Teaching/Learning Guides
Silk Road Curriculum Materials

The resources described here so far include the following. Clicking on an item will take you down to its description in this list.

  • Ross Dunn and David Vigilante, eds., Bring History Alive! A Sourcebook for Teaching World History (National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA: n.d.; ISBN 0-9633218-6-2). Copy available for loan to Northwest educators from JSIS [check].

    This is "a resource manual created by teachers and for teachers. It is not a curricular plan, not a textbook, and not a prescribed set of classroom exercises" (p. iii). It is no accident that Prof. Ross Dunn, one of the key movers of the project, has a particular interest in the famous Arab traveler, Ibn Batutta, who roamed the world from the Atlantic, across northern Africa, through Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Central Asia, India, and apparently China. The authors/editors make a conscious effort to transcend some of the conventional "smaller" divisions of subject matter. Each section of the book contains an overview essay and then suggestions about specific assignments appropriate to various grade levels. The sections for Era 3 (1000BCE-300CE: Clasical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires) through Era 6 (1450-1770: "The First Global Age") are particularly relevant for the Silk Road. East and South Asia and the Middle East all receive substantial attention.


  • A valuable ongoing teaching resource (not devoted just to the Silk Road) is the journal Education About Asia, published by the Association for Asian Studies (a subscription costs $18/year for individuals, $24/year for institutions).

    Among articles specific to Silk Road issues are:
  • one by two Washington state teachers, Pat Burleson and Kurt Jacobs, "Building the Great Wall," in Vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1998)
  • a number of articles on teaching Asian religions, where "Religious Ideas and Arts: Middle School Lessons" (by Anne Murphy and Frederic Wong, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1997) focuses on Buddhist sculpture
  • Morris Rossabi, "The Silk Roads: An Educational Resource," in Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1999)
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  • Along the Silk Road: People, Interaction, and Cultural Exchange: A social studies unit recommended for grades 6-10. Developed by The China Project, Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). 1993. Copy available for loan to Northwest educators from JSIS REECAS outreach collection.

    This provides ready-made lesson plans and supporting materials and has been tested by teachers in Bay Area schools. The eight-lesson unit is detailed in a 187 p. booklet that outlines and provides scripts for various activities--role playing games, interactive greeting exchanges, written exercises. There are maps and a few drawings that can be used to make overheads.

    A portion of the book provides the complete text of the narration for a 37-minute video. The video itself is a major disappointment--containing a relatively small number of not terribly good still photographs and maps, with dumbed down commentary, and some questions at the end of each section that largely avoid focussing the students' attention on any content concerning the Silk Road. It is fine to use the unit as a way of teaching cultural exchange and differences, but the questions keyed to the video are more concerned with exploring personal feelings about almost anything but the Silk Road itself. Now that the CD-ROM is available (described elsewhere on our pages), it could easily be used in conjunction with the lesson plans outlined in the SPICE book and would represent a substantial improvement over what SPICE provided for visual material. Also, the CD-ROM offers a much wider and deeper range of information than even the SPICE book provides.

    There is some recommended bibliography at the end of the SPICE book (half a dozen titles), but one wonders whether it would not be possible/desirable to venture farther, even for the suggested grade levels. I find it curious that the students learn a bit about some of the famous Chinese travelers and about Marco Polo, but there is little effort to have them read what those travelers wrote. Properly edited selections from them can be quite accessible, and they offer interesting opportunities for really stimulating critical thinking. (Note that the book by Dunn and Vigilante emphasizes in various places the importance of teaching critical thinking skills by using primary sources if students are really to understand something about history.)

    SPICE does provide with the book a rather cleverly designed "Cross-Cultural Simulation" game entitled "Heelotia", which organizes the participants into two groups whose cultural values and communication are almost diametrically opposed. The goal of the simulation is to explore the possibilities and difficulties of cross-cultural communication, with the understanding being that the situations which arise might be similar to those that could have been encountered by merchants on the Silk Road. My only criticism of this is that perhaps instead of inventing imaginary peoples, the creators might have taken real peoples and real cultures and not tried to provide generic imaginary ones. As with some of the other material in the unit, the focus seems to be more on the generalizable topics that some might label as "politically correct" (i.e., raising cultural sensitivity) and perhaps too little on stimulating students to master a body of knowledge about real and important historic cultures. I agree with the perception of SPICE that a Silk Road topic is ideal for stimulating a discussion of cultural diversity issues (and those are, indeed, important in our teaching), but I would also like to see the Silk Road culture and history more appreciated for its own value. I think there is too much dumbing down of content here. Fortunately, there are enough other resources available to flesh out the substance that has a rightful place in such a unit.


