Lesson Plan: Images of Change

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This lesson plan is designed to be used with the film Up the Yangtze, which shows how China's Three Gorges Dam project is changing the Yangtze River and the lives of those who live along its path. Classrooms can use this lesson to explore the social, economic and political changes caused by technological advances. Also, students will increase their skills for analyzing visual imagery. (Note: Many sections of this film have English subtitles.)

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Consider and organize information about technological advancements that have brought about social, political and/or economic changes.
  • Use viewing skills to understand and interpret video clips.
  • Work in groups to conduct a photo analysis of images of the Yangtze River.
  • Reflect in writing on the message of the photograph they analyzed in their group.


SUBJECTS: Geography, Visual Arts, Language Arts, World History, Current Events, Technology


ESTIMATED TIME OF COMPLETION: Two 50-minute class periods

Clip 1: Yangtze Cruise (length 1:03)

The clip begins at 2:30 with the quote "I'm heading up river ..." and ends at 3:33 with the quote "... before it all disappears."

Clip 2: The River Swallows Up a Home (length 1:37)
The clip begins at 1:17:50 with a shot of Mr. Yu in a blue shirt and ends at 1:19:27 with a shot of the Yu family looking at the river.

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In 1994, the Chinese government began construction on the Three Gorges Dam. At 1.4 miles long and 630 feet high (roughly the height of a 50-story building), it is the world's largest dam. It will produce a giant lake, or reservoir, 350 miles long and hold more than a trillion gallons of water. This massive effort will allow the government to control the river's chronic flooding, which caused more than 2,000 deaths in 1998 and left nearly 14 million people homeless. In addition, ocean vessels will be able to travel farther inland, which will boost trade and tourism, and hydroelectric power from the dam will generate inexpensive electricity, thereby cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the use of coal and fossil fuels.

These benefits come with a price tag of about $24 billion. In addition, as the waters rise behind the dam, approximately 2 million people have been forced to relocate. Although the government provided assistance with resettlement, there have been reports of inadequate housing, lack of economic opportunity for farmers resettled in urban areas, unfair compensation for property losses, and pockets of poor people who lacked funds to move and were left behind to fend for themselves.

Further, the rising waters are burying the ruins of ancient settlements and historic shrines, thereby destroying some of China's heritage. The project has also sparked criticism from environmentalists who argue that some of the country's richest farmland will be destroyed along with important animal and plant habitats. There are also concerns that the project will increase erosion downstream, change the ecosystem of the East China Sea and contaminate drinking water supplies.

Despite the controversies, progress on the Three Gorges Dam continues. The reservoir was completed in 2006 and should reach its target depth by the end of 2008. The dam is scheduled to be completely finished in 2009.

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  1. Ask students to name a technological advancement (e.g., cars, cell phones) that has brought about social, political and/or economic changes. Take a few student responses and organize them in a cause/effect diagram.
  2. Show students on a map where China, the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam are. Provide some information about the dam project and its related controversies, drawing details from the "Background" section. Add the dam to the cause/effect diagram and include both positive and negative effects. Ask students to consider these effects and to indicate by a show of hands whether they think the Chinese government is doing the right thing by building the dam.
  3. Explain that the area of the Three Gorges, which are three narrow, steep canyons, has been a popular tourist attraction because of its natural beauty. Also, many people wanted to see the region before it is flooded by the reservoir. Tell students that some worry that the scenery near the dam will become less dramatic when the water rises because it will make the cliffs look smaller. Then provide a visual reference for what this area looks like by showing them Clip 1: Yangtze Cruise.
  4. Ask students how they would feel if their government asked them to move because the city they lived in would soon be flooded. Would they see the situation as a tragedy or an opportunity? Why?
  5. Show Clip 2: The River Swallows Up a Home. Explain that the man and his wife are laborers who are struggling because they did not have the money to move and face a situation in which there will be few opportunities for work. They didn't have the money to send their teenage daughter to high school, so she is now working on one of the cruise ships on the Yangtze.
  6. Ask students to again indicate by a show of hands whether they think the Chinese government is doing the right thing by building the dam. Discuss if the visual images in the video changed anyone's position.
  7. Divide the class into groups of two or three students and assign them an image from the POV website's Photo Gallery: The Yangtze in Black and White. Give each group a Photo Analysis Worksheet and provide some time for students to fill it in with as much detail as possible.
  8. Ask each group to display their photo and share their analysis with the class. Ask them to explain the story that the photograph is telling. What details in the photograph help tell the story? What sort of response do students think the photographer wanted them to have? How does knowing the historical context of the photographs affect how students respond?
  9. When all groups have shared their photographs, discuss the difference between a photo essay and a single picture about the same topic. What can a photo essay do that a single image cannot?
  10. Conclude the activity by having each student write a one-page personal reflection about the photograph they analyzed with their group. Ask them to share in their reflection what they believe is the overall message of the photo. Do they like it? Why or why not?

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Students can be assessed on:

  • Participation in class discussions.
  • Contributions to group work.
  • Completion of the Photo Analysis Worksheet.
  • Quality of the one-page personal reflection writing assignment.
  • Ability to independently describe and interpret what is depicted in a new photograph and put it into its historical context.

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  • Have students create their own photo essays. Invite them to choose a current issue or situation they feel strongly about and then put together a series of original photographs, drawings or computer graphics, with or without words, to express their views on the subject.
  • Compare Mao Zedong's vision for China with the China of today. After studying the history of China under Chairman Mao, show the class Up the Yangtze in its entirety (note program flags in the "Overview" section) and have students observe and take notes on modern life in China. Then have students write a paper summarizing how they think Mao Zedong would react to the changes that have taken place since his rule.
  • Debate this question: Is it right for the Chinese government to build the Three Gorges Dam and displace an estimated 2 million people? Have students use the websites in the "Resources" section to prepare their arguments. After the debate, shift the focus of the discussion to address the practice of eminent domain in the United States. Under what circumstances would students find this practice appropriate? Have students summarize their ideas in letters addressed to local, state or federal elected officials.

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China From the Inside
This website provides background information, video clips, an interactive map and other resources that look at China and its people.

China Opens World's Largest Dam
NewsHour EXTRA provides a background article on the Three Gorges Dam project that is written for a student audience.

Dam Corruption
Online NewsHour provides a video story about how some Communist leaders have siphoned off relocation funds that were intended to help those displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

Great Wall Across the Yangtze
This site summarizes the Three Gorges Dam project and its related controversies.

Wonders of the World Databank: Three Gorges Dam
The Building Big website provides vital statistics on the Three Gorges Dam, a graphic showing the reservoir capacity in cubic feet and some interesting facts on the project.

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These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) at http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/.

Arts and Communication
Standard 4: Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication.

Standard 4: Understands the physical and human characteristics of place.

Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.

Language Arts
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Standard 3: Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual.

Visual Arts
Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.

World History
Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability and peace in an independent world.


Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in broadcast journalism, secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

» "China Opens World's Largest Dam," NewsHour EXTRA (June 18, 2003)
» "Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs," The New York Times (November 19, 2007)
» "China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?" Scientific American (March 25, 2008)
» "China's Three Gorges: Assessing the Impact," National Public Radio (January 2-4, 2008)