An Ocean of Statues Comes Alive

“There is probably some stuff in there that will definitely kill you,” an Upper Schooler cryptically told a room of rapt 4th graders recently. The student was teaching the Lower Schoolers about Chinese Emperor Qinshihuang’s unopened—and possibly booby-trapped—burial chamber, which is famously surrounded by 8,000 clay soldiers intended to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The third century BCE Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, China, were discovered in 1974, but archeologists are still not confident they can unseal the burial chamber itself while also protecting what lies inside. So, until new technology comes along, Qinshihuang remains undisturbed.

The six Upper School students in the Advanced Chinese seminar acted as Lower School teachers for an afternoon as they shared their knowledge of the Terracotta Warriors with the 4th grade classes, who are currently also studying ancient China. The Upper School students have a special relationship with the Terracotta Army Museum in Shaanxi, China. The class had five live virtual field trips to the museum, as well as four Zoom calls with content experts on the ground. “We are very grateful to Professor Dong and her staff at the museum for sharing so much of their time and expertise in giving our students this extraordinary experience,” said Chinese teacher Qihui Tang. “It was a chance for students to do interdisciplinary research, archived in portfolios of their work.”

Working in rotating teams, the Upper School students taught the 4th graders about the tomb’s history, discovery, and preservation, as well as some of the language. The warriors, for example, are called bin ma yong in Chinese. When the Upper Schoolers displayed the characters on a screen, hands shot up as the students recognized the words for “soldier,” “horse,” and “tomb.” The 4th graders were particularly impressed that the Upper Schoolers got to meet with the researchers on the ground in China. “Why don’t we get to do that?” asked one student. Jamie Tomik, a 4th grade teacher, assured the class it was something they could look forward to in Upper School (“That’s, like, forever,” sighed a 4th grader). Unsurprisingly, when the Upper Schoolers opened the floor for questions, they were inundated. Students asked about what colors adorned the now-faded statues (they were painted just about every vibrant color you can think of—except yellow, as that was a shade reserved for the emperor himself); the size of the massive site (about the same size as Disneyland!); and, of course, that mysterious, unopened tomb (which may have booby traps).

Any time the Upper School visits their young Quaker counterparts, it is a treat, giving the Lower Schoolers a glimpse of what awaits them when they take their places on the Wisconsin Avenue campus. Allowing students to become teachers also deepens their own understanding of the subject matter, as they have to think on their feet, particularly when it comes to answering some of the students’ questions. (To wit: “Do we know exactly what will kill you if you open the tomb?”)

“We hope that this experiment in student portfolios can help us to continue to explore innovative methods of learning, both in and out of the classroom,” said Tang. “Especially during the pandemic, when travel and experiential learning programs are so difficult, the museum’s innovative virtual field trips filled the gap beautifully. But the project was about much more than virtual field trips; it was also really fun for the students to learn and share together.”

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