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.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
Special Materials for Mural/Timeline
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now instruct the students to fill out the chart available in .pdf format. As before, younger students can do this as a group activity.
Ask students to
9-12 class periods