  • Polishing the Mirror: A Curriculum Unit on Central and Inner Eurasia. By Vika Gardner and R. T. Steponaitis. Ann Arbor: Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, July 2000. 367 pp.+ 49 slides. Can be purchased from the Center, 1080 south University Ave., Suite, 4640, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1106; phone--734-764-0350; fax--734-764-8523; e-mail--cmenas@umich.edu. $85 including shipping. Web-based updates are promised.

    This felicitous collaboration between Gardner, a Ph.D. candidate in Central Asian religious history, and Steponaitis, an experieinced high school social studies teacher, is aimed at world history students and their teachers in grades 9-12. It is informed not only by Gardner's expertise but by careful attention to national and state social studies and geography standards. The sections cover:

  • physical and human geography
  • religions especially in the 9th and 10th centuries
  • the Mongol conquest in the 13th century
  • Tamerlane and the Timurids
  • great power expansion and colonial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Central Eurasia and Mongolia in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras
  • and thematic cultural sections on clothing, food, languages, and "architecture and the design of space."
  • Given the ambitious scope of the material, one might think of any number of other topics which could fill gaps, but for the chosen topics, there is some real substance--introduced by short essays, accompanied by many maps and illustrations, and emphasizing serious readings of contemporary or scholarly accounts which are included. There are very extensive, carefully annotated lists of various resources (books, websites, videos). extensive annotations for each of the generally well chosen slides, and careful delineation of learning goals and points of emphasis. Among the most interesting contributions of the packet are a long section on the position of women in Central Asia today and a long section of recipes for traditional Central Asian cuisine.

    One hesitates to criticize this laudable resource, which has already been eagerly tested in many classrooms. Nonetheless, a few desiderata come to mind. Challenging the students with serious readings is important, but probably doing a bit more editing of the texts to make them more accessible would be in order. To a degree, the authors are captive to the available material on Central Asia, which often repels the inquisitive because it is so larded with incomprehensible detail in the first instance pertaining to political history. It may well be that different choices of readings can be found which are even more valuable than the ones selected here. The quality of the reproduction of the maps in the text is generally not very good. Since Gardner has been away in Central Asia, the promised web site is still getting off the ground, but once really running, it will provide the most flexible means for improving on this challenging curriculum.


  • Silk Road Encounters Education Kit. Described by its sponsor (Ford) as "a comprehensive educational program combining primary source materials and multimedia tools for schools and families across the world to enhance a greater understanding of the rich and dynamic history of the Silk Road." The kit contains a Teacher's Guide, Sourcebook (both written by John S. Major, Joan Barnatt and John Bertles), CD Sampler, Slide packet, and Video. As of Dec. 20, 2001, the first two of these were available to download in PDF files from the Silkroad Project Inc. website (http://teachers.silkroadproject.org), but there was no indication yet of when and how the other material would be available. Most of the slide images are also reproduced in the Sourcebook.

    The Teacher's Guide contains the following lesson plans:

  • The Silk Roads Big Map
  • Creating a Three-Dimensional Timeline
  • Trading in the Silk Road Cities
  • Belief Systems of the Silk Roads
  • Musical Innovation along the Silk Roads
  • Treasures of the Silk Roads.
  • At the end is a short resource list of generally well chosen books and a few web sites (included are two teacher resource kits listed but not reviewed below). The lesson plans include detailed instruction about materials (a lot is hands on) and various questions the students are to address in their projects. For the "Beliefs" lesson, a key element is assessing selected quotations taken from the scriptures of different religions but focussing on particular topics (e.g., "Blessings and love."). The music project involves making from readily available materials a couple of instruments similar to actual ones from Asia. There are separate suggestions for how to adapt the lessons to younger students; in general the target audience ranges from elementary through high school.

    The Sourcebook is intended as basic background for teachers. It is a small miracle of compression: Geography (pp. 1-9); Historical Background (11-21), Belief Systems (23-27), Arts of the Silkroad (29-31), Travel of Ideas and Techniques (33-35), Music of the Silk Road (35-36) and an appendix (37-41) illustrating various Silk Road musical instruments. Compression has its price, of course, for often the material is little more substantial than "sound bytes." True, important themes which then could serve as the focus for classroom exercises are highlighted. There is a decided bias toward the Chinese end of the Silk Road. Anything historical for the West (but for a discussion of the "end of the Silk Road" in connection with European expansion) gets short shrift indeed. The most substantial section is that on geography and trade routes. Where not much more than a paragraph can be devoted to each of the major religions, the very nice four pages illustrating and describing musical instruments seem rather disproportionate. That, presumably, is an accurate reflection of the musical emphasis of the Silk Road Project Inc., something which will further be reinforced in the promised CD and Video.

