What We Did Today — MP 4

A final farewell . . .

If I did not get the chance to personally say good-bye to you on the last day of school, please know that I wish you a fun and relaxing summer. Try not to be attached to a screen. Life’s too much fun — and too important — for that.

As I will be losing my spfk12.org email address, if you ever want to reach me, you can email me at sweeneyschallenberg@msn.com or hsweeneyteach@gmail.com.

It’s my hope for each of you that you spend at least 10 minutes a day exploring what is going on in our nation and in our world. Stay out from under your rock and become informed. Form an opinion and make it an educated one.

You’ll have more time now to discover and explore new passions. I know many of you will begin to enjoy your summer sports again — that’s great!  Here are a few more suggestions (and, yes, quite a few of the examples below involve technology). 🙂

  • Have a few minutes, and want to learn something new? Check out the TED-Ed talks on YouTube.
  • Or watch some of the most popular TED Talks of all time. TED – you know it’s short for Technology, Entertainment and Design – is “devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less).”  You’re sure to find a subject of interest here.  These talks have millions of views — they must be good!  The TED website also lists 11 must-see talks  (included among the 11 is novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” If you’d like to see my older son’s TEDx Talk from a few years ago — the TEDx conference was organized by an SPFHS senior (and former Park student) — you can click watch it on YouTube. It’s about 15 minutes.
  • Check out the resources at the Scotch Plains Library and the Fanwood Library and their events planned for young people. Remember to find a book to fulfill your summer reading requirement. You should choose a book over the summer that 1) you feel comfortable reading— it’s not too easy nor too difficult and 2) engages your interests— it speaks to you as a reader.
  • Remember all those cool new vocabulary words and phrases we learned this year? Sisyphean, draconian, and Delphic, to name a few? You can continue to expand your vocabulary by checking out Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day.”  It posts a new vocabulary word each day to add to your vocab repertoire.
  • And just because it’s summertime doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to get rusty on your grammar. If you have not yet mastered these grammar points, now’s the time to do it. You want to enter high school without your teachers cringing. Check out these three fun grammar graphics. Or better yet, practice 10 minutes a day on one of these free interactive grammar websites — select the one that suits you best: GrammarBook.com; UsingEnglish.com; and EnglishGrammar.org.
  • You can also ease into getting prepared for the PSAT and SAT exams. The College Board offers a free Question of the Day and free access to practice questions in math, reading and writing. Many links on this page! (Nota bene: Most colleges are waiving the SAT requirement this year. But it could very well be back next year.)
  • The Khan Academy, in addition to SAT tutoring and lessons on art history, offers free online instruction in multiple areas of math, science, economics, history, philosophy, and computer science. Expand your knowledge or learn something new. Even Khan Academy has instruction on grammar. 🙂
  • If you haven’t already, find a good podcast to listen to as you get out for some fresh air. (Last year I listened to The History of American Slavery and The Happiness Lab — which is also a Yale College course you can take online for free.)
  • You can follow the news this summer by listening to a short news podcast on a regular basis. Talk to your friends about what is going on in the U.S. and in the world. See what you can learn from each other. These last few years, I’ve learned quite a bit from the podcast “The Daily.” There’s also “NPR News Now,” which is updated hourly; it provides five-minute clips on the latest news throughout the week. If you’re looking for something longer than a 5-min. clip, there’s NPR’s “Up First.”  Episodes range from 10 – 15 minutes and are posted every weekday morning.
  • Maybe you’d like to visit an art museum this summer — in person or virtually. You know my favorite, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And there are museums closer by, such as the Newark Museum (check admission fees — or use MuseumPass from the Scotch Plains or Fanwood Library to get in for free).
  • And, of course, if it’s a beautiful day, and you want to be outdoors, consider a trip into NYC to take a stroll on the High Line — it’s an easy walk from Penn Station. (Check the website in advance to find out about accessibility.) Appreciate the public sculpture and murals and the landscape architecture you encounter there — not to mention the amazing new buildings along the High Line. Remember to think about the impact that gentrification has had on the community.

Your very last Domus OpusHave fun, be safe, keep reading & learning, and stay out from under a rock! As we shared with you during the awards ceremony:

In the course of these last 18 months, we have ALL learned to be resilient. We have learned to be accepting of our circumstances. We have learned to be forgiving. Together we have worked to overcome the many obstacles and disappointments that came our way. 

Hopefully, the challenges in the coming school year will not be as difficult. And as you face new challenges, we hope you continue to work together, educate yourselves, and strive for needed change. 

Our hope is that those changes within your control are ones you make for the better. And those changes not in your control are ones you learn to handle with perspective and maturity, just as you have in the past year and a half with the resilience and grace you’ve shown during this pandemic.

We hope that you speak out when you see hatred, when you see bigotry, when you see injustice. That you offer your hand when you see need.  We hope that you become active participants in your high school. In our community. In our state, our nation, and our world.

It’s going to be up to YOU to help make them ALL a better place.

So go out there, SEE that light and BE that light. Make your mark, and make us proud.


Thursday, June 24:  No class today, as we celebrated our 8th graders with the Eighth Grade Awards Ceremony, Eighth Grade End-of-Year Slideshow, and Eighth Grade Clap-Out!

Congratulations to all my 8th graders! I will miss you next year. 😦

And I wish you all a wonderful summer off — it is well-deserved! 🙂


Wednesday, June 23:  The ancient Romans were notorious for their extensive tax system. Taxes were a popular source of income — through either monetary donations or grain donations — for the Roman empire. (In fact, the word “tax” comes from the Latin taxere,taxes-and-government which means “to estimate.”)  During the early empire, revenues from the tax collection system in both Rome and its provinces were so abundant that the empire was able to undertake a massive public works program. And as the Roman Empire expanded, so did Roman taxes.

Today we began to explore the various ways tax policy is used in the United States.  Our federal and state governments use tax policy (beyond building infrastructure) to raise revenue, assist citizens, and influence behavior to help the nation as a whole.

After grappling with understanding the difference between tax deductions, tax exemptions, and tax credits, we looked at examples of which groups would support (and which would not be in favor of) specific tax deductions, tax exemptions, and tax credits. For example, homeowners would be in favor of a tax deduction for a home mortgage while those who rent might not. Similarly, working parents would be in favor of a child care deduction, while people without children might not.

Our first public policy was to determine what New Jersey can do to discourage smoking. We all agreed that increasing the cost of cigarettes to consumers by placing a significant tax on cigarettes would help to discourage smoking. In New Jersey, cigarettes are subject to a state excise tax (here also known as a sin tax) of $2.70 per pack. We looked at a graph of the cigarette tax in each state and found that states whose economy tends to rely on the tobacco industry have the lowest excise tax on cigarettes.

A sin tax is an excise tax on harmful goods or activities (such as cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling). An excise tax is a flat tax imposed on each item sold. Excise taxes are collected from the producer or wholesaler. They drive up the retail price for consumers.

 There are several arguments in favor of sin taxes:

  • They discourage unhealthy behavior;
  • they help pay for society’s costs due to the harmful activity; and
  • they’re popular with voters.

We explored other ways our federal and state governments try to influence citizen behavior by using tax policies. taxes

1) tax policy encourages homeownership by allowing homeowners to deduct the mortgage interest they pay on the purchase of their home;

2) tax policy discourages contributing to air pollution from auto emissions (that is discouraging commuters from driving gas guzzling cars) by significantly increasing the excise tax on gas (from 14.5 cents to 55.5 cents per gallon) and offering tax credits for electric and hybrid cars. New Jersey also requires no sales tax on purchases of electric vehicles);

3) tax policy encourages charity by giving tax payers a tax deduction for their charitable donation and by giving philanthropic organizations tax-exempt status);

4) tax policy encourages consumers to shop in business districts in low-income cities by establishing Urban Enterprise Zones and reducing the sales tax by 50%.

