Ancient Sumer and the Beginnings of Civilization

8th Grade Social Studies

This lesson is meant to serve as a transition from the first cities of humanity and into the world of Ancient Mesopotamia.  This lesson serves to teach students the value of artists renderings versus the use of tradition evidence.

Requisite Knowledge:

  • A working knowledge of the origins of the first cities.
  • The lifestyles of nomadic peoples and city dwellers.

Learning targets:

  • Contextualization

Learning Segment Goal:

Students will apply their precious knowledge of early humanity to answer questions that focus on the comparison between the Sumerian City Dwellers and the Nomadic Shepherds of the Middle East.  Students will also begin to question what makes a primary source valuable and what place speculation has in history and archaeology.

Part 1: Shelter

Students will begin the class by looking at these two images that would be projected onto the board.

Image 1
Image 1
Bedouin Tent
Image 2

After looking at these two images, the students will be asked a series of questions that pertain to who lived in these societies and why they chose to live there.  Possible questions could include:

  • What kind of people do you think lived in each?
  • What is the main difference you see between the two images to the side?
  • Why do you think some individuals decided to live in Image 1 and not Image 2?

Simply put these two images depict ways of life that have existed simultaneously since the Neolithic era: those of the city-dwellers and the nomadic peoples.  Though more pronounced in the days of Sumer, these two groups have co-existed since ancient days.  By looking at these pictures, the goal is to teach the students about function of architecture and how that relates to the way we choose to live our lives.

Part 2: Food

This section of the lesson is meant to teach the students about how the choice of food for a society can affect the way they live, beyond dietary and health reasons.  Again the students will be called to look at a pair of images.  This time however, the students will be asked to match the appropriate images from part one.  On the projector, all four images should be displayed.

Image A
Image A
Shepherds Life Style
Image B

After the students match the images individually, they will present their choices to the class.  Once the correct answers are established, the teacher will ask questions pertaining to what is in the image and how it pertains to the images of shelter in the previous section.  Possible questions include:

  • What are pictured in the above images?
  • Why would the people in both images choose to live in either form of shelter?  What are the advantages of moving? What are the advantages of staying in the same place?

The purpose of these questions should be to get the learner to examine the cause and effect relationship that is food and shelter.

Part 3: Contextualizing Sources

This final portion of the lesson is meant to serve as an introduction in to historical methodology by utilizing the images/sources we have just used.  The teacher would open up the section by asking if the students have noticed anything about the majority of the images.  The answer to this is that most of the images are not photographs but drawings or renderings of objects.  The following questions will then be asked of the students:

  • Why aren’t actual photographs of the city of Ur useful for learning about it?
  • Why are artist renderings useful as when we compare things from thousands of years ago?

Two final images will be presented in conjunction with Image 1 and 2 of part 1. These images show either an actual photograph or artists depiction.

Image 3
Image 3
Image 4
Image 4

By comparing these new images to the old ones, students should begin to understand that while actual physical evidence is key to our understanding of what has happened in the past, artist renderings allow us to fill in the blanks (in an academic sense) by literally filling in the blanks.By seeing beyond the ruins and to what was once there, we begin to see the scope of what life was like.


Image 1:

Image 2:

Image A:

Image B:

Image 3:

Image 4:


While designing this lesson, I became acutely aware that contextualizing is not truly apparent in the first two sections of the lesson.  Instead I have come to understand that the academic knowledge that the students are learning will allow me to transition into a more direct discussion on how and why a primary source is to be considered viable.  By familiarizing the students with the sources beforehand,  I think this makes the final section more understandable and applicable in their eyes.

Yellow River Rulers: The Spiritual and Logical foundations of Chinese Rule

An Illistration from a Japanese Edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms
An Illustration from a Japanese Edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By: Benjamin Heebner

Target Students: 6th Grade

Historical Thinking Skills: Contextualization, Close Reading

Essential Question: What are the foundations of the right to rule for Chinese Emperors?

Rationale: The scaffolding questions are based around the comparison and contrasting Chinese, Sumerian, and Indian religious practices and how they relate to the right to rule on a graphic organizer. Using this as the base point Students will make a guess about how the Chinese will use religion to legitimize their Right to Rule. This activity is based on the previous information that the students are worked on in class already. In addition  a close reading of the Mandate of Heaven, the logical manifesto of the Chinese Right to Rule will be done after the comparison and contrasting activity in order to either affirm of dis affirm their guess.