    The promised eleven images are from the current Asia Society exhibition, Monks and Merchants, but they do not begin to go far enough in providing the visual resources that should accompany any collection of teaching materials on the Silk Road. The expensive large catalogue for that interesting exhibition would be well worth a look for anyone who really is interested in the art of Northwest China and such topics as the Eurasian trade in the 4th-7th centuries.

    All in all, especially after seeing a curriculum as substantial as that provided by Gardner and Steponaitis, one comes away more than a bit disappointed. For all the hype about how much the Silk Road Project Inc. was going to do to expand knowledge, and given the huge financial resources which have been poured into the project, it would be reasonable to expect a much more generous array of serious materials. What we have here is only a bare-bones start on some decent ideas of how to incorporate Silk Road themes into the classroom.


  • The American Forum for Global Education. Spotlight on Inner Asia: The Bizarre Bazaar; Teacher and Student Resource Guide (2000). 283 pp. May be ordered from the American Forum for $45 plus postage (order form, click here). This is a project supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Positively reviewed by Silkroad Encounters as containing extensive readings and also some lesson plans.


  • DATT North America Multimedia Corporation. The Silk Road: Student Activity Package and Answer Key (1997). Includes CD-ROM. Apparently a resource book created in conjunction with the CD-ROM reviewed elsewhere on our pages?


    Web-based Resources

  • Along the Silk Road: People, Interaction & Cultural Exchange
  • A middle school unit provided by USC-UCLA Joint East Asian Studies Center (apparently the one originally produced by Stanford's SPICE program). It includes the following sections: Teacher Background Material, Change Along the Silk Road, Trade Along the Silk Road, Cultural Exchange Today Along the Silk Road.

  • Economics and Geography Lessons: The Silk Route.
  • By Barbara S. Yingling, Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Md.

    A detailed lesson plan for grades 3-5 based on material in The Silk Route: 7,000 Miles of History by John S. Major with illustrations by Stephen Fieser (Harper Collins, USA, 1995). Note that this is one of a wide range of social studies lesson plans provided on-line by the Montgomery County Public Schools, each keyed to a particular book.

  • How Shall We Rule China? Role Play. Developed by Jean Johnson, New York University.
  • A role-playing lesson addressing the question of what options Khubilai Khan and the Mongols faced in establishing YŁan Dynasty rule over China around the year 1270. Involves such issues as attitudes of Chinese to the Mongols and vice versa, changes in nomads' life as they settle down and interact with sedentary peoples, etc.

  • Dim Sum: A Connection to Chinese-American Culture. Delveloped at Angier School, Newton, Mass.
  • A wide variety of lesson units on Chinese culture for K-5, including one on the Silk Road (accessed under "Social Studies" link) that offers outline maps for exercises and a lot of valuable links.

  • Silk Road Teacher Notes. By Gail Desler, Pleasant Valley Middle School--Gold Oak Unified School District.
    For a Grade 6 H/SS unit on Ancient China. Lesson Purpose:
    Students will explore the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road, with a focus on Turpan, a caravan stop in China's westernmost province of Xinjiang. They will identify artifacts from the countries that once traveled this route, and research how and when these items might have arrived in the city of Turpan.

  • Was the Silk Road the Internet Highway of the Ancient World? By Sheila Hanley, Social Studies, James Madison High School.
    A unit intended mainly for secondary school, including a good lesson plan, a short text to read ("A Merchant's Tale") and four helpful maps. This is part of the American Forum for Global Education China Project, which may include other materials useful for teaching about the Silk Road. Note though that the "Buddhism in China" resource available through their site is a disappointing couple of short paragraphs with a single study question.

  • Teaching about Inner Asia. ERIC Digest. By David Weston, a research assistant and graduate student at the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center of Indiana University.

    Published in 1989, this ERIC Digest discusses (1) reasons for learning about Inner Asia, (2) how to include Inner Asia in the curriculum, and (3) strategies for teaching about Inner Asia.

  • A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization. Prepared by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. An excellent resource to supplement text-based instructional material. Included are the following subjects: Geography, Ancient Tombs, Buddhism, Calligraphy, Military Techonology, Painting, Homes, Gardens, Clothing, Graphic Arts. For each there is a generous selection of high-quality images, with key questions posed along they way to get students to think about what they are seeing. There is a convenient time line; one of the virtues of the site is a lot of good maps. For the Silk Road, of particular value is the section on Buddhism.

  • College course syllabi


    © 2001 Daniel C. Waugh. Last updated May 17, 2002.

    Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.