5) tax policy encourages consumers to purchase goods made in the USA by placing tariffs on imported goods. This increases the price of the imported good as the cost of the tariff is usually passed on to the consumer, making the good produced here be the more affordable option.

Last, we briefly looked at the impact of using property tax as the primary source of funding for our public schools. Property taxes are assessed on the value of owned properties. Higher priced properties of high-income neighborhoods bring in more revenue (money) that can be spent on schools than properties in low-income communities.

Students learned that this policy of funding public schools was challenged as unconstitutional in New Jersey, and the highest court in the state agreed. The court held in the Abbott decision that NJ should spend more on poor urban districts to bring them to parity with wealthier suburban ones. As a result, “Abbott districts” receive significantly more money from the state per student than middle class and upper class districts.

For example, a few years ago our school district spent an average of approximately $18,700 per student; 84% of the funding came from local taxes and 14% ($2,618) came from the state. In Plainfield, which is an Abbott district, per student spending was approximately $20,300; 13% of the funding came from local taxes, while 83% ($16,849) came from the state.

Due to shortened periods and school week, we did not have time to discuss whether all property owners should help fund our public schools or only those property owners with children. Some argue that quality public schools keep property values high, so all property owners should do their part to protect their investment in the value of their property. They also argue that education should be an interest of and investment by all members of a community (that is, it serves the common good). Others argue that you should not be required to contribute toward something from which you receive no direct benefit.


Tuesday, June 22: Today we celebrated our 8th graders at Recognition Day at SPFHS. 

Thursday – Monday, June 17, 18 & 21:  Several classes did not meet on Monday, June 21, due to the Recognition Day rehearsal at SPFHS.

On Thursday, Friday, and part of Monday, we learned about the impact of gentrification on a community.Rosa at High Line

As noted earlier, a famous example of gentrification occurred in ancient Roman time. During Nero’s reign as emperor, a two-week fire engulfed Rome, destroying 10 of 14 districts of the city. Nero’s plans for rebuilding the city were sharply criticized, as a large part of the center of the rebuilding was designated for his new home, a lavish mansion with a manmade lake. The Domus Aurea (the Golden House) was a massive estate built on Rome’s prime real estate. Many citizens accused Nero of “fiddling while Rome burned.” They say he destroyed Rome to build it.

Making a connection to today, we learned a little bit about the impact rebuilding and renovating has on lower income communities in a city. Students learned about the history of the High Line, NYC’s most popular tourist attraction.  The neighborhood surrounding the High Line witnessed rapidly skyrocketing property as a result of gentrificationGentrification is what happens when the incomes of people moving into an urban neighborhood are higher – sometimes considerably higher – than those of the current residents.

It first occurs when mostly young, childless college graduates move into lower income urban neighborhoods to be closer to their workplaces, nearer to mass transit, and away from the suburbs. Over time, upper or middle-income families or individuals buy andgentrification-stencils-credit-allegra-53babc81 renovate residential and business properties in these urban neighborhoods and thereby improve property values. The term comes from gentry: people who can afford to own nice property.

Improving the value of deteriorating urban neighborhoods sounds like a win-win for the local community and the city as a whole. But the influx of more affluent people into gentrified areas most always displaces low-income residents due to the resulting increase in property values and rents. It also changes the character and culture of the neighborhood. 

In class we viewed excerpts of the HBO documentary Class Divide, which examines the benefits and pitfalls of gentrification in West Chelsea, a community that went through rapid gentrification due to the renovation of the High Line into an urban park). We saw that while improvements such as new construction and renovation means new investment, new spending power, and a new tax base resulting in significant increased economic activity, there is a tremendous downside for established residents. When real estate prices go up, residential tenants and mom and pop stores are displaced through rent hikes they can no longer afford and through evictions.

As Class Divide notes,  NYC lost 40% of its low income apartments in the last decade. New York City has taken measures to try to alleviate this shortage. As we learned this week in class, tax policy can sometimes influence behavior.

Class Divide Gym

How can NYC get developers to build apartments serving families displaced by gentrification?  Class Divide explained that NYC developers receive tax breaks if they make 20% of their apartments available below market. Demand is tight, however. Low-income residents enter a lottery to win a place to live. Students also learned about the community outcry when some residential buildings created separate side entrances — dubbed “poor doors” — for their low income residents.


Wednesday, June 16:  We had a brief introduction to ancient Rome (see video posted below).

The earliest populations in the region that was the Roman Republic were the Etruscans to the north, and the Greeks to the south. The Etruscans did not speak Latin nor any other Indo-European language. It’s believed they lived on the peninsula as early as 3,000-4,000 BCE. The Etruscans’ great contributions to the Romans were architectural innovations (the arch and the vault), art, and sculpture. The Greeks colonized Southern Italy and Sicily around 800 BCE. The fertile plains there served as a breadbasket for Greece’s expanding population. The Greeks provided Romans with their alphabet, religion, philosophy, drama, architecture, and art.

No one knows where the Latin invaders came from who founded Rome. It’s believed that they were barbarian invaders from the north, but the Latins forced their way down into the Italian peninsula between the 1st and 2nd millennia BCE. They violently displaced the Etruscans, making their cities Latin cities that eventually banded together for mutual protection.

From this city came the Roman legend of the twin brothers Romulus & Remus and the founding of Rome.

As shown in the video, the last of the Roman kings was overthrown in 509 BCE, ending the Regal Period. Rome eventually expanded and became a republic, a government in which some officials are chosen by the people to represent them. The Republic was run by two consuls (most closely similar to our president today), and when the Republic was threatened a dictator was put in place for a six-month period.

By 256 BCE, the city-state of Rome controlled most of the Italian peninsula. It sought territory outside of the Roman Republic’s peninsula when it targeted Carthage on the northern coast of Africa, seeking control of Sicily and trade routes in the western Mediterranean Sea. Three wars took place between Rome and Carthage over a more than 120-year period. Rome was the victor in each war; it acquired its first overseas province: (a country or region brought under the control of the ancient Roman government); Carthage was required to pay tribute (payment that conquered people may be forced to pay their conquerors); and Rome eventually became the most powerful empire in the world.

Pont du Gard, Roman Aqueduct

Roman ruins can be found all over Europe. The Pont du Gard still stands in southern France (then the Roman province of Gaul). Ms. Sweeney walked on it many years ago — she was ignorant of its significance at the time!

Rome united its newly-acquired territories by prioritizing making its conquered people its allies, instead of enslaving them; allowing each conquered city-state to control itself; and creating a vast network of roads to connect the people and to promote trade — and  also to provide the Roman legions (military troops) easier access to Roman provinces.

Thus, Rome moved from defending its territory and trade routes to promoting  imperialism  (establishing control over foreign lands or people). As a result, it witnessed increased wealth in possessing new land, enslaving those who opposed Roman control, and bringing back to Rome booty (money or valuables seized by soldiers). One consequence of imperialism was a rise in conspicuous consumption in society (lavish spending on goods and services that are acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying


… Conspicuous consumption today.

income or wealth rather than to satisfy a real need of the consumer). Examples of conspicuous consumption today might be “McMansions,” luxury cars, private jets, and pricey designer clothing and accessories

These new territories were Romanized; they became a part of the empire and received the protection of Roman legions. They also received services from the government and many of its residents were offered “citizenship.”  In return, they paid taxes to Rome and provided men for the Roman legions.