Primary Sources:

In the twelfth month of the first year… Yi Yin sacrificed to the former king, and presented the heir-king reverently before the shrine of his grandfather. All the princes from the domain of the nobles and the royal domain were present; all the officers also, each continuing to discharge his particular duties, were there to receive the orders of the chief minister. Yi Yin then clearly described the complete virtue of the Meritorious Ancestor for the instruction of the young king.

He said, “Oh! of old the former kings of Xia cultivated earnestly their virtue, and then there were no calamities from Heaven. The spirits of the hills and rivers alike were all in tranquility; and the birds and beasts, the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed their existence according to their nature. But their descendant did not follow their example, and great Heaven sent down calamities, employing the agency of our ruler- who was in possession of its favoring appointment. The attack on Xia may be traced to the orgies in Ming Tiao… Our king of Shang brilliantly displayed his sagely prowess; for oppression he substituted his generous gentleness; and the millions of the people gave him their hearts. Now your Majesty is entering on the inheritance of his virtue; — all depends on how you commence your reign. To set up love, it is For you to love your relations; to set up respect, it is for you to respect your elders. The commencement is in the family and the state….

“Oh! the former king began with careful attention to the bonds thar hold men together. He listened to expostulation, and did not seek to resist it; he conformed to the wisdom of the ancients; occupying the highest position, he displayed intelligence; occupying an inferior position, he displayed his loyalty; he allowed the good qualities of the men whom he employed and did not seek that they should have every talent….

“He extensively sought out wise men, who should be helpful to you, his descendant and heir. He laid down the punishments for officers, and warned those who were in authority, saying, ‘If you dare to have constant dancing in your palaces, and drunken singing in your chambers, — that is called the fashion of sorcerers; if you dare to see your hearts on wealth and women, and abandon yourselves to wandering about or to the chase, — thar is called the fashion of extravagance; if you dare to despise sage words, to resist the loyal and upright, to put far from you the aged and virtuous, and to seek the company of…youths, — that is called the fashion of disorder. Now if a high noble or officer be addicted to one of these three fashions with their ten evil ways, his family will surely come to ruin; if the prince of a country be so addicted, his state will surely come to ruin. The minister who does not try to correct such vices in the sovereign shall be punished with branding.’…

“Oh! do you, who now succeed to the throne, revere these warnings in your person. Think of them! — sacred counsels of vast importance, admirable words forcibly set forth! The ways of Heaven are not invariable: — on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries. Do you but be virtuous, be it in small things or in large, and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you not be virtuous, be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple.”

The Mandate of Heaven, Selections from the Shu Jing (The Classics of History) (6th Cen. B.C.E.) Retrieved from Link on 9/30/15.


Ox Scapula at the National Museum of China
Ox Scapula at the National Museum of China
Ancient Ziggurat in Iraq
Ancient Ziggurat in Iraq
Qin Shi Haung: First Emperor of China
Qin Shi Haung: First Emperor of China

Scaffolding Questions:

  1. What emphasis could the Ancient Chinese be placing on the role of religion and the supernatural in Chinese society if they do not have large temples like the Sumerians, and Indians did?
  2. Look at the illustration of Qin Shi Huang, what do you notice about the clothing that he is wearing? It is similar to the illustrations of Egyptian Pharaohs, Sumerian Kings, and Indian Rulers that we have seen in class so far?
  3. How does the Mandate of Heaven stand up to the Written Laws of the Sumerians in explaining why a King should rule?
  4. What does the Mandate of Heaven tell us about the role of the supernatural in Ancient China? Does this change the answer to the question above? If yes then please explain the change.

Summary and Reflection: During this lesson students will be tasked with first refreshing their background information by reminding them about the information that we have gone over in classes before. Then by asking the first two scaffolding questions the students will have the chance to compare their previous knowledge with the new Chinese information that we are introducing in class. Once we have gone over first two scaffolding questions I will have the students Close Read the Mandate of Heaven. During the close reading students will focus on taking margin notes and once they have finished the notes they will answer the last two scaffolding questions on the Close Reading sheet to show their understanding of what it meant to be the ruler in Ancient China.

