Spotlight on Teaching - Ancient China

Matt Fasano, Grade 4

Four years ago my colleague Hayeun Kim and I looked at the 4th Grade History curriculum and realized we had a problem. We were teaching an entirely Western canon that was not fully engaged with the world as a whole. We decided to add a new piece to the curriculum, a comprehensive study of the culture of ancient China, which has proved to be a rich and fascinating addition to our studies.
          With such a vast topic, we have been able to stretch our teaching in new ways. As a guide, we follow the route of the Silk Road through China and parts of Asia and western Europe. The Silk Road was a long and dangerous journey, filled with different cultures, terrains, dangers and discoveries. In order to make the children really feel the breadth of this astonishing journey, my assistant Robin Lange and I created a new component to the unit, an experiential learning curriculum based on major stops of the Silk Road. Every Wednesday morning when the children returned to the classroom after being in “specials,” we completely modified the classroom and redesigned it to look and feel like a major stop on the Silk Road. We dressed up in appropriate clothes and acted out different scenarios. The children were assigned a task at each stop and then wrote a reflection on some of the challenges at each location.
          For Dunhuang, China, we made the room into a Buddhist meditation cave, and dressed as monks spreading the word of our religion. We taught the kids about the Buddha and how his religion spread from India to China along the Silk Road. They had to enter silently, remove their shoes, and reflect on the journey ahead. The next week, students were in the Taklamakan Desert, all sand dunes and burning sun. They had to figure out a way to keep their camels alive and their water preserved. Conditions were harsh, and their teachers dressed in rags and led the way through brutally hot days and freezing nights. In Kashgar, the oasis city, we were vendors selling our goods, and the children had to buy and sell fruit and other delicacies. The Pamir Mountains were next, cold and precipitous, and the students had to crawl in single-file along the narrow paths. Finally, in Baghdad, the beautiful and ancient trading hub, students were free to sell their silk and maybe earn a living alongside a shoe vendor. Here they reached the end of their journey; some could return to China, while others could live in Baghdad permanently.
          Following these adventures, the students wrote their own stories, embodying characters traveling along the Silk Road imagining their motivations and passions. An implicit rule in teaching children is that they will always be more engaged if their work is hands on. The Silk Road journey creates opportunities for students to imagine the emotions of people who actually traveled the route. Students become connected to the material because they are in a situation that entices them to feel what the experience would have been like.
An important aim in Fourth Grade is developing empathy. Throughout the school year, we find ways to help students imagine how other people are feeling, which ties closely to increased self-awareness and positive emotional development. Through the Silk Road, students have another opportunity to explore empathy as well as imagine themselves as citizens of the world for the first time. Study of the Silk Road is an enormous treasure with its many opportunities for students to spread their imaginations throughout its endless twists and turns.