While expansion has its plusses, ancient Rome also suffered from its consequences:

  • Growth of latifundias (huge estates bought up by wealthy Roman citizens). These estates produced crops cheaply due to slave labor and put small farmers into debt, forcing them to sell their farms and become unemployed.
  • Growing gap between rich and poor
  • Increase in unemployment
  • Increase in conspicuous consumption
  • Higher taxes
  • Professional soldiers not loyal to the Republic; more civil wars
  • Increased social unrest, revolts by the enslaved (e.g., Spartacus), and violence became a way of life

To solve Rome’s problems brought on by expansion / imperialism, the ancient Romans sought solidification of leadership under a single strong ruler, as in a dictator for life (Julius Caesar) or emperor (Augustus Caesar and those that followed him) rather than two consuls and the Senate as decision-makers. Thus began the Roman Empire.

After the untimely and violent death of Julius Caesar and a civil war, the ancient Romans replaced their two consuls and the Senate as decision makers with an emperor: Octavian Caesar, who took on the title “Augustus” meaning “exalted.” Augustus Caesar’s reign as the first emperor of the Roman Empire, began a 200-year period of relative peace and prosperity called the Pax Romana.

In the second half of the period, we began to learn a little about on the impact of gentrification on a community.

A famous example of gentrification occurred in ancient Roman times. During Nero’s reign as emperor, a two-week fire engulfed Rome, destroying 10 of 14 districts of the city. Nero’s plans for rebuilding the city were sharply criticized, as a large part of the center of the rebuilding was designated for his new home, a lavish mansion with a manmade lake. The Domus Aurea (the Golden House) was a massive estate built on Rome’s prime real estate. Many citizens accused Nero of “fiddling while Rome burned.” They say he destroyed Rome to build it.

The expression “to fiddle while Rome burns” means to be engaged with trivial matters while not paying attention to the serious or disastrous events going on around one. 

Making a connection to today, we learned a little bit about the impact rebuilding and renovating has on lower income communities in a city. Students learned about the history of the High Line, NYC’s most popular tourist attraction.  We viewed before and after photos: first the original 1840s rail line on the streets of NYC and later what was in the 1930s a busy, elevated freight rail track, which became – after years of disuse – a dilapidated, abandoned and overgrown structure by the 1990s. Thanks to a persistent campaign by two individuals, the High Line today is NYC’s most popular park.

The neighborhood surrounding the High Line witnessed rapidly skyrocketing property as a result of gentrificationGentrification is what happens when the incomes of people moving into an urban neighborhood are higher – sometimes considerably higher – than those of the current residents.


Tuesday, June 15: No class due to our 8th grade trip to Frogbridge. 🙂


Monday, June 14: Students in Periods 1, 2, and 5 had class on Friday, while Periods 7 & 9 did not because of Field Day. The following summarizes what was covered on both days.

We considered some of the ethical dilemmas that have arisen since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. First though, we reviewed the meaning of several ethical principles (these from the field of bioethics):  

1) Beneficence (to do what is good);  

2) Nonmaleficence (to do the least harm);

 3) Respect autonomy (to allow people to have as much control over their lives as possible); and

4) Justice (the fair, equitable and appropriate treatment in light of what is due or owed a person).

We noted that nonmaleficence requires that the trolley car driver divert the trolley from the track with five workers to the track with one lone worker because it is better to kill one person than it is to kill five.

But then beneficence, justice, and respect for autonomy would require that the bystander not push the fat man onto the tracks and the transplant surgeon not remove the organs from the healthy young man in the waiting room.

Under the Utilitarian view — to promote “the greater good” — you would divert the trolley onto the other track to save the most lives. An action is right if it benefits the most people. 

For the Utilitarian, the ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. In both the lever scenario and the man-on-the-bridge scenario (and the sleeping-man-in-the-waiting-room scenario), you would sacrifice one person to save the lives of five. Consequences are what matters to a Utilitarian: not necessarily the manner in which the consequences are achieved.

Thus, Utilitarianism has trouble accounting for justice and individual rights: two concepts that are highly valued in our society. 

In the sleeping-man-in-the-waiting-room scenario, a Utilitarian would promote the harvesting of the healthy man’s organs to save five lives because it would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But it’s hard to imagine this as an ethical course of action.

We went on to look at the subject of making a profit from the pandemic. When a governor or mayor declares a state of emergency in an area, local price-gouging statutes go into effect in their area. Price-gouging occurs when a supplier of a product or service charges excessive prices — taking advantage of an emergency situation — to acquire unconscionable profits.

Laws can’t change the market conditions that drive prices up. Prices for hand sanitizer, antibacterials wipes, face masks, and easily stored food products quickly rose at the beginning of the pandemic last year — not because sellers were out to harm others, but because demand was rising relative to the immediately available supply. But when prices rose because of an opportunity to make a substantial profit, was that unethical?

Is using laws against price gouging to drive apart willing buyers and eager sellers counterproductive? Is it immoral to threaten sellers with fines if they make mutually agreeable deals that governments don’t like? Or are those sellers, by raising prices to outlandish levels for critical supplies during a state of emergency, unethical and exploitative, especially when many consumers are concerned for their safety.

We also examined the ethical dilemma posed by social distancing, and how stay-at-home orders, while designed to protect the common good (as it aims to protect the most lives), also create significant harms.

We watched a TED-Ed video on The Tragedy of the Commons, which explains what happens when many individuals share a limited resource (think hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper). When short-term self interest is pitted against the common good (e.g., when people hoard these items), it ends badly for everyone. When an individual benefits him or herself in the short term — without consideration for the common good — it isn’t helpful to anyone in the long term. On the other hand, when we make social contracts to save our collective selves from our own self-interest, “what’s good for all of us is good for each of us.”

Students who missed class today can watch the short TED-Ed video posted below.

Students also identified the harm social distancing has had on our psychse and some noted the harm to our economy due to the massive numbers of unemployed workers the pandemic created. When we focus on the common good during this pandemic, to what extent do we need to weigh the balance between saving lives, saving our mental health, and saving the economy?  Should we put flattening the curve above all else? 

We also briefly examined the various factors that administrators and state governments have had to consider when they anticipated that there would be a massive surge of ventilator demand and thus a massive shortage, resulting in a significantly higher death rate. We noted some of the factors states had to consider when implementing guidelines as to how to ration the use of the ventilators if needed (first come, first saved; save the most lives versus save the most life years; save the lives of those who “contribute the most to society”; save essential workers over nonessential workers, etc.).

Students who are interested can view a segment of a campus-wide Zoom event at Harvard University last year, “Harvard Live: Pandemic Ethics with Michael Sandel,” in which Prof. Sandel (the Trolley Problem professor) asks whether it is morally permissible to hire someone to do your grocery shopping for you: to pay them to take the risk you want to avoid. In other words, is it ethical to outsource the risk? He also asks participants whether it is morally permissible to pay healthy people to be test subjects for a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Students who’d like to view the session can begin Harvard Live: Pandemic Ethics with Michael Sandel, at the 29-minute mark and watch it through 48:30.


Thursday, June 10:  We completed reviewing the “thought experiments” associated with the Trolley Problem. Most students agreed that it is morally permissible for the driver to divert the trolley to avoid hitting the five workers and hit one instead. Many say the engineer must divert the trolley; ethics requires him to minimize losses. The belief is that killing five is worse than killing one. By diverting the trolley, the driver has a net savings of four lives.

In the second scenario (the bystander by the switch), most would pull the lever to divert the trolley and avoid hitting the five workers by sacrificing the one. A number, however, would not do so on the grounds that they would not want to become involved. They would let the events take their course. Other students pointed out that by NOT taking an action (pulling the lever) you are also taking an action (allowing the five to die).

