Fallen City

PBS Premiere: July 28, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Memorializing Tragedy

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In this lesson, students explore how tragedies, such as the 2008 earthquake that devastated China's mountain city of Beichuan, are or can be memorialized in a sensitive, inclusive and meaningful manner through museums, landmarks and other types of memorials.

The video clips provided with this lesson are from Fallen City, a film by director Qi Zhao that explores the lives of three families who survived, but suffered terrific losses during the devastating 2008 earthquake that destroyed the mountain city of Beichuan. While the city is being rebuilt, the journey from the ruined old city of Beichuan to the new Beichuan nearby is long and heartbreaking for the survivors. They struggle with loss--most strikingly the loss of children and grandchildren--and feelings of loneliness, fear and dislocation that no amount of propaganda can disguise. First-time director Qi Zhao offers an intimate look at a country torn between tradition and modernity.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Differentiate among various types of museums, landmarks, memorials and so on
  • Assess the impact of museums and memorials that center on disasters and tragedies
  • Examine different points of view regarding the role of museums and landmarks in memorializing tragedy and disasters
  • Articulate how museums and similar institutions can best memorialize disasters and tragedies
  • Formulate ideas for a venue that memorializes disasters, tragedies and related themes




Language Arts
Social Studies
Current Events


  • Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
  • LCD projector
  • Self-adhesive chart paper
  • Masking or painter's tape
  • Oak tag or chart paper cut into strips; on each strip, write a statement or question listed on the Quotation Sheet (use all or select a few). Post the strips around the classroom. (ALTERNATIVE METHOD: Small groups read and discuss the statements/questions, distributed as a document.)


One 50-minute class period (though extended time may be helpful to delve more deeply into the topic)


Clip 1: Getting Away From That (Length: 2:39)
This clip begins at 1:05:54 with a text card that reads, "Mr. Peng and his wife lived in Beichuan." It ends at 1:08:33 with Mr. Peng saying, "She left town to get away from that."

Clip 2: Never Forget My Father (Length: 2:59)
The clip begins at 11:08:44 with Hong saying, "A stepfather cannot be the real father." It ends at 1:11:43 when Hong says, "Because they are just some man to man things."

Clip 3: The Doll Cheers Me Up (Length 1:37)
The clip begins at 1:12:09 with Li Guihua saying, "I think I have seen through life already." It ends at 01:13:46 when Li Guihua says, "The doll cheers me up."

Clip 4: Earthquake Aftermath as Museum (Length: 0:42)
The clip begins at 01:42:35 with a text card that reads, "The old Beichuan becomes the earthquake museum." It ends at 01:43:17 with a broadcast voice saying, "With the support of our society, residents here are embracing a better future."

Clip 5: Rebuilding (Length: 0:43)
The clip begins at 01:14:37 with News 60-Minute broadcasting, "The May 12th earthquake destroyed Beichuan City." It ends at 01:15:20 with the statement "As the new city grows, people can look forward to a promising new life."

Clip 6: Brand New (Length: 0:40)
The clip begins at 01:19:24 with a newscaster saying, "A brand new Beichuan city covers 38.7 square miles." It ends at: 01:20:04 with the statement "Tax is around 200 million yuan, which is three times that of the old Beichuan."

Clip 7: Community No More? (Length: 0:22) The clip begins 01:20:06 with Li Guihua asking "Which way shall we go?" It ends at 01:20:28, when a neighbor says, "We'll never see it again."


1. Ask each student to name a favorite museum, landmark, or memorial and describe its primary focus. Chart their contributions in a way that categorizes themes. Discuss with students the various types and focal points of museums, landmarks and memorials.

2. Have students reflect on how they interact with museums, landmarks and memorials that highlight tragedies, natural disasters and other emotion-provoking and sometimes hard-to-fathom occurrences. Prompts:

  • How do you feel?
  • What do you learn?
  • How are the exhibits and displays at these institutions different from those you have seen in other types of museums?

3. Tell students they are going to spend a few minutes learning about the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in China that destroyed the mountain city of Beichuan. Provide additional details about the catastrophe and the film's focus.

4. Distribute and review with students the graphic organizer Memorializing Tragedy. Tell students that as they watch the clips, they should take notes in response to the chart's descriptors, or they can fill in grid sections after each clip.

5. Show Clip 1: Getting Away From That (Length: 2:39); Clip 2: Never Forget My Father (Length: 2:59); and Clip 3: The Doll Cheers Me Up (Length 1:37). Briefly review with students the thoughts they noted on their charts.

6. Show Clip 4: Earthquake Aftermath as Museum (Length: 1:22). Additionally, share images from the museum: http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/06/beichuan-preserved-ruins-of-earthquake.html

7. Probe with students their thoughts about and response to the earthquake museum in Beichuan. Sample prompts:

  • Is creating a museum like this the right thing to do? Explain.
  • Why memorialize a tragedy in this way? Why would someone choose to keep the ruins as a museum?
  • Does the museum make heard the voices of those affected by the disaster? Explain why or why not.
  • Does the museum reflect the true stories of victims and survivors? How?

