Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results. – John Dewey

The Forbidden City has never looked better! In just a few days the scale model of the Forbidden City will be ready for a public viewing. The children thoughtfully and meticulously chose and researched vocabulary words related to the Forbidden City and designed an “Alphabet Book.” Creating “The Alphabet Book” is not only fun for the students, it was an opportunity to see first-hand how kindergarten and first grade students begin to master the writing process.

A page from the Alphabet Book.

Step #1 The Discovery Process

As the students gathered around Carla Johnson; their first task was to select a letter or word and begin the illustration of the Alphabet book. What could be used to ignite their thinking and help them make thoughtful choices? Although Carla was there to guide them through the process, they formulated their own ideas as they set about their task. For inspiration, they could refer to the “Word Wall”, and a wide variety of printed materials – so much for young learners to choose from!

Mission Hill School alums, Taylor Emerson and Charles Johnson, both worked on the project.

Step 2- Focus on Details
With their idea in mind, the students initiated the writing process which begins with creating an illustration. Sometimes students are attracted to the boldness of the color of markers; however, beginning with pencil allows time to process information, express ideas and thoughtfully sketch details. With each step, they become more invested in the writing process.

Children of different ages work together.

Step 3- Bringing Images to Life
The students made informed choices as they moved from regular pencils to colored pencils. Interesting connections and evolving considerations are the natural outcome of this step of the process. At this step, students are eager to show what they have accomplished.

Step 4- Opportunity to Explore
While colored pencils bring life to an illustration, watercolors provide students with an opportunity to master using a brush and experiment with a different medium.

The finished Meridian Gate.

Step 5- Final Touches and Public Display
Once the watercolors have dried, the end product is nearly ready for public display. Young students are excited and anxious to know when their work will be available for everyone to see. And what a display it will be thanks to the superb work of two highly talented and respected teachers, Ms Nancy Yang, Boston Latin School and Confucius Institute Chinese language, and Ms Lucy Zahner Montgomery, co author of the children’s book “Malindi’s Journey”, and history teacher at Brighton High School. They spent the afternoon at Mission Hill writing the calligraphy for the Forbidden City A-Z Alphabet Book, and I had the good fortune to observe and document their artistry in practice.

Lucy and Nancy working together on calligraphy.

They used several references: the on-line Chinese-English dictionary for the most accurate translation, and a site that includes audio pronunciation as the stroke order for characters. Both are excellent sites for students to learn the development and practice of Chinese language skills.

The process of creating the calligraphy panels.

I was fascinated by the process Nancy and Lucy used, and it was evident both calligraphers used similar steps and processes that the children used to create their alphabet pictures. Before they wrote the final calligraphy on the pictures, they first wrote the characters with pencil on a practice paper (allowing them to practice the strokes and scale of the characters). They then re-wrote the character with black ink on the same paper to get the feel of the marker pen when writing each stroke, and ended by writing the character on to the alphabet page.

Nancy and Alicia.

Nancy Yang, calligrapher and educator, teaches Chinese language at Boston Latin School and at University of Massachusetts’ Confucius Center.

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Three Important Words…

Greetings from Malindi’s Journey: The Forbidden City!

Students are starting to place palaces and trees into the city.

Three Important Words…

Students of the Mission Hill School added three new words to their vocabulary:  Chang jing ly, twiga and zurafa. These words mean giraffe in Chinese, Swahili and Arabic!  And, they used three critical thinking concepts when considering the geographic territory of Malindi’s story, i.e., to question, to listen, and to observe.

The core of my planning and teaching with young learners is creating an organic balance between the skills and knowledge essential to learning, and leveraging the natural curiosity and sense of discovery present in this age group.  During Family Night at Mission Hill School, I prepped the session by asking:

…how best can I affirm the academic knowledge students have already learned?

…how best can I scaffold the curriculum in a way that is respectful of a range of learners?

Family Nights at Mission Hill School give parents a glimpse in to the learning that is going on with their children.  I also have the privilege of getting better acquainted with students and parents through Family Nights.  In the February meeting, I took the opportunity to do some informal pre-assessment of the students by posing some questions. I first asked, “What have you learned about ancient China?” This achieves two purposes, i.e., discerning what the students have learned to date, and helping me to choose the information supporting their continued learning. The second question, “What words do you think are important for other people to know about ancient China?”, is a great segue in to the first words for our project’s Forbidden City Word Wall.  The last question, “What questions do you have related to the Forbidden City?” uses the student’s innate curiosity to spur further learning. This was evident by just a few questions the students asked: “What was in the Forbidden City? Why were the walls so high? Why was there a moat? What materials did they use to build it?” All great questions and we were well on our way!

Paraprofessional, Carla Johnson is working with a group of students who are illustrating The Forbidden City A - Z Alphabet Book.

I focused on creating an infrastructure that encouraged mixed-age group learners to work, create, and learn together.  Students range in ages from five to eleven years old.  Each group has the opportunity to work in the space for about forty-five minutes.  The students have many rich and varied experiences by building, creating cooperatively, asking questions, and problem solving together. Mathematical concepts are always embedded into the building process. I begin the approach to mathematics through related literacy. Students travel through a corridor to get to the building space which is flanked on one side by their “Word Wall”, and on the other side by the mural of the “Nine Dragon Wall”.  This enticing configuration introduces geography, historical figures, and elements of the story before entering the building space.  As students and I approach Mission Hill’s Forbidden City room, we are learning from both Walls while I am telling the story of Malindi’s Journey to China.