The third scenario requires that you stop the train by pushing a very fat man off a bridge, killing him but saving the five on the track. Interestingly between 20 and 40 percent of students believed that they would push the man. Fewer than 20 percent (but not much fewer), would save the five lives in the fourth scenario: harvesting the organs of a healthy young man which the surgeon could successfully transplant into five of his patients, thereby saving their lives.

In the third and fourth scenarios – the fat man on the bridge and the healthy man at the doctor’s office taking a nap – the majority (between 70% and 85% of each class) say they would NOT push the man and they would NOT take out the young man’s organs. Why? Because here killing one is worse than letting five die. 

Both the bystander at the bridge and the surgeon in the waiting room literally use a person’s body to save to five – and without consent. They need the person to save the five. Here rights trump utilities. We will complete discussing The Trolly Problem in class tomorrow morning.

Toward the end of class, students had an opportunity to view the beginning of  Justice, the popular undergraduate course on ethics offered at Harvard University. We watched the opening of the first class, as it dealt with the same trolley car and doctor’s waiting room scenarios we tackled. Justice is the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public television. About a thousand students have regularly packed the theater to hear Prof. Sandel lecture on justice, equality, democracy, etc. The Washington Post described Sandel as “perhaps the most prominent college professor in America.” He has been called “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star.” One of the assigned readings is by Aristotle.  🙂

If you would like to learn more about Prof. Sandel and listen to more of his Harvard lectures on Justice, check out his website where all of the lectures are posted, Harvard University’s Justice with Michael Sandel.

Domus Opus: 1) Students who missed class today should view the first 15 minutes of the Justice lecture we began in class. The video is posted below. (I recommend that you watch it to the 24:30 mark. You are, of course, welcome to watch more! See what a fun political philosophy course at Harvard is like.) 


Wednesday, June 9:  Today students were introduced to one of the most popular branches of philosophy: ethics. Made popular by Socrates, ethics deals with values relating to First trolley problemhuman conduct. It involves an examination of right and wrong of certain actions and the motives and ends of such actions.

Students enjoy the study of ethics because it can be applied to real life decisions.

Philosophers often engage in “thought experiments” (aka ethical dilemmas).  They describe hypothetical situations – sometimes realistic and sometimes fantastical – and then ask about our “intuition” regarding the situation.

Philosophers generally devise these thought experiments to help test what we really believe. So, if you say you believe in a general principle of some kind (say, “it is better to save five lives than to save one”), a thought experiment – a hypothetical situation – can be designed about which you must make a judgment.

People often make judgments in these thought experiments that differ from the general principles they think they believe in.


In the late 1960s, the British philosopher Philippa Foot posed a famous thought experiment known as “the Trolley Problem,” which examined the general principle that it is better to save five lives than to save one. It set up a scenario where five workers are on a track, and the engineer of a trolley cannot stop the trolley from hitting and killing the five workers unless the engineer steers the runaway trolley onto a side track.

The problem is that one man is working on that side track and will surely be killed. As the train engineer, is it morally permissible – or for that matter, morally required – of you to divert [turn] the trolley onto the side track?

In another version of this ethical dilemma, adapted by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985, if you are a bystander standing next to a switch connected to the tracks and can pull the lever to divert the trolley down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers but into one lone worker on the side track, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

Is it ethical to kill one person in order to save five? We will be discussing this further tomorrow.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus!

Tuesday, June 8:  We had class in the Media Center today because of the heat. It was not conducive to having our presentations, so in most classes we moved on to learning about another of the great legacies of ancient Greece: Western philosophy.

We reviewed a summary of the achievements of the three most famous philosophers of ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.socrates

Socrates’ ideas were considered a threat to Greek tradition because he was perpetually questioning and examining aspects of life (the Socratic Method). The results of his inquiries challenged and sometimes disproved existing traditions and beliefs and thus threatened Greek traditions (e.g., the concept that democracy is not the best form of government).

We also focused on Socrates’ position that to acquire wisdom you must have understanding. Too often in school, our focus on acquiring wisdom can rest on rote memorization. But Socrates believed that, to have true knowledge of a subject, one cannot obtain it through memorization (“… what one memorizes, one forgets”), nor by simply developing intellectual skills. One can only develop wisdom by acquiring understanding. And understanding is obtained when searching for the truth of the matter – usually through discussion with others. (“You do not forget that which you understand.”)

The example we used in class was one all students are familiar with: the Pythagorean theorem (developed by another ancient Greek). While we can recite the Pythagorean theorem and know how to apply it to find a side of a right triangle, most of us do not understand it. We do not know why a2 plus b2 equals c2 and so we do not have true wisdom about the subject. If you’d like to understand the Pythagorean theorem, click here.

Gadfly cartoon

We also noted Plato’s contributions to political philosophy. Plato distrusted democracy after the execution of Socrates (as it was that democratic institution of an Athenian jury that sentenced Socrates to death).  Plato believed that man would naturally do what is good if he knows what is right. Unfortunately, many are ignorant, and so they engage in bad or evil actions. Our bad decisions are based on IGNORANCE.

Playdoh Plato

Yes, it’s a Play-Doh Plato!

According to Plato, the ideal form of gov’t is one where the state regulates every aspect of its citizens’ lives to provide for their best interests. Society would be divided into 3 classes: workers that produce the necessities of life, soldiers who defend the state, and philosophers who would rule. A philosopher-king would have ultimate authority.

Last, we reviewed a few facts about Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student and Alexander the Great’s tutor. Aristotle also feared that democracy could lead to mob rule; he favored rule by a benevolent king.

In addition to being a philosopher, Aristotle had knowledge about many different subjects (breadth) and his knowledge of these subjects was quite extensive (depth). He wrote influential works on biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, psychology, and literary criticism.  He set up a school, the Lyceum, where one could receive instruction in all branches of knowledge: the precursor to today’s university.

Aristotle also addressed the question of how people out to live. He believed people should pursue the Golden Mean: a moderate course between two extremes. Similar to Buddhism’s the Middle Path, it is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

Tomorrow, students will be introduced to one of the most popular branches of philosophy: ethics. Made popular by Socrates, ethics deals with values relating to human conduct: the examination of right and wrong of certain actions and the motives and ends of such actions.

Domus Opus:  Period 1 should complete the reading on Western philosophy that was posted on Classroom today.


Monday, June 7: Those students who did not have a review of the answers to The Greek Alphabet WS had the review today.

We also completed viewing the Bloomberg Quicktake video, Black Wall Street’s Greenwood Tragedy Didn’t End in 1921. 

The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, emerged during the early decades of last century under rigid segregation. Ironically, it was segregation that gave rise to a nationally renowned black business center, which became known as Black Wall Street. It provided everything residents needed, from retail and service businesses, to churches, medical offices, schools, and entertainment venues. African American entrepreneurs created a vibrant and vital self-contained economy.

Black Wall Street had it all: nightclubs, hotels, cafés, newspapers, clothiers, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, grocery stores, beauty salons, shoeshine shops, etc. 

And then, in the spring of 1921, underlying social and economic tension in Tulsa sparked perhaps the worst racial violence in American history. As many as three hundred people were killed, and property damages was in the millions of dollars.

But Tulsa’s Black community ultimately turned tragedy into triumph. They rebuilt the ravaged Greenwood District, which by 1942 boasted 242 black-owned and black-operated business establishments.

As the video noted, what demolished the neighborhood a second time four decades later was much less overt, and was the result of policies that tend to promise improvement: integration and urban renewal. 

