Lesson Plan

The Forts of Old San Juan: Guardians of the Caribbean

El Morro

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 1 Standard 2A: The student understands the stages of European oceanic and overland exploration from the 9th to 17th centuries.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

What was Puerto Rico's strategic value before the 20th century?


1. To explain the strategic importance of Puerto Rico as part of Spain's plan to defend its empire in the Caribbean;
2. To understand the evolution of the Spanish strongholds, in particular San Juan's development from a primitive post to a "plaza fuerte" or stronghold;
3. To examine how the 1898 Treaty of Paris affected Puerto Rico;
4. To learn how historic structures provide a link between the "old" and the "new;”
5. To investigate a historic site in their community.


Time Period: 1500s-1800s
Topics: This lesson could be used in history, social studies, and geography courses in units on colonization or European settlement and trading patterns in the Western Hemisphere.


The ancient stone walls rise majestically above the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, simultaneously towering over the harbor entrance and casting their silhouette into the colonial city of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Tunnels and staircases wind through the interior, leading back to the time when the fort provided the keystone to protection of the Spanish Empire that spread across the Caribbean.

These massive masonry defenses, which were begun in the 16th century, today exist as the oldest European-style fortifications within the territory of the United States. Now one of the most beautiful spots in Puerto Rico, the battlements illustrate the remarkable work of Spanish military engineers and recall more than 400 years of history in the Americas. The San Juan National Historic Site, as it is now called, represents the past so well that the United Nations has designated it as a World Heritage Site because of its "outstanding, universal" cultural value.

Lesson Hook/Preview

Spain began developing a New World empire when men such as Christopher Columbus started searching for a shorter route to the spices available in the Orient. Although they could not find a shorter passage, explorers soon discovered that the Americas offered other equally profitable resources—most notably vast quantities of gold and silver.

In 1493, Columbus became the first European to visit Puerto Rico, an island situated at the gateway to the Caribbean from Europe. The Spanish then ignored the island until 1508, when Juan Ponce de León established a small settlement there he called Caparra. Puerto Rico then became part of an empire that would last until the end of the 19th century. "New Spain," as the government called the territory it claimed in the Americas, at times extended from Florida down through South America, from the eastern end of the Caribbean across Central America to the Pacific Ocean. Spain soon discovered that its people and possessions needed protection from both the native population it tried to control and from other European nations who also wanted the region's wealth. To protect its empire, Spain developed a series of forts; among the most important were those in Puerto Rico.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


New Spain

Additional Resources

San Juan National Historic Site
Visit the San Juan National Historic Site web pages to learn more about Puerto Rico's historic defensive fortifications. The site also offers on-line documents including The Defenses of San Juan, a chapter from The Eighteenth Century Caribbean & The British Attack on Puerto Rico in 1797.

Historic Places in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
The National Register of Historic Places' on-line travel itinerary, Historic Places in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands provides information on over 52 places listed in the National Register, including San Juan National Historic Site, that teach us about the contributions made by various peoples who settled in Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands.

Welcome to Puerto Rico
This website features information on several aspects of Puerto Rico's history and culture. The site's History pages provide a timeline of Puerto Rico's history from the 16th century to the present day. Also included on the site is information on Puerto Rico's architecture.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress's Hispanic Reading Room on-line collections include Spain, The United States, & The American Frontier: Historias Paralelas. These pages feature maps, rare books, manuscripts, prints, and photographs related to Spanish influence and interaction with other cultures in North America, the Caribbean, and Mexico between 1492-1898.

Search the Digital Collections for primary resources on San Juan and El Morro. Of particular note is Built in America, a collection of measured and interpretive drawings, large-format photographs, and written historical and descriptive data from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). Search the collection using keywords "San Juan, Puerto Rico" and "El Morro."

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute is an educational partnership between Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools designed to strengthen teaching and learning in schools. The Web site features curricular resources produced by teachers participating in Institute seminars. Resources relevant to Puerto Rico include Spain in Puerto Rico: The Early Settlements, Puerto Rico: Its Land, History, Culture, and Literature, and The Heritage and Culture of Puerto Ricans.

The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
The Avalon Project's web pages offer online documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. Included on the site is the text of the Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain (Treaty of Paris), which officially ended the Spanish American War.

Maritime Heritage Program
The National Park Service's Maritime Heritage Program works to advance awareness and understanding of the role of maritime affairs in the history of the United States by helping to interpret and preserve our maritime heritage. The program's web pages include information on National Park Service maritime parks, historic ships, lighthouses, and life-saving stations.

UNESCO's World Heritage Program
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the World Heritage program in 1972 in an effort to ensure that future generations can inherit the natural and cultural treasures of the past. San Juan National Historic Site is among the hundreds of World Heritage Sites designated thus far. Visit the program's web pages to learn more about these sites.

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Last updated: September 7, 2018