Resident artist Kenneth Charles Faldez working with 4th & 5th graders on the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City.

After entering the construction space of Mission Hill’s “Forbidden City”, we begin with a shared reading of Forbidden City, a poem by Nikki Grimes from her book Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China We follow this with a ‘mindfulness’ minute of thoughtful reflection and breathing.  Students have an opportunity to work on the construction of the city model each time they enter the room.  While students are building, they also ask questions of each other, such as How do you think we can….? They are constantly working out theories, solving constructions problems, and working together. In one instance, a cooperative group discussion focused on which blocks should be used for the outer walls and the inner walls.

Alicia Carroll talking to students about mindfulness.

Alicia Carroll is modeling how to "wake up" the bell.

As they are building, I listen, observe, and take notes. Mission Hill students have rich and extensive experience building, ask excellent questions, and are creative problem solvers. They try out different theories and are comfortable figuring things out together. The younger students offer suggestions while the older students guide younger students to solve problems.  The workshop ends with my reading aloud The Great Voyages of Zheng He by Song Nan Zhang and Hao Yu Zhang.  Time is given to reflect on this relevant work. Once they return to their classrooms, the learning and excitement continues as pairs of students read Malindi’s Journey by Alicia Carroll and Lucy Montgomery.

Craig Martin 4th - 5th grade teacher from the Nathan Hale School works with students building palace walls.

The Forbidden City Project brings world history to life for Mission Hill School students.  Many of us are familiar with the Silk Road trading system that stretches overland from China to Europe. Teachers in the United States are less familiar with the city-states and ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean linking ports on the Swahili coast with ports on the Arabian Peninsula, India, Sri Lanka and China.  Our story begins at Malindi, one of the city states that punctuated the Swahili coast stretching from Mogadishu in present day Somalia, to Sofala in Mozambique.  Malindi was an independent city-state.  Its history stretches back in time first as a bustling port. Its trade connections spanned the Indian Ocean and extended ultimately to China.  This project has taken an important and significant piece of history and created a story to enhance global and trans-disciplinary learning.  In my book, I have named the giraffe at the heart of this story Malindi as a reminder of its place of origin. To find out more about this period in the China/ Swahili coast connection, there are two books that treat the topic very well;When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes, and Arab Seafaring by George F. Hourani.

The Forbidden City drawing by kindergarten student Omar. His family is from the East African coast.

Thanks to the efforts of two project advisors, Dr. Atman Omar Lali, Academic Director, School for International Training, Mombasa, Kenya; and Dr. Barbara Brown, Director of Africa Outreach Program, Boston University, Malindi’s Journey: The Forbidden City has connected with two schools in Malindi, Kenya. I would like to extend a warm welcome to Mariam Alwy at Silversands Academy and Allan Yaa at Malindi Town Primary School. They will be following our blog with their students.

Until the next update,
Alicia Carroll

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Malindi Journey: The Forbidden City Project – Malindi Sets Sail

February 1, 2012

Greetings from Malindi’s Journey: The Forbidden City,




Ten years ago while teaching at Mission Hill School, I had the opportunity to travel to China. That’s when my curiosity about trade connections between China and the Swahili City States began. During this past summer I returned to China and I realized that I had to continue the story of Malindi’s journey into the Forbidden City.


Early in my planning, I hoped to collaborate with teachers at Young Achievers School for Math and Science and Mission Hill K-8. Although the staff at Young Achievers was enthusiastic about this new venture, unforeseen challenges emerged. Important components of this project were planned for public spaces and we realized that the layout of YA could not accommodate these projects. Mission Hill k-8 has long wide hallways, making it an ideal space for extending learning beyond the traditional four walls of many classrooms. 


Being at Mission Hill for this project is a bit like a family reunion. Former Mission Hill students, Taylor Emerson and Charles Johnson, will be interning on this project and Carla Johnson, a former Mission Hill staff member, will be collaborating with me as we extend this project to the afterschool program.  



Each year Mission Hill k-8 students study an ancient civilization. This year’s ancient civilization focus is ancient China. Malindi’s Journey: the Forbidden City compliments the school’s thematic focus. While every class will contribute to the building of TheForbidden City, each class has chosen different aspects of Chinese culture to focus on.


On February 13th, I will launch this project, beginning with the art of African oral storytelling and puppetry in the K-1/Grade 1 classrooms. Afterschool I’ll be collaborating with Carla Johnson to guide students as they create a Big Book titled Malindi’s Journey: The Forbidden City A-Z Alphabet Book.  On Mondays, Roxbury artist, Kenneth Charles Faldasz and Charles Johnson will work with students, teachers, the after school program and families creating a mural based on the nine dragon wall on the first floor. Patreka Wood will be working with Nakia Keizer to set up the blog that will connect students in East Africa, China and The Mission Hill School.


This project has been designed to align with Common Core Standards. Teachers and paraprofessionals from across the city are welcome to visit and observe this project as it develops. Connie Henry from the BPS math department will help us align the Common Core math and the k-5 Investigations math curriculum to the mural and the building of the Forbidden City Project to scale.In my next update I’ll share my thinking focused on the integration of mathematical concepts. If you are in the area, please feel free to join in and contribute your time, talent and enthusiasm.


Until the next update,

Alicia Carroll

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