Part of that urban renewal was the creation of a massive, physical barrier, which took thousands of homes and businesses, separated commercial areas from the neighborhoods they served, and forced the decline of entire neighborhoods near its route. It remains a physical scar in Greenwood.

In most classes we learned about an op-ed written by the actor Tom Hanks about how important it is to keep the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre in our school’s curriculum.

Domus Opus:  Be ready to present tomorrow.


Friday, June 4: We began class reviewing the correct answers to the pop quiz The Greeks at War. 

We spent much of the period  learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre, described as one of the worst race massacres in U.S. history, which left many dead (current estimates are at 300), as well as 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood destroyed, most of it burned to the ground, and 10,000 residents homeless.

Greenwood, the Tulsa neighborhood that was attacked, had been one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country — so prosperous, that it was known as “Black Wall Street.” One hundred years ago this week, a white mob attacked the residents of Greenwood and destroyed businesses and homes. The mob’s anger was in part a reaction to Black Tulsans who had come downtown to prevent a lynching, but more broadly it was ignited by a sense of rage at the success of the Greenwood neighborhood.
The video we viewed in class examines the development of the economic prowess of the Greenwood community prior to the massacre; the events that triggered the attack; the financial and personal cost of the massacre to the victims (and the subsequent rebuilding of the Greenwood community); and how urban renewal and other factors led to Greenwood’s decline by the 1970s.
The Tulsa Race Massacre never received widespread attention until its centennial approached — even in the city of Tulsa, where residents have shared that they did not learn about Black Wall Street or the massacre until they went away to college. 
The massacre was also left out of history books, including, as students saw, our own. While our 7th grade U.S. history book has a few paragraphs on racial tensions during post WWI America and the race riots that occurred in a number of northern cities, it states that the “worst took place in Chicago, leaving 38 dead.” There is no mention of what was by far the largest single incidence of racial violence against African Americans in U.S. history: the Tulsa Race Massacre.
And recently, the name of this historical event was changed from “riot” to “massacre,” a meaningful distinction. As explained by the Oklahoma History Center Education Department:
Another issue centers on the name of the event. Many people believe calling the events of May 31 and June 1 a “riot” does not accurately describe what happened. Some people point to the use of “riot” contributing to the insurance companies’ refusal to pay out claims. Others argue that people during that period used the word “riot” to describe any large conflict between whites and other groups. A massacre describes the killing of a large number of people indiscriminately, but it may also suggest that African Americans offered no resistance, which is inaccurate.
We will complete viewing the video next week. Students who missed class today should watch the video (posted below) up to the 5:30-min. mark. (Students in Period 2 should view the entire video.)
In Period 1, we also reviewed the answers to The Greek Alphabet worksheet and shared some of the great nameplates students created.
Domus Opus: Learn from the Docent! notes are due today at 10 PM. Be prepared to present your vase art, sculpture, or architectural feature on Monday. Remember to use the slide(s) on your topic. You may refer to your notes, but should not read from them.


Wednesday & Thursday, June 2 & 3: Students spent class time learning about their docent topic and preparing a set of presentation notes that they will use to teach us about their topic beginning next week. Links to all resources students need are under “Learn from the Docent” on this blog’s “Helpful Links” page. There is NO need for outside research.

We are also looking forward to the docent presentations which will begin on Monday. Students are reminded to draw us into the piece they are presenting. They should share with their classmates their interest and enthusiasm in the piece we are looking at. Bring us “up close and personal” to the vase, the sculpture, or the architectural sculpture so that we appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship before us.

Docents should also be sure to include the relevant defined terms in a manner that is understood by their classmates. To prepare for the presentation, it is important that students use the relevant slide(s) on their topic — this is what we will be looking at during the presentations.

Students will be able to refer to their docent notes during the presentation. 🙂  Just remember that it should not sound like you are reading your notes to us. Instead, it should sound like you are a docent at the museum we are visiting, eager to share with us your knowledge and expertise!

Domus Opus: Learn from the Docent! notes are now due Friday at 10 PM.


Wednesday & Thursday, May 25 & 26:  As an introduction to our next project, students were asked to consider “Why look at art?”

lady of Auxerre

While our first reaction to Lady of Auxerre might be “What’s up with her face?,” hopefully we will obtain a more enlightened response as we learn more about ancient Greek art and architecture.

While we did not have time to view it in class, there is a short Khan Academy video where that same question was posed to museum professionals. Students who who are interested can view the video here.

We too often don’t pay attention to the art (or architecture) that we walk by every day. For example, few students truly pay attention to the architectural detail of our own Park Middle School’s front entrance. (Check it out when you have the chance!)

Students were asked to make some observations about the ancient Greek sculpture Lady of Auxerre, a 7th century BCE limestone sculpture believed to be from the Greek island of Crete and discovered in a basement storeroom in Auxerre, France, a little more than 100 years ago. We noted questions that come to mind when viewing the sculpture since we knew nothing about her to begin with.

Our first impression of her may have been “What’s up with her face?” or “She’s messed up, I’m not going to bother with getting to know her.” Hopefully, after listening to the docent presentation about this special sculpture, we are tuned into a more sophisticated response as we learn more about ancient works of art.

We then watched a brief Smarthistory video on Lady of Auxerre with two art historians as our docents. The docent encourages us to go beyond our first impression of a work of art. The art historians in this video gave us an idea of the “breadth and depth” of knowledge that a docent shares when presenting a work of art. We should keep in mind the information and interest in the work that they shared when we share about our ancient Greek art or architecture in class next week. 🙂

Students were shown what is available on the Learn from the Docent! page under the “Helpful Links” tab. It has NUMEROUS resources to help students research their work of art. ALL students should use the links posted on the Learn from the Docent! page to work on the project — in addition to the resources, be sure to carefully examine your slide(s). We will be using them when we are docents in front of the class.

Hopefully, our Learn from the Docent! project will instill in us a better understanding of and appreciation for the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece. We’ll aim to heighten our visual acumen, to help us see beyond first impressions and our predetermined notions of what is meaningful and beautiful – skills we can apply to other areas of our lives. (As we noted in class, when viewing ancient Greek sculpture and architecture, it is important to focus not on how the piece is damaged but instead focus on the beauty and emotion it portrays.) 

We will spend two days in class next week researching our selected topic and putting together our own docent notes for our class presentation. Students who missed class today should view Smarthistory’s Lady of Auxerre video posted below.

HW: If you did not hand in your reflection Why Look at Art? An Intro Activity to “Learn from the Docent!,” please do so. If you missed class on Wednesday or Thursday, you can watch the video below to complete your response to Question 5 of the worksheet. The remaining four questions are opinion questions.


Monday & Tuesday, May 24 & 25:  We concluded watching excerpts of the History Channel’s The Last Stand of the 300.

The Spartans believed they were the strongest, toughest soldiers in all of Greece. Despite the likelihood that they would lose against the Persian forces that vastly outnumbered


This adage can be connected to two of today’s vocab words: spartan and laconic.

them, that would not keep the Spartans from defending the Greek city-states against the Persians. (Remember: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”) While the Spartans were eventually defeated, they won valuable time for Athens. Its residents had time to flee Athens before the Persian invasion.

Today we viewed excerpts of the documentary that explained the military formation used by the Greeks and Persians. Spartans fought in platoons of 8 men across and 4 men deep, shoulder to shoulder, creating a shield wall in front. This was called the phalanx. Each soldier held a heavy concave bronze and wood up to 20-lb. shield called a Hoplon. Greek heavy infantry were therefore called Hoplites. 

We learned about additional offensive weapons the Greeks carried into battle as well as protective gear, like their 10-lb. helmets. Persian forces, on the other hand, wore cloths over their heads, carried shields made of wicker, and had armor no thicker than a playing card: no match for the Greek hoplites and their 6-9 foot spears and their 2-3 foot long double-edged swords.

