Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Marco Polo Takes A Trip

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

During the Middle Ages, most people in Europe spent their entire lives in the village where they were born. But in the 13th century, a young Italian named Marco Polo traveled all the way to China! He spent 17 years as a member of the court of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. After he returned to Italy, he recorded his experiences in a book, sparking a surge in interest in the Far East among Europeans that led to a great age of exploration.

In this lesson, students will learn about the remarkable travels of Marco Polo. They will consult maps to locate Venice and follow the routes Marco took to Beijing and back. They will learn about the challenges of traveling along the Silk Road, discover some interesting facts about China under Mongol rule, and find out how Marco came to produce his famous book. Then they will work in groups to create a large mural/timeline of the life and adventures of this famous traveler.

Guiding Questions

  • Who was Marco Polo?
  • Why did he travel to China? What was it like to travel along the Silk Road? What was China like in the 13th century? How did Marco Polo get back home?
  • Why did he write a book, and why is this book important?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify Marco Polo and understand why he took his trip
  • Indicate on a map the routes Marco took to China and back
  • Describe the challenges of traveling along the Silk Road
  • List several interesting aspects of 13th century Chinese culture
  • Explain the circumstances in which Marco's book was written and understand the influence the book had upon the European public

 

Special Materials for Mural/Timeline

  • A large piece of butcher paper, preferably about three feet wide and twelve to fourteen feet long
  • Tacks or tape for affixing the butcher paper to the wall or a bulletin board
  • Colored markers
  • About a cup of sand (optional)
  • Glue sticks (optional)

Preparation Instructions

Read through the lesson plan and become familiar with materials and websites listed. Bookmark the sites you plan to use. Ideally, computer-generated images from the various websites in this lesson should be projected on a screen visible to all members of the class. Students can also work in small groups sharing a number of computers. Or you can download and reproduce all materials for use by students at their desks.

Background information about Marco Polo and the Silk Road can be found at the following sites:

Tape or tack the butcher paper for the mural/timeline to a long bulletin board (or a wall) at a level sufficiently low for all students to write and draw on it. Divide the paper into seven sections. Leaving the first section on the left blank, number the others from one to six, moving left to right.

If possible, obtain from your school library the following books by Fiona MacDonald: Marco Polo: A Journey through China and The World in the Time of Marco Polo. It would be very helpful to have on hand and visible to students a globe, a world map, and, ideally, a large map of Asia. 

Special Materials for Mural/Timeline
  • A large piece of butcher paper, preferably about three feet wide and twelve to fourteen feet long
  • Tacks or tape for affixing the butcher paper to the wall or a bulletin board
  • Colored markers
  • About a cup of sand (optional)
  • Glue sticks (optional)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Making a Mural/Timeline

Tell the students that they will be working together to create a colorful mural/timeline of the life of Marco Polo. Divide the class into six groups. Assign to each group one of the following topics, which relate to the stages of Marco Polo's life and travels in Activities 1 through 6:

  1. Growing up in Venice
  2. Traveling from Venice to Kashgar
  3. Crossing two deserts
  4. Adventures in China
  5. The journey home
  6. Marco's book

The students should meet together in their groups to review the period in Marco's life and/or travels they have been asked to illustrate. Have them refer to the charts they filled out in the previous activities, as well as any pictures they might have drawn. You might wish to distribute copies of maps or photographs you have downloaded from websites visited during this project. Each group should decide how to illustrate their part of the mural, including physical features of the environment, local inhabitants, and, of course, a picture of Marco Polo "in action."

After the review session, instruct groups of students to begin work on their section of the mural (which you numbered in preparing the lesson). After writing a descriptive title at the top of the section (such as "Growing up in Venice"), each group will begin illustrating, using markers and other materials available. If you are working with younger students, you should write the topics on the butcher paper and let the students concentrate on their drawings.

It is not necessary to add dates, but make certain that the students understand that the passage of time proceeds from left to right, like the words in a book. When the illustrations are completed, choose a student (one with very good handwriting) to write the title ("The Life of Marco Polo" or something similar) at the beginning of the mural.

Activity 2. Marco's Book

Three years after Marco had returned home, he was involved in a war between his city, Venice, and its trading rival, Genoa. He was captured and taken prisoner. While he was locked up, he became friendly with a fellow prisoner, Rusticello (pronounced Rustichello) of Pisa, who was a writer of romance novels. Marco told the writer all about his adventures in Central Asia, China, India, and the other places he visited. Rusticello wrote down his words, and this led to the creation of Marco's book.

The book became a bestseller! However, most Europeans considered it science fiction, not fact. They couldn't believe that the places described could actually exist. They even called Marco Il Milione—because they believed he told a million lies! And yet, as Marco lay dying (he lived to be an old man, see Marco Polo), he insisted that he had only told part of what he had seen.

Incredible though his tales seemed, they did inspire a number of people to travel East to find out about this exotic land for themselves. So in this way, Marco Polo launched a whole new age of exploration.

Review the major phases of Marco's travels - his trip from Venice to Acre and the Persian Gulf, his trek along the Silk Road, his adventures in China, and his voyage home. Remind the students that the Polos were the first Europeans to go all the way to Beijing, China. To most of their friends and neighbors, that must have seemed like the end of the world. Instruct older students to make a list of those aspects of Marco's travels that might have struck the Europeans as the most far-fetched. Younger students might draw pictures of what they consider the most unusual parts of Marco's story. Afterwards, have the students share their opinions. Would they have believed Marco's stories if they had lived in Europe during his times?

Activity 3. Coming Home

After 17 years in China, Marco and his father and uncle were anxious to return to Italy. So when arrangements were being made to send a Mongol princess by the sea route to Persia, where she would marry a prince, they offered to accompany her. Kublai reluctantly gave his permission.