I found the SHEG model to be informative in forming questions that allow me to see what my students are thinking and show that they get the concepts that I want them to see as well. It serves as a nice model to base what particulars I want my students to focus in on as they navigate the waters of Primary and secondary sources. In particular while the skills and questions that they promote are more suited for non ancient history classes it is a format that allows me to do a lot even though there are very few Primary sources to draw upon. I will use the SHEG model in the future when I need to do primary source analysis in my classes since the format makes primary sources more than a question and answer session and allows students to show their interaction with the source itself.

Image Credits:

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Sangokushi- Gentoku Woodblock Print. Licensed under Public Domain in the United States.

Shang Dynasty Inscribed Scapula from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Atribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Ancient Ziggurat from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Atribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Artist Depiction of Qin Shi Huang from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Public Domain in the United States.

Aspects of Civilization

Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 30008819 Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

Class background: My class is a 6th Grade Language Arts and Social Studies block in the morning. The goals for my CT and myself are to arm these students with the skills to excel in the remaining years of Middle School and eventually High School.

Content: The goal of the lesson is that students will be able to identify and describe the main characteristics of civilizations, in general, as identified in the History Alive! Text (chp.5). These characteristics are a stable food supply, social structure, system of government, religious system, the arts, technological advances and writing.

Process: This activity will occur over 2 hour class periods.

  • Class 1
    • Go over the instructions and expectations of the lesson with the students 20 min.
      • Model behavior and quality standards.
    • Break students into the groups that they were in for the Sumerian City-States activity. 1.5 min.
      • In their Groups Students will:
        • Determine which member of the group is doing which characteristic of civilization from those above
        • Brainstorm amenities
        • Connect amenities to their chosen aspect of civilization
      • Brainstorming within these groups will need to be recorded within their Social Studies Comp. Books. 45 min.
    • Class 2
      • Remind Students about the Instructions and expectations for this assignment. 5 min.
      • Students will write a paragraph in their Social Studies comp. book about the amenity they created in the previous period.
      • Once done will either finish up any unfinished block work or read their silent reading book. 55 min.

Product: The product from this activity will be the notes from the Brainstorming session and the paragraph, both of which will be in their social studies comp book.

Evaluation: Students before they turn in their work will be expected to self-evaluate their performance in the group activity and the content of their writing on the same rubric that I will use to grade them.

  • The lesson will be out of 30 points:
  • 2 sections of 5 points each for focus and participation in the brainstorming session
  • 2 sections of 10 points each for the notes and paragraph.
  • The notes can be taken in any method that they chose as long as they take notes that are uniform in formatting and concise.
  • The paragraph will be graded for English conventions, and how well the chosen aspect of civilization is integrated into their city amenity.
What kinds of thinking will students need to do to participate in the lesson?

Students will have to evaluate the relevancy of the many pieces that make up civilization to first their main aspect and once again to relate their specific amenity to that aspect. the brainstorming session is designed to facilitate the evaluating process, and the paragraph to solidify the evaluations made.

To what extent do students have options or choices regarding these lesson components?

Students have the choice of the aspect of Civilization they want to go deeper into and then once they have chosen their aspect they have the choice of what amenity they want to relate to that aspect. I will have a list of sample amenities for students that are having problems deciding what to do.


My CT and I have similar understandings on how the classroom should work. The largest job that we have in the class is providing a solid foundation for the students as they transition from 6th grade to 7th and beyond. In doing this we place a heavy emphasis on group thinking paired with individual reading or writing so that they feel comfortable helping each other while knowing that if they make their group work time socialization time we can easily transition into silent work time that allows for more 1 to 1 help between the student and us.

I feel like the approach that we take in the Language Arts and Social Studies block is one of the better ways to approach teaching the humanities and I wish that I had a class like this back when I was in school. I feel like the best part of it is how in Language Arts we focus on a primary source that comes from the place and time period that we are in the History Alive! text making the entire block a time to explore a time period through different lenses. Seeing the students want to read the Epic of Gilgamesh makes me optimistic about the future integration of the Language Arts and Social Studies class.

In Social Studies the approach is to have them take a certain type of notes for their social studies comp book, give them 2 or more days in class to complete them, and then we have an group work activity that summarizes the information that is in the text. I like this because it allows them to develop both their group work and note taking skills with frequent feedback and support from us.

Image Credit:
Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 30008819
Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)