Their superior technology and military prowess couldn’t eliminate their disadvantage of being outnumbered 50 to one. All 300 Spartans fought to their deaths. Even though Persia won the battle, they lost the war, and the Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae is considered one of history’s great moments of valor.

We also reviewed the definition of three great vocabulary words relating to ancient Sparta. Students should learn/recognize the meaning of each of the following:

  • spartan = (adj.) marked by strict self-discipline or self-denial; marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort (e.g., a spartan room);
  • laconic = (adj.) using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious (the immediate area around the city-state of Sparta was generally referred to as Laconia; the Athenians viewed the Spartans as being men of very few words); and
  • phalanx = (n.) a body of people or objects in close array; a number of individuals, especially persons united for a common purpose.
Spartan room

A spartan room, wouldn’t you say?

In addition to the vocabulary reviewed students learned that an alliance is a formal agreement between two or more powers to cooperate and come to one another’s defense.

As renewed interest in the ancient Spartans occurred after the release of the 2007 Hollywood blockbuster 300 (which was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel), in most classes we also viewed excerpts of that feature film — including the “PG trailer.” 🙂  Also, some classes viewed the scene “Spartans, what is your profession?” , the scene “Raise your shield, Ephialtes!, and an interesting comparison between how Hollywood portrayed the  “then we shall have our fight in the shade” scene in the drama The 300 Spartans (1962) and the fantasy action film 300 (2006). Nota bene: I do not recommend that 8th graders watch the 300 movie. It is R-rated.  And if you want to see what a Spartan parent-teacher conference must have looked like, see below.  🙂

Much like the city-states of ancient Greece, nations – including the United States — have formed alliances to protect themselves against mutual enemies. The most famous alliance of our time is NATO, an acronym that stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In the PM session, students learned that the U.S. and the Soviets were allies against Nazi Germany (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”). But after victory was declared in 1945, the U.S. no longer viewed Nazi Germany as a threat. Rather, the big concern was the Soviet Union’s communist regime and its influence against Europe’s most vulnerable countries.

The U.S. decided it had to contain the Soviet threat, and so it formed a military alliance with 11 other nations to defend Europe against an attack by the Soviet Union. Under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. The purpose was to deter Soviets from attacking a weak nation; Soviets would have to fight all nations belonging to NATO if it attacked but one nation.

NATO has come under increasing criticism in recent years, most notably by President Trump, as member nations have not contributed their fair share of funding for the alliance.

HW: Complete Questions 1-4 of Reflection: Why Look at Art? An Intro Activity for “Learn from the Docent!” by our next AM class.

Also review the project description A Tour of Ancient Greek Vase Art, Sculpture & Architectural Sculpture: Learn from the Docent! You will be picking your topic to present on the next day we meet. This is a project that you can work on with a partner or in small groups, if desired. Be ready to make your selections the next day we meet. All students should go to the Learn from the Docent! page under the Helpful Links tab and explore the Docent Tour for your area of expertise. Also take time to explore some of the resources posted there.



Thursday & Friday, May 20 & 21:  We viewed excerpts of the History Channel documentary The Last Stand of the 300 Spartans, which focuses on the differences

Greek Persian duel

Which is the Persian warrior? It’s not hard to tell!

between the Persian empire and the Greek city-states and on history’s account of the famous Battle of Thermopylae.

The epic battle at Thermopylae was fought between 300 Spartan warriors – led by their king, Leonidas (with help from more than 6,500 troops from other city-states) – and the massive Persian army.  At the narrow pass at Thermopylae, superior numbers mattered less. The pass allowed Leonidas’s up to 7,000 troops to keep back a much larger army (estimated at about 300,000) because the front was much narrower. The phalanx shoulder-to-shoulder formation allowed the Spartans to keep the larger Persian army stuck in the narrow pass for several days.

We focused on the significance of the statement “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” At the time, Greece was not yet a unified country, and the largest two city-states – Athens and Sparta – were rivals. The Spartans believe that Persia’s King Xerxes had decided to occupy Greece and thus Sparta must help its enemy Athens to defeat their mutual enemy, Persia. The eminent threat of the Persian invasion threw the Greek city-states into an alliance, though many were technically at war with each other.


“With your shield or on it.”

We also noted the state’s role in family life in Sparta. The first act of the state was already at birth. An elder of the society would determine whether or not a newborn was fit to be allowed to live in a Spartan society.  A weak link was not to be a part of this hardcore warrior society. A baby deemed weak would be taken to a sacred site of a mountain and left to die.

Childbirth and child rearing were considered a matter of the state. The state also had a unique military training program. Boys were removed from the home at seven years of age and educated and trained to be a warrior – intense training to learn to be tough (not to cry; to conceal pain, etc.) and learn military skills. They also learned how to steal in order to survive.

A male would enter the army at age 18 and remain until at least 30. It is said that the parting cry of mothers to their sons was “With your shield or on it.” Mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced, mothers whose sons survived, having lost their shield hung their heads in shame. Asked why it was dishonorable to return without a shield and not without a helmet, the Spartan king, Demaratos is said to have replied: “Because the latter they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of all.”

The documentary noted the importance of religion to the Spartans. King Leonidas consulted the Oracle at Delphi before agreeing to join Athens in battle. The Oracle’s prophecy and his inadequate forces convinced him that he would not survive the


Persian warriors at Ishtar Gate (4th century BCE)

confrontation. According to Herodotus, Leonidas believed that he was a descendant of Herakles (Hercules) and that the gods had chosen him to battle Persia and sacrifice his life.

While Sparta agreed to allow Leonidas to bring his men into battle, the Persian attack coincided with a Spartan festival when all military activity is forbidden, so the Spartan council sent fewer men: a troop of just 300.

We are aware of the events of the Persian War because of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus. He compiled a detailed account of the 5th century BCE battles. In The Histories, Herodotus wrote that the Spartans were warned by another Greek that they should be prepared to die, given the vast numbers of Persian troops. The most famous line — perhaps in all of ancient military history — was in response to the claim that when the Persians “shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dienekes, a lieutenant under Leonidas, made light of the threatened numbers and answered that if the Persians “darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.”

The Spartans believed they were the strongest, toughest soldiers in all of Greece and despite the likelihood that they would lose against the Persian forces that vastly outnumbered them, that would not keep them from defending the Greek city-states against the Persians. (Remember: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”) While the Spartans were defeated, they won valuable time for Athens.

The documentary explained how Persia was able to control such a vast empire (satraps!) and why King Darius (and later, his son Xerxes) were determined to seek revenge on Athens for its assistance in the Ionian revolt.

Last it explained the military formation used by the Greeks. Spartans fought in platoons of 8 men across and 4 men deep, shoulder to shoulder, creating a shield wall in front. This was called the phalanx. Each soldier held a heavy concave bronze and wood shield called a Hoplon. Greek heavy infantry were therefore called Hoplites.

Outnumbered 50 to one, all 300 Spartans fought to their deaths. Even though Persia won the battle, they lost the war, and the Spartan sacrifice is considered one of history’s great moments of valor.

The English vocabulary word phalanx (n.) is a compact or closely massed body of persons, animals, or things.  It can also mean individuals united for a common purpose. If KHIONE (a Greek goddess of snow) agrees, tomorrow we will review the additional English vocabulary words spartan and laconic.

Domus Opus: Nolo Domus Opus.