The sea journey took 2 years, during which 600 passengers and crew died. Marco doesn't tell us much about the circumstances, so we can only imagine what they must have been. (Were there storms at sea? Did the travelers become ill? Was there fighting with local natives? We'll never know for sure.) When the Polos finally arrived in Persia, they learned that the prince had died, so the princess married his son. They also learned of the death of Kublai Khan, who had lived to be 80. They traveled across Persia to the Black Sea, then by boat to Constantinople, then Venice.

  • Trace the route from the Persian Gulf to Venice. Remind the students that Marco Polo traveled to China along the Silk Road (Marco Polo's Route). Compare that journey to the return voyage. Ask which route seems more difficult -- and why.

Have the students fill out the chart available in .pdf format. As in earlier activities, younger students should work as a group, brainstorming under your guidance to answer the questions in the chart.

Activity 4. Adventures in China

The Polos finally arrived in China and traveled on to Shangdu, the summer capital of the great emperor of China, Kublai Khan. (Shangdu was not far from modern Beijing.)

Introduce the students to Kublai Khan by viewing the Painting of Emperor Khublai Khan available through Asia Source. Kublai was so impressed with Marco's intelligence, poise, and his skill with languages that he made him an official of his court. He sent him on missions throughout China and outlying regions, instructing him to observe carefully and to come back to relate what he had seen. Below are some of Marco's observations, which he later described in his book. Share these with your students.

  • Kublai's summer residence (Shangdu) was a huge marble palace. Its halls and chambers were all gilded with gold. It opened onto a large game park, filled with deer and exotic birds, and in the middle of this was another smaller palace. This smaller palace was made entirely of cane. It was framed with on gilded pillars, on each of which stood a carved dragon, entwining the pillar with his tail and supporting the roof on his outstretched limbs. (The dragon was one of the most important symbols in China. It was associated with good luck, the power of the emperor, and the rain that ensured a good crop for the farmers.) And the smaller palace was portable! It was held together by 200 strong cords of silk and could be taken down and removed to another place whenever the Khan wanted to do so.
  • Kublai kept a herd of 10,000 snow-white horses in Shangdu. The milk of the mares was used to make a special beverage known as koumis, which Kublai and his family consumed during special ceremonies. The white horses were so revered that when they were grazing, no one could pass through -- even the loftiest lord had to wait until they moved on.
  • Kublai Khan had a mint that made paper money from the bark of mulberry trees. Sheets of paper were cut up in rectangles of various sizes, each size worth a certain amount. Europeans of this time either traded products or used metal coins as currency. They had never heard of paper money—in fact, they didn't even have paper! (They wrote on parchment made from animal skins.)
  • The Chinese had stones that burned like logs—coal! Coal burns much longer than wood. Europeans burned wood in their fires and hadn't heard of coal. Marco noted that one of the main uses of coal was to heat public and private bath houses. He was amazed to learn that the Chinese took baths several times a week, sometimes every day. Europeans bathed much less frequently. In the winter they seldom bathed at all!
  • Kublai Khan had a very efficient system for sending messages throughout his kingdom. Relay stations were set up three miles apart, and runners would carry messages from one station to the next. With this relay system, a message could be carried the distance of a normal ten-day journal in only one day. Even faster service was available with messengers who rode horses at a gallop between stations that were 25 miles apart. This was very much like the Pony Express of the Old West. If you have obtained a copy of Fiona MacDonald's book, Marco Polo: A Journey Through China, read selected passages aloud. Call upon students to comment upon the illustrations.

Conclude this activity by having the students identify a picture of Kublai Khan and describe some of the marvels of 13th century China during the emperor's reign. Which of these marvels or inventions and practices were later used in the modern Western world? If you are working with younger students, create a large Venn Diagram on the board and brainstorm with the class to determine which items from the ancient society of Kublai Khan's China are still used in Western society today.

Activity 5. Crossing the Deserts

From Kashgar, the Polos had to cross two deserts - the Taklamakan and the Gobi.

  • The Taklamakan is Asia's driest desert, a seemingly endless wasteland of shifting sand dunes. (In the local Uighur language "Taklamakan" means "desert of no return.") The Polos followed a route that skirted the desert to the south, trekking from one isolated oasis to another.
  • After making a short loop to the south, they proceeded through the Gobi desert, Asia's largest desert. (Its name is Mongolian for "place without water.")
  • The surface of the Gobi is a thin layer of gravel, with a few rocks protruding here and there. Only tufts of rough grass can grow here. Living conditions are not much better here than in the Taklamakan.
  • Return to Marco Polo's Route. Have the students trace the route from Kashgar to Beijing.
  • To see the geographical features of this region access Topography of Eastern Asia.
  • Photos of this region can be viewed at The Silk Road—Pictures. Scroll down to the first and second photos. Call upon students to read the descriptions of the scenes and to comment upon what they see. Other scenes indicating how little travel conditions in this region have changed since the days of Marco Polo can be viewed at Electronic Passport to the Silk Road available through Asia Source. Scenes of daily life among the local inhabitants can be viewed at CSEN and Silk Road Photo Gallery, both available through Asia Source.

Now instruct the students to fill out the chart available in .pdf format. As before, younger students can do this as a group activity.

Assessment

Ask students to

  • Identify Marco Polo and explain why he took his trip
  • Trace the journey of Marco Polo from Venice to China on a map
  • Describe the challenges of traveling along the Silk Road, including the different kinds of terrain the Polos had to cross
  • List several interesting aspects of 13th century Chinese culture
  • Explain the circumstances in which Marco's book was written and point out the effect the book had upon the European public

The Basics

Time Required

9-12 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Exploration & Discovery
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Summarizing
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Suzanne Art (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media