8. Instruct students to move around the room and read the various statements and questions posted. Give them 5 to 10 minutes to read and reflect. After students have read each card, ask each of them to stand near the statement/question that most closely reflects his or her thoughts on how to memorialize tragedies and to be prepared to share why he or she connects with that selection. (If time permits, share with students some websites depicting the range of museums and memorials that center on difficult themes. Include the recently created National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.)

9. Point out that, as students probably noticed when reading the quotations, having museums and similar institutions present tragedies and disasters is sometimes a point of contention. Ask the students what they believe should be reflected in an exhibit, museum or memorial that is centered on a tragedy or disaster and how to include the different voices in the creation of such memorials. Share with students the following quote from a blog post about a panel discussion at the 2012 American Alliance of Museums conference that raises the question of the purpose of memorialization:

  • And a question for us about what the take-away message of memorials and memorial museums could or should be. As a group, we tried to puzzle out an answer. The first phase of a project might be memorialization, often driven by what the victims feel is appropriate. The second might be education--just that our audiences gain basic knowledge and facts. But the third stage is how we inspire action, how to ensure that we, as individuals, as I somewhat inelegantly phrased it, make a decision about whether we are Oskar Schindler or wimps. (Source: http://uncatalogedmuseum.blogspot.com/2012/05/memorials-museums-and-future-because.html)

Discuss with students, using some or all of the following prompts:

  • Is a museum or landmark an appropriate tool to memorialize tragedies?
  • If yes, what should the focus be? If the focus should be education, toward what end goal? If the focus should be thinking about the victims, what is the purpose of thinking about the victims? For example, is it designed to prevent this from happening again?
  • Should there be an admission fee? If yes, where should that money go?
  • Should there be a gift shop?
  • Should this type of museum or landmark exist at all? What are other ways to think about the tragedy, to bring people together, to make reparations and so on?

Ask students whether they will now approach these and other types of museums and memorials with a more critical eye toward messaging, purpose and design.

10. Choose one of the following two tasks:

  • OPTION A: Have student groups revisit the Beichuan memorial to discuss how it might be designed or focused differently, or how the one that is in place might be built upon to ensure that it reflects and includes the various historic, communal, individual, political and familial perspectives raised in the film. Students can write their ideas and/or draw their designs on chart paper.
  • OPTION B: Ask students to discuss/design some type of memorial (physical or otherwise) representing a tragedy, disaster or related event in their community or elsewhere (for example, the Boston Marathon bombing), or rethink museums, memorials or similar institutions in their communities. Students can write their ideas and/or draw their designs on chart paper.

11. Invite groups to share their design thoughts, noting which elements they considered and included in their models.


Rebuilding and Recovery: The Human Perspective
Students explore the human element of tragedies, delving into what it means to rebuild and recover as a person and the elements that are at the core of such personal regeneration.

Discuss with students:

  • What is the range of trauma people experience during a tragedy or disaster? How do people exhibit that trauma?
  • How do people recover from tragedies and trauma?
  • What is important when it comes to moving through the recovery process? What happens if proper support and guidance are absent?

Sources to inform guide instruction and learning:

The Importance of Community
Students can discuss the role of community in individuals' lives and what happens when community is lost, either through a natural disaster or through other situations that separate a person from the community to which he or she was closest.

Have students consider how a community can be rebuilt in ways that balance history with newness, the latter a result of actual physical rebuilding. Show Clip 5: Rebuilding (Length: 0:43); Clip 6: Brand New (Length: 0:40); and Clip 7: Community No More? (Length: 0:22).

Probe: How can the past and current community be joined? How can those who have lost a community contribute to its rebuilding?

Students can examine the rebuilding of Beichuan after the earthquake and whether a balance of past and present was achieved. They also can reflect on other events, such as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The following sites speak to the issue of rebuilding devastated communities:

Memorials and Meaning
Students can research local, regional, national and/or international memorials (museums and beyond) to learn why they were created and what they memorialize. Ask students to compare and contrast the various ways these memorials have dealt with the events that inspired them, including presentation, admission fees and gift shops.


921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan

The Atlantic: "Sichuan Earthquake: Five Years Later"

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution

International Council of Museums (ICOM): Disaster Site Museums

MassLive.com: "Boston Strong 2014: City Grapples with How to Memorialize Tragedy of 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings"



Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • SL.11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
  • SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
  • RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas or events interact and develop over the course of the text.
  • RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
  • RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Content Knowledge: a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

  • Behavioral Studies, Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior
  • Behavioral Studies, Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions
  • Family/Consumer Sciences: Living Environments, Standard 6: Understand how knowledge and skills related to living environments affect the well-being of individuals, families and society
  • Arts and Communication, Role of Culture, Standard 4: Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
  • Working with Others, Benchmark 2: Works cooperatively within a group to complete tasks, achieve goals and solve problems
  • Working with Others, Benchmark 10: Actively listens to the ideas of others and asks clarifying questions

Michele Israel owns Educational Writing & Consulting (www.micheleisrael.com), where she works with large and small educational, nonprofit and media organizations to bolster products and programs. Her rich career spans over 25 years of successful experience developing educational materials and resources, designing and facilitating training, generating communication materials and grant proposals and assisting in organizational and program development. Her long list of clients includes the Public Broadcasting Service, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Teaching Tolerance, Aspiranet, the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, WETA Public Television, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and the Harm Reduction Coalition.