I teach 7th grade Language Arts at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School in New Haven. Since 35% of the student body comes from over twenty surrounding towns, it is a school of great ethnic diversity. The student body is roughly 55% black, 25% Hispanic, and 20% white. Within this group, the range of ability is great as well; in every class, I have students reading at far below and far above grade level.
Though these factors rarely manifest themselves as social problems, an obvious fact is that these students come from wildly different backgrounds: affluence and poverty, urban violence and rural tranquility, strong home support systems and very little home support. Students can sit next to each other and have no concept of each other's life style.
Most of the students consider themselves worldly, but they are generally unaware of life beyond their own community, and even the poorest tend to have a snobby, isolationist attitude about the world around them. Generally, they have no concept of a time without Ipods, video games, cell phones, and color TV's. They sit next to each other in class, each vaguely realizing that there's a world outside of their little ones, but never seeming to venture into it. They tend to think that they share no commonality with generations who came before them, or even with people who are even slightly older. It's an attitude that could cripple their ability to grow intellectually. They also exhibit a weak knowledge of geography, politics, social structures, religion (even their own), and economics. With all of these factors, what's a teacher to do?
In spite of these challenges, I have found that students can become very interested in learning about places and times that are foreign to them. I thus decided to take a limited period of time - 1325 to 1350 - and explore selected aspects of four different societies around the world. I chose this time period because Ibn Battuta's travels took place during this time, and, when I looked at different parts of the world, I found that intriguing events were taking place around the globe. This period is also recent enough to provide ample resource material and ancient enough to offer political and social structures which sharply contrast with the world (or worlds) my students know. When we study each time period, activities will include videos, drawings, maps, artifacts and other audio-visual aids which will supply students with solid understanding of the material.
Ibn Battuta struck me as an ideal guide for my students. The Gibbs translation of his travels contains language and incidents which are so colorful, action-packed, and even startling that students can't help being transfixed (for a fine example, see the outrageous cure for snakebite in the lesson plans for day 2). His tales of caravan travel and surviving a shipwreck are equally riveting, and students will enjoy placing themselves in his situation and writing about their adventures.
Although Ibn Battuta's travels will serve as the anchor of this unit, I will include two cities which he did not see - London and Tenochtitlan - because the inclusion of these cities allows students to look at regions of the world with vastly different religions and social structures. The Black Death bacillus will be the students' travel guide from Damascus to London.
This writing centered teaching unit will run for eighteen days, during which the students will construct a journal of their travels around the world, 1326-1350. It will include where they had stayed, how they had gotten there, what they had eaten, what they had done, and what they had discovered. Each of the four major travel stops will have a journal sheet where students will record information about the destination (government, religions, social organization, employment, etc.). Students will be given or read selected interesting passages that discuss pertinent information for the city, and the information will be discussed. They will then create first person journal entries from a selection of topics. Besides their own writings, the journals will include maps and illustrations of their own creation as well as photos taken from internet or other sources. The finished product will be an organized snapshot or the world in the early fourteenth century. Their learning will be reflected in their observations about other societies and in their ability to connect this knowledge with their own world. Assembling this work in the form of a journal will also give students a sense of ownership of the project.
Before the journey begins, students will be given a travel itinerary, the first for April, 1326, when Ibn Battuta left Damascus for Mecca. They will receive itineraries for the four chief destinations. Not all of Ibn Battuta's travels will be covered, and we will then consider ways he could have possibly gotten to the last two destinations, using the technology of the time. In each of the four major destinations, a connection will be made to the city or area today. The four major stops are listed in the overview and discussed in detail in the lesson plans.
This unit covers a lot of material and ideas, but I believe it affords the students a great opportunity to immerse themselves into times and places distant from their own. In the process, they will gain an appreciation for the fact that life before the age of technology was rough and often precarious. Through written work and testing, they will show that they understand the basic concepts of the unit and demonstrate increased understanding of geography, early cultures, religion, and modes of travel. This is, more than anything, a unit designed to increase their awareness of the world around them, both in the past and the present. It offers a snapshot in time, and they will understand that, even though the world changes drastically, people of all places and times want and need the same things, even if their means of getting them are vastly different.