As mentioned before, the stops on this journey are mapped out on the itinerary to be found in the back of this unit. This section of the unit will just give a little background on each of the stops, the materials I have chosen for each stop and anything else that I thought might prove useful to the teacher.
Since the rail route that we are taking through Asia begins (or ends) with Beijing, it only makes sense that we begin our journey here in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.
My approach to this part of the unit is to take the students back in time. We use the film The Last Emperor and read poetry by the classic Chinese poets Li Bai and Fu Tu. In a way I am romanticizing the city. However this entire unit is a sort of fantasy that will probably be much easier to get through with students in a classroom than it would with them on a train!
Second Stop-Ulan Baatar
The second stop on the route is the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Baatar. On this stop I will be focusing also on the past, but bringing it up as a reminder of where this country has been and is today. A social studies or history teacher will love to spend a week or so on this section of the journey. Tales of the mighty Mongol warriors, Genghis Khan the ruthless leader of Mongolia who gobbled up Asia from the Yellow Sea almost to the Caspian during the thirteenth century will fill the classroom. Today this country couldn’t be more opposite from what it once was. Spend some time reading the history of Mongolia and exploring the soldiers and empire of that time. Then lead the students into Mongolia with clips from
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
where the wild kidnapping of the princess leads viewers on a trek through the desert. Give students a glimpse of Disney’s rendition of the mighty Han warriors in
. Finally lead the students to modern day Mongolia with the film
Close to Eden
. Another great film on this area is
A Mongolian Story
. National Geographic again has fine images of the country in its December 1996 issue. There are also maps and a lot of background on Genghis Khan in this issue. Have students write about the three renditions of the Mongols in the three movies. How do the movies portray the Mongolians? How accurate are the depictions? Use this piece of the unit to focus more on film than literature; allow students to comment on the films in their travel journals.
Third Stop-Siberia (Irkutsk/Omsk)
As we move from Mongolia into Central Siberia, I think this is a good time to introduce students to travel guides in more depth. Anyone doing extensive travel in Asia or in any other part of the world will find these books especially useful. During my seven years in Asia, at least 70% of the expat travelers that I met had a travel guide tucked away in a backpack somewhere. There are several publishers of the guides; Lonely Planet, Frommes, Insight Guides and others. Take your class to the public library to explore the guides, then lead them into Siberia through one of your choosing. The Insight Guide on Russia has an excellent introduction to Siberia in it. Most of my students have little idea what Siberia is and the guide gives good background with maps and pictures. It also highlights some of the cities in Siberia.
The city of Irkutsk is a good one to stop at on the route to Moscow. It is a jumping off point for visits to “The Pearl of Siberia,” Lake Baikal. This section of the unit will be an awesome one for science and geography teachers. The 25 million year old Lake Baikal is the deepest freshwater lake in the world. Surrounded by some forty towns the lake supports almost as many lifestyles. It is also home to some fifty-four species of fish and 250 species of shrimp as well as birds and seals.1 Students should definitely have both Lake Baikal and Irkutsk labeled on their maps.
Another stop in Siberia is Omsk. West of Irkutsk, Siberia’s second largest city has a population of 1.2 million.2 Founded as a fortress, the city became a frequent place of exile during Russia’s often-brutal history. Both Solzyhenitsyn and Dostoevsky were temporarily housed in the city during their exiles.3
During their visit to Siberia students will be invited to view parts of the film
. This 1979 Soviet movie is truly an epic film. The entire film is over three hours long and covers nearly a century of Russian history through the lives of two families. I wouldn’t expect my eighth graders to sit through the entire film. They simply wouldn’t be able to. But the first hour or so of the film gives a masterful depiction of the Siberian wilderness that I think will be valuable in helping students imagine what Siberia looks like. Take a look at the film and choose some segments where students can study the characters and setting of this very different part of the world.
Solzyhenitsyn is a wonderful author to study at this point in the journey. Short stories, poems or novels of the author often deal with the brutality of life in exile. I will ask students to read or listen to
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
. This is an excellent short work by the author that will fit nicely with this section of the unit.
Ask students to write about how they think the geography of an area affects or shapes the lives of the inhabitants of the region. Ask them to draw from both the film and literature and share some observations of the worlds that they have been immersed in.
The fourth stop on this incredible journey is the capital of Russia, Moscow. How you choose to approach introductions to this great city may vary. I always start from a historical standpoint. Moscow is a city rich in history dating all the way back to the 12th Century. The Kremlin, a collection of palaces, cathedrals and buildings in the center of the city serves as a sort of time line for Moscow with buildings being added to the area by the various Russian rulers for hundreds of years. Red Square surrounds the Kremlin walls and beyond that is the city itself.
Another epic film about Russia that students can enjoy is
. Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, the film tells the story of Zhivago in a vibrant manner, which won it several Oscars. Another film students might enjoy at this point is Taxi Blues. Taxi Blues is a modern look at Moscow through the eyes of a taxi driver. This film really shows the rough underbelly of the city and should be previewed by teachers before showing any part of it to students. Some scenes are inappropriate for the classroom and language can also be an issue. Find some scenes in the movie that you can use in the classroom. Know where to fast forward.
I’m going to have students read “The Bet” by Anton Checkov during their Moscow visit. It is a short story that is in
The Language of Literature
that is used by New Haven eighth graders.
Have students write a journal entry from the point of view of the lawyer from the story during his imprisonment. Ask students to write in the first person and to make a connection with the film they have seen in the journal entry. Perhaps they will reminisce of their childhood friendship with Dr. Zhivago, or the time they took a taxi ride through Moscow with the lead character from
Fifth Stop- St. Petersburg
Finally the last stop for the students is St. Petersburg. Again this is a city with a massive history. One good source for teachers on the city is Robert Massie’s biography of
Peter the Great
. The city was envisioned and built by the great Russian ruler in his quest to reach out to the west while also protecting the vast country that lay behind the doors to the great city.
A film was made for television based on the Massie book. Like so many of the films in this unit, Peter the Great is another rather long one that may be used in sections rather that viewed in its entirety
In St. Petersburg we will examine some poetry. Alexander Pushkin is a massive hero in Russia. He called St. Petersburg his home. Find some Pushkin to share with the students. His poems can be fun and lighthearted or serious and deep. Another great poet forever connected with St. Petersburg is Anna Akmatova. This twentieth Century poet will forever be associated with St. Petersburg. Be sure to read the poem that Akhmatova wrote to Pushkin.
As students finish up the unit here in St. Petersburg have them reflect on their journey. Who were some of the people they met on the route. What were some of the images that stayed with them? Have them make connections with characters from the film and literature. Who are they reminded of? What did they learn?