Spanish soldier. In 1511, they began to rebel against the Spanish, but their primitive wooden weapons, stone axes, and arrows were no match for Spanish firearms. After their defeat, many fled to the Lesser Antilles, smaller Caribbean islands to the southeast, where they joined forces with the Caribes, a fierce tribe of South American Indians who previously had been their enemies. Together they began a campaign of terror and harassment against Puerto Rican settlers for nearly a quarter of a century.

Puerto Rico became known as the gateway to the Indies, the name that people used to identify the islands of the Caribbean. Though the island possessed little gold or silver, Spanish officials still viewed it as important. Because of ocean currents and winds, both the flota and galeones passed nearby as they began their trading sweeps through the Caribbean. Puerto Rico's strategic location also offered relatively easy access to the many claimed lands of Spain's new empire. Government officials decided that, in order to protect the lands they had seized in Central and South America, including their trading route in the Caribbean, they would establish one of their most important forts on the islet of San Juan—what today is known as Old San Juan.

Questions for Reading 1

  1. Why was Caparra such a poor location for the first Spanish settlement?
  2. How did Spanish colonization affect the Taínos?
  3. How did the Taínos react to the Spanish?
  4. Why did San Juan become such an important part of New Spain?


Reading 1 was compiled from The Forts of Old San Juan (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service).

Agua de olvido (Poema Taíno)

Agua de manantial
Un fuego encendido que olvidé apagar,
Necesito agua
de un manantial.
Manantial de olvido,
De mi viejo hogar
Crecen los guayabos y las cocolías
Junto a la charquita
Junto al manantial y nos escondimos
En la oscuridad de mil trepadoras
Y los lagartijos que yo atrapaba con facilidad.
Me hacían olvidar tantos desamores, trabajos forzados,
miedos tan reales, los desconectados que pedían,
pedían y jamás me daban. Los desconectados que piden y
piden y jamás me dan, por eso del agua me debo saciar,
un fuego es un fuego que debo apagar.


Students will practice Spanish accentuation by identifying words “agudas, llanas y esdrújulas”. They will also practice Spanish fluency and intonation.

Analyzing the Poem

  1. ¿Qué sentimientos evoca este poema?
  2. ¿Qué estrofa evoca sentimientos positivos? ¿Y negativos?
  3. ¿Cómo podemos relacionar este poema con la primera lectura?

Taino Icons

Students will practice their oral language abilities in their target language by watching and discussing in a small group the Taíno art showed in the video, and then they will express their own concept of beauty based on their heritage culture.

Putting it All Together

Have students, either working alone or as part of a small group, prepare a photo essay that tells the story of an important historic site in their neighborhood or community. All photos must have captions that explain their importance to the viewer, and each Cultural competence and oral language should be placed on a poster board in an attractive way. Each person or group should share his/her project with the other groups. As an introduction, each group should describe what aspects of the site first caught their interest. Then the class should discuss whether the essays as a whole create a comprehensive picture of the community's history, and consider why or why not.

Students will choose what language they want to prepare their projects, and then they will present their work in the opposite language to the classroom.