Tuesday & Wednesday, May 18 & 19: We next learned how warfare evolved during ancient history: specifically, how the Greeks taught their citizens to overpower the “fight or flight” human instinct (i.e. scene from Homer's Iliad.jpgit’s a lot easier to be brave from afar) and instead engage in hand-to-hand combat. The ancient Greeks — especially the Spartans — got their boys used to hand-to-hand combat at an early age (through boxing and wrestling competitions), they rewarded military service with political power and citizenship, and they glorified battle and military prowess.

We also viewed a video explaining why phalanx warfare became popular in ancient Greece. The Greeks had relatively small, individual armies that served each city-state. Warriors were citizens who typically served when called upon. They were heavily armed, had limited visibility, and were restricted in movement. They preferred hand-to-hand combat using the phalanx formation. Infantry and naval forces served the poleis well, but they had little need for a cavalry due to the mountainous terrain.

Unlike other civilizations, the Greeks believed that the polis was more important than the individual, and similarly, the phalanx was more important than the individual warrior.

We are aware of the events of the Persian Wars because of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus. We reviewed why Herodotus became known as “the Father of History,” after publishing a long account of the 5th century BCE battles of the Persian Wars that he called The Histories.  (The Greek word historie means “inquiry.”)

Before Herodotus, no writer had ever made such a systematic, thorough study of the past. He was well traveled; wrote extensively based on eyewitness accounts; examined


Pheidippides ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory.

motives and strategies; acknowledged bias; and attributed success or failure in battle to the actions of men, rather than the influence of gods.

The Persian Wars  occurred when the powerful, united Persian Empire — which extended from Egypt, across Asia Minor, to India — made several attempts to punish and defeat Athens after its interference with a revolt by Ionia, a Greek colony. The Persian Empire over the years had expanded to the Mediterranean Sea. In the process, some Greek settlements were conquered. Ionia was one such settlement. After many years, the Ionians revolted against the Persians, but the uprising was immediately squashed by the powerful Persian army. By the year 490 B.C., the Persian army was ready to expand their territory and move into the Greek city-states on the European continent. They landed a large force just outside of Athens on the plains of Marathon and prepared for attack.

The documentary we will begin in our next class explains how Persia was able to control such a vast empire (through satraps) and why King Darius (and later, his son Xerxes) were determined to seek revenge on Athens for its assistance in the Ionian revolt. 

Domus Opus: See May 10 & 11 post for HW due at 8PM on May 18. By Friday, please read “Conflict in the Greek World,” pages 124 – 129 of the textbook.


Friday & Monday, May 14 & 17: We completed the “It’s Greek to Me!” presentations — with the exception of those students who were absent. Greek mythological characters and vocabulary derived from those characters that were covered on Friday and Monday include:

  • sirens (dangerous creatures who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music & voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast); siren:  (n.) a woman who is very attractive but also dangerous. siren song: (n.) something that is very appealing that makes you want to do something or go somewhere but may have bad results.
  • mentor (a friend of Odysseus and tutor of Telemachus; in the Odyssey, Athena assumes Mentor’s form to give advice);  mentor: (n.) a faithful and wise advisor.
  • labyrinth (a complex maze-like structure designed for King Minos to contain the ferocious Minotaur); labyrinth = (n.) a complicated  irregular network of passages in which it is difficult to find one’s way; a maze. labyrinthine =  (adj.) intricate and confusing.
  • Pandora’s box (Pandora, the first woman; she received many gifts from the gods including the gift of curiosity and a box from Zeus — which she was told never to open); Pandora’s box = (n.) a source of many troubles; to open a Pandora’s box = a phrase to invite trouble.
  • Gordian knot (An extremely elaborate knot, which no one could undo, tied by the king of Phrygia and “solved” by Alexander the Great — by simply slicing through the knot with his sword); Gordian knot: (n.) metaphor to describe a very difficult, seemingly impossible problem to solve. cut the Gordian knot” = to solve or remove a problem in a direct or forceful way – or by thinking outside the box.
  • King Midas (a king who received the power to turn whatever he touched into gold; he soon discovered that what he wished for was in actuality a curse); the Midas Touch = (n.) an unusual ability to make money easily.
  • Sisyphus (a famous resident of Hades, who was condemned to roll an enormous rock up a hill only to have it fall back down);  Sisyphean (adj.) describing work that is endless, difficult, and impossible.  e.g., A “Sisyphean task” can never be completed.
  • Pan (a shepherd demigod who had legs and horns of a goat and a shrill voice. He liked to scare those traveling the lonely stretches of wilderness; panic =  (n.) sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety often causing wildly unthinking behavior.
  • Narcissus (a proud demigod who disdained those who loved him; his vanity led to his death; narcissism = (n.) egoism; narcissist = (n.) a person who has excessive love or admiration for oneself. narcissistic = (adj.) having an excessive interest in one’s physical appearance.
  • Oracle of Delphi (People from all over the known world came to seek advice from the Oracle of Delphi, whose words were often not understood); Delphic = (adj.)  obscure or ambiguous; Delphic utterance = (n.) a response to a question  or comment that is ambiguous and hard to understand. 
  • Tantalus (was condemned to the Underworld for feeding his son to the gods; his punishment was to forever have just beyond his reach water when he was thirsty and fruit when he was hungry); tantalize (v.) to torment or tease someone with the sight of something unattainable.
  • Alcyone (the daughter of Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, she was the devoted wife of Ceyx, King of Trachis, who died at sea. Upon discovering his body, she tried to drown herself. Taking pity, the gods turned her and Ceyx into birds); halcyon days = a period of peace and happiness; an idyllic time; also, a period of calm weather during the winter solstice.

In most classes, we noted that a demigod in Greek mythology is a half-god or hero: the offspring of a deity and a mortal. In English,demigod refers to a very impressive or important person: a person who seems like a god. This is not to be confused with a “demagogue” which is a political leader who tries to gain support through making false claims and promises. Demagogues use popular prejudices and make false claims and promises to try to gain power.

We also noted, in most classes, where Pandora Internet Radio got its name. As the Pandora website explains: “The name Pandora means ‘all gifted’ in Greek. In ancient Greek mythology, Pandora received many gifts from the gods, including the gift of music from Apollo. She was also, as we all know, very curious. Unlike those gods of old, however, we celebrate

that virtue and have made it our mission to reward the musically curious among us with a never-ending experience of music discovery.”

Domus Opus:  The Greek Alphabet Mini-Project is due Tuesday, May 18. See last Monday & Tuesday’s post below for details.

Hopefully, none of our “It’s Greek to Me!” presentations were hypnotic (sleep-inducing, from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep).


Wednesday & Thursday, May 12 & 13:  Greek mythology has contributed many of the words, phrases, and expressions in the English language. Today students gave short presentations on a


The best known sculpture in NYC is Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. He’s holding the gift of fire he gave to man. (You can read more about NYC’s most famous sculpture — shown to the right — the 18-foot tall Prometheus, here.)

character from Greek mythology and the English word or expression derived from that character.

Students took notes during the presentations, hopefully using good note-taking skills (avoiding sentences, only recording relevant info, using abbreviations, underlining key terms, and skipping a line between topics).

