Friday, February 20, 2015


In my ELL History class, we are moving beyond building vocabulary to reading and answering analytical questions. They are currently studying the Han Empire and were asked a question about the Silk Road on page 105 from the Pearson/ Prentice Hall World History book by Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Elser (2007).

The question is: How do you think the knowledge Zheng gained helped establish the Silk Road?

Not one of the students could answer the question based on the information in the textbook. One part that confused them understandable is that Zheng is also spelled Zhang in the textbook –I don’t know if they fixed that in later version. But the biggest problem was that the answer is not explicit in the text and therefore they needed to think about it.

The book explains using a brief primary source and historical description that Zheng Qian, a Han diplomat, was sent by Emperor Wudi to “establish contact with peoples outsides the Han empire” (104). He went all the way to India and the Roman Empire for his research.  The textbook then explains what he learned in those faraway places helped establish the trade routes of the Silk Road.

So first I asked them what supplies do you need in a school. They answered balls, pens, pencils, paper, computers, uniforms, food, drinks, etc. I then asked, “If you had never been to this school before, how would you know where these items were?”  They answered, “You would have to ask people.”  Then I asked them, “How would you tell people outside the school where they were, if they had never been to the school?” They answered, “You would have to write it out for them or draw a map.”

So they very briefly drew a map of the school as if we were giving strangers instructions, like voyagers on the Silk Road needed if they planned on trading or buying goods.

So I explained that Zheng Quian had to go to different places and talk to different people from far away regions to find out what goods they sold and needed. But one student whose parent is a diplomat said, “That’s not a diplomat’s job. His job is relationships with other countries, like politics.”  So I explained that diplomats also negotiate economic issues and gave examples of economic treaties that are negotiated between governments. I also explained that there is crossover between political and economic issues, for example sanctions.

Also, a diplomat’s job is to provide reconnaissance (not as a spy but as an information gatherer) to offer a perspective to her government.  

That’s exactly what Zheng Quian did. He told the Emperor Wudi what he saw on his journey and that there were consumers for their products. In addition, he reported on possible imports for the empire.  This drastically impacted their economy as well as created a new, eventually powerful merchant class.

Did I plan to spend 45 minutes on one homework question? No, I didn’t.  Is this particular piece of information crucial to their life? No, it’s not. However, I wanted to demonstrate and cue them on how to think through a difficult question and apply a historical concept to their own life. I wanted them to think. And for 45 minutes, they did.

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