The Forbidden City Project is an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum focused on the study of the Forbidden City during the Ming Dynasty. This project is used as a vehicle for standards-based learning in a range of academic disciplines in the classroom. In Boston, this project is an example of how thematic interdisciplinary project-based learning can meet the goals of Boston Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson’s Acceleration Agenda for Boston Public Schools. The superintendent’s vision for our school district is for students to have a “love of learning, view the world as a classroom without walls, think critically about the issues within it, and acknowledge and respect people with diverse backgrounds, histories and perspectives.” This vision speaks directly to the need for culturally relevant teaching and curriculum. The Acceleration Agenda for our district targets specific areas for closing the achievement gap in our district, including reading by end of grade 1, reading to learn by grade 3, skillful analytical writing, and use of academic language.
The Forbidden City Project in Boston is based at the Mission Hill K-8 School, a pilot school of the Boston Public Schools. Students in in grades K2-5 are participating in the project. These students are familiar with the Forbidden City and Malindi’s story through their recent school-wide curricular study of ancient China.
Malindi’s Journey, a children’s book authored by Alicia Carroll and Lucy Zahner Montgomery (both of Boston Public Schools), is the springboard and centerpiece for teaching and learning about the Forbidden City in this project. Malindi’s Journey tells the story of the gift of a giraffe from the Kingdom of Malindi (in present-day Kenya) to the Yong Le Emperor of China in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty. A key event in the story is the presentation of the giraffe by the African ambassadors to the Emperor at the Imperial Court. The arrival of the giraffe was seen as an auspicious sign for the Emperor, who commissioned a painting and a poem to mark the occasion. The giraffe remains a symbol today of international friendship and good diplomatic ties between China and African countries.
Malindi the giraffe is a central character, and leads the children in their study of the Yong Le Emperor, China and the Forbidden City in the 15th Century. Malindi takes the children on a learning expedition of the different palaces and halls inside the Forbidden City. Through their learning about these locations, the students learn about the Emperors of China and their way of life. Emperors of China were highly literate; they were scholars, philosophers and artists; cultivation of the inner self was seen as important as cultivation of the outer self. The history and culture of the Forbidden City and its inhabitants are the vehicle for students’ learning in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, history, art, writing and literacy, as well as the mind-body connection through health and wellness. For example, an investigation of the Forbidden City architecture allows students to explore geometric attributes and relationships and problem solving by applying their understanding of measurement, numbers and operations to real-world mathematical problems. Students visit the Theatre of Pleasant Sounds and the Hall for Viewing Opera; here they experience and learn about the Beijing Opera, shadow puppetry, and other traditional Chinese performance art. Investigations of the various halls and palaces that the Emperor used for mental and intellectual cultivation and important ceremonies (i.e., Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Earthly Tranquility), serve as the vehicle for learning health and wellness skills including physical fitness (tai chi) and mental fitness (meditation and mindfulness skills); it also provides a unique opportunity to integrate language skills, literacy, writing and art through a study of calligraphy and poetry. Literacy and writing are woven throughout the entire unit, as students document their learning and prepare final products that incorporate writing, art and presentations.