"What's Mongolia Really Like?" Lesson

Students will look at rural Mongolian nomadic culture through the eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer and examine the dynamics of a people in transition.


After studying the letter and engaging in activities, students should be able to

  • Give one important reason for migration from a rural to an urban setting.
  • Explain the lifestyle choices facing nomadic herders in Mongolia.
  • Describe the characteristics of rural, suburban, and urban communities in the United States and identify examples in their region.
  • Describe the characteristics of different kinds of communities in Mongolia.
  • Tell how living within a culture alters your perceptions of issues faced by the people in that culture. 


  1. Ask students to imagine that they will be going to live in an unfamiliar place—Mongolia—and that they can bring only eight things with them. Encourage the students to ask questions to determine the climate and physical environment of Mongolia and to find out the resources that exist there. Have the students come up with lists individually, and then work in pairs or groups to refine their individual lists of items to take, which they can then share with the whole group. Record the lists, and have the class determine common themes. Ask the class to infer what human needs are being met by the objects they listed. The class can probably conclude that the items listed could be used to obtain food, to provide shelter, to be worn, and to obtain heat. List on the board the four physical human needs associated with these items in a cold environment. Determine if there are any other items in the students' list that do not provide for one of these needs. Discuss what emotional needs are being met (a sense of belonging, a sense of power, freedom, fun) and whether these are essential for a comfortable, healthy life. Refer to the books Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, or Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, or the video "Castaway" for more discussion on what is essential in different circumstances. Tell the students they will be reading about people in Mongolia who can meet their physical needs on only $50 to $60 a month. Help younger students to understand this amount by translating it into what you could buy with that amount in the United States (e.g., 20 cheeseburgers, 7 movie tickets). Have the students predict how living on this amount could be possible.
  2. Using photographs from magazines or books, present the students with illustrations of three different kinds of communities in their home state or region: rural, suburban, and urban. Divide the class into three groups—one for each type of community—and have each group list benefits of living in their type of community, along with some costs (i.e., things they would not like or things they would have to give up because of their circumstances). After the students have had a few minutes to list their benefits and costs, make a chart on the board for the three types of community, using input from the three groups. Have the students place a star by the community they would choose. Keep the chart for the reading of Jonathan Phillips's letter.
  3. Locate western Mongolia on a globe or map. Ask the students to predict the climate, given the location of Mongolia.
  4. Distribute Jonathan Phillips's letter to each student and guide the class through the text—either reading it to them as they follow along or having students take turns reading aloud. After finishing the letter, go back and, as a class, list the four issues Jonathan Phillips cites in the second paragraph. Clarify the terms he uses if they aren't clear to students. Then ask the students how Jonathan refutes each of these issues in the next paragraph. List the refutation under the appropriate issue, as Jonathan learns to see through the eyes of a local.
  5. Highlight the contrasts Jonathan discusses in the fifth paragraph, where he describes the types of communities in Mongolia: nomadic, small town, and urban. Ask the students to predict what "limited services" might mean for small towns at the end of the paragraph.
  6. Discuss the remainder of the text, focusing on the choices herders and their children face and how there is a new choice available to these people (a more pleasurable country life). Have some students look up the words "yak" and ger and report the meanings to the class. When the class discusses the rural migration that is taking place in Mongolia, point out that this migration is occurring all over the world, creating larger and larger cities. One reason for this migration is the perception of greater economic opportunities in cities. Discuss the relationship between energy and technology that Jonathan highlights in his letter. Ask students if there are any places in their home region where modern forms of technology exist next to traditional forms of culture. If they can identify such a juxtaposition, have them compare it with Jonathan's observations about the anomalies he sees around him, described in the penultimate paragraph.
  7. Ask the students what the writer means by "less black and white" and "more human" toward the end of his letter. Help students understand what the author is saying in the two concluding sentences.
  8. Have the students participate in a simulation that will help them understand the choices faced by nomadic herders and their children. Divide the class into groups of four and assign each member of the groups a different community role: traditional nomadic herder; modern nomadic herder; small-town resident; or urban immigrant. Have group members work together to prepare descriptions of their own lives in the four communities they represent, referring for assistance to the benefit/cost analysis they created earlier. Ask the students to look for similarities and differences in comparisons with life in U.S. communities. Then ask each student to pretend he or she is a nomadic teen faced with the choice of life in one of the communities. Have the students write about the choice they would make, showing themselves as a part of the community in the future, and why they made the choice they did. 

Frameworks and standards

Enduring understandings

  • A technologically advanced society requires accessible, affordable energy sources.
  • Urban expansion is frequently caused by economic opportunities in cities.
  • Outsiders' views of a culture may differ from the views of that culture held by those living within the culture.
  • Food, shelter—and clothing in a cold climate—are essential physical needs for a comfortable, healthy lifestyle.

Essential questions

  • What are the costs and benefits of contrasting lifestyles (such as rural vs. urban)?
  • Does modernization inevitably lead to urban expansion?
  • What do people need for a comfortable, healthy life?
  • How do economic considerations affect people's choices of lifestyle?  


  1. The books Hatchet (by Gary Paulsen), Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe), and Island of the Blue Dolphins (by Scott O'Dell), as well as the video "Castaway," all present a person who faces isolation without many resources. Students can examine each of these works to make a list of the resources each isolated character started with. They can then compare the fictional characters' items with their own list of eight items to take to Mongolia to see if their own list should be altered.
  2. Have students survey several people about things they consider needs and things they simply would like to have—their "wants." Have students make a list of items that they themselves consider needs and wants. Ask the students to compare their list with those of their respondents.
  3. Have students do research on the devices being used as alternative energy sources in Mongolia, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Have them draw pictures of these devices next to a satellite dish and a white felt tent to get a better image of Jonathan's description. Students can find out if solar panels and wind turbines are used, or would be viable sources of energy, in their home regions and report their findings to the class.
  4. Provide students with this challenge: Imagine you are a young person from the countryside sent to live with your relatives in town so you can attend school. Write a diary or journal for one week that tells about your life in town and how you cope with this adjustment. What difficulties do you face? What are the advantages?
  5. What is the history of immigration from rural areas to cities in your state or region? Have students find out where people are moving in your area, how long the trend has occurred, and the reasons for this movement. How does economics play a part in this trend?

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