Vocabulary reviewed yesterday and today in most classes included:

  • titans and titanic (the Titans, a powerful race of immortals that ruled the world before the Olympians); titan: (n.) an extremely important person.  titanic: (adj.) of exceptional strength, size or power. 
  • atlas (Atlas, a Titan condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity);  atlas: (n.) a bound collection of maps. 
  • Promethean (Prometheus, also a Titan, who created humankind out of clay and stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans; to punish Prometheus, Zeus had him chained to a mountainside and sent an eagle to peck out Prometheus’ liver each night — the liver would then grow back during the day); Promethean = (adj.) boldly creative; defiantly original.
  • aphrodisiac (Aphrodite, Greek goddess associated with love, beauty, passion, and fertility — known for her romances with Aries and Adonis); aphrodisiac: (n.) something that increases desire.
  • adonis (Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire); adonis = (n.) a very handsome young man. 
  • mnemonic (Mnemosyne, also a Titan, the goddess of memory and remembrance, who invented language and words and who gave birth to the nine Muses, goddesses who ruled over the arts and sciences); mnemonic = (n.) a device such as a pattern or associations that assists in remembering something.
  • nemesis (Nemesis, goddess of divine retribution — known for the punishments she meted out to those who deserved them); nemesis = (n.) a victorious rival; an archenemy.
  • hector (Hector, a prince of Troy and bravest of the Trojan warriors; the derivation of the English word is in reference to Hector’s encouragement of his fellow Trojans to keep up the fight; as told in Homer’s Iliad, after Hector killed Achilles’ friend Patroclus in battle, he was himself brutally slain by Achilles, who proceeded to tie his dead body to a chariot and drag it about); hector = (v.) to talk in a bullying way.
  •  Achilles heel (Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior in the Trojan War; to make her son immortal, Achilles’ mother plunged Achilles headfirst into the River Styx, holding onto his heel. This spot on his heel that she held on to – the Achilles heel – left him vulnerable and mortal. He died in the Trojan War when an arrow hit his vulnerable heel). Achilles heel: (n.) A single weakness or vulnerable point that could cause someone to fail.
  • aegis (The Aegis was a protective shield or animal skin usually held by Zeus for protection). aegis = (n.) the protection, backing, or support of a person or organization.
  • Trojan Horse (The original Trojan Horse was conceived of by Odysseus and used by the Mycenaeans to defeat Troy, as told in Homer’s epic, The Iliad.)  Trojan Horse = (n.) any thing or person that appears harmless but is designed to undermine or bring about the downfall of an enemy.
  • Oedipus and the SphynxCassandra (a Trojan princess who had the gift of prophecy, but no one believed her.) Cassandra = (n.) one that predicts misfortune or disaster.
  • Amazon (a tribe of warlike women). Amazon = (n.) a big, strong, warrior-like woman. Amazonian = (adj.)   characteristic of or like an Amazon; powerful and aggressive; warlike.
  • Herculean (Herakles/Hercules = son of Zeus and a mortal; known for his great strength.) Herculean = (adj.) requiring great strength or effort.
  • odyssey (Named after Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, about the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, king of city-state of Ithaca, after the Trojan War.) odyssey (n.) a long wondering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.

Students who did not present today should be ready to present when we next meet again. Also, those students who missed class today should record the basic facts on each of the Greek Achilles heel vase artmythological characters and the definition of the related English vocabulary word or phrase by finding the information in the It’s Greek to Me! slides available on the Ancient Greece page under the Helpful Links tab (topics appear in alphabetical order) or by recording the information above into their notes.

Domus Opus:  The Greek Alphabet Mini-Project is due Tuesday, May 18. See Monday & Tuesday’s post below for details.


Monday & Tuesday, May 10 & 11: We completed reviewing the forces of power within a democracy. While the U.S. has a representative democracy, we do not consistently see our  representatives in Congress putting in place policies favored by the majority of voters.

There can be several reasons for that. One is the impact of wealth. Those in power have more wealth than those without power. Wealth is also used to try to influence political power, and a good example of that is lobbying organizations. The term lobby refers to a group of people who band together and try to influence people in public office and politicians. It refers to efforts to influence the votes of legislators (which was originally done in the lobby outside the legislative chamber). 

Lobbying in some form is inevitable in any political system, and it involves money as lobbying groups will financially contribute to those representatives who support their cause and who they want to see reelected.

The National Rifle Association (the NRA) and The Second Amendment Foundation are lobby groups active in supporting — and not “infringing” — the Second Amendment. Everytown for Gun Safety, The Brady Campaign, Moms Demand Action, and Giffords Law Center are lobby groups active in promoting gun control legislation, including backgrounds checks for all gun purchases.

Another reason why universal background checks has not yet passed the Senate might be the source of power in state action: e.g., our Senate’s use of the filibuster. For many matters before the Senate, debate on a bill can only be cut off if at least 60 senators support doing so. While Senate rules still require just a simple majority to actually pass a bill, that typically cannot happen unless a supermajority of 60 Senators vote to end debate on the bill. This poses a steep barrier to any proposed policy or law before the Senate, even one that has the support of 84% of voters.

If representative democracy is not ideal in following the will of the people, why not have a direct democracy?

We looked at Switzerland, which is the closest nation to a direct democracy.  In Switzerland, citizens can launch a popular initiative to demand a change to the constitution. Before a vote is held on a popular initiative, 100,000 valid signatures in favor of the proposal must be collected within a period of 18 months, resulting in a mandatory referendum. A double majority, meaning the consent of a majority of the people and of the cantons (similar to states) is required to amend the country’s constitution.

Thus when a majority of Swiss voters are opposed to a policy or legislation, it is less likely to become law. Switzerland was quite late in giving women the right to vote because a majority of male voters for a long time did not want to expand the right to vote. (i.e. in 1971 for national elections, and in 1991 for all elections).

One of the most recent referendums to pass in Switzerland was last March, where 52% of voters agreed to a ban on face coverings. Aimed at the Muslim population, the new law will ban the wearing of niqabs and burqas in public —  worn by almost no one even among the country’s Muslims

This led to a discussion of the meaning of the phrase “the tyranny of the majority” — when decisions made by a majority place the majority’s interests above those of an individual or minority group. Tyranny of the majority occurs when a majority acts only in the interests of the majority and not in the interests of the people as a whole.

Switzerland’s March referendum is an example of tyranny of the majority. The Swiss majority vote was one that notably interfered with the rights of its minority Muslim population. As James Madison noted, “The purpose of the Constitution is to restrict the majority’s ability to harm the minority.” 

In any time remaining, students got a short review of the origin of the Greek alphabet, learning about the evolution of  letters into our Latin, aka Roman, alphabet (the alphabet we use in the English language), and focusing on the various sounds the Greek letters and our Latin letters make. We also spent some time reviewing what students need to do to create a very cool Greek nameplate of the Greek letters that make up the phonemes in their name, the distinct units of sound that, put together, creates their name.

Writing began in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in 3000 BCE.  It was not really writing, but proto-writing, meaning “approaching writing” —  a system of symbols used to convey information. It existed before cuneiform was used in Mesopotamia during Hammurabi’s time. Cuneiform and the earliest alphabets evolved out of these earlier symbolic sign systems.

Nearly all modern alphabets are descended from an alphabet invented about 4,000 years ago by people related to the ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, and Canaanites, who lived in the Sinai Desert in the Middle East and along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Like the Egyptians, they used their own simplified pictures to represent consonant sounds.  

The Phoenicians and others in the region simplified the pictures further and often rotated them. All of the letters in the alphabet were for consonants. Each letter represented one consonant sound.

The Phoenicians were great traders in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Greeks saw how the Phoenician alphabet really helped the Phoenicians interact with each other and with other traders. So, the Greeks decided to adopt parts of the Phoenician alphabet, and over time they changed it up a bit to make it a better fit with their spoken language, Greek. (Cultural diffusion at work!)

One big change was that the Greeks needed to add some new letters to represent vowels (the Phoenician alphabet had no vowels), so the Greeks took consonant letters they didn’t need and turned them into letters for vowels.  They also added a few symbols of their own to represent additional sounds.

The Latin alphabet, which is the ancestor of most Western European alphabets (including the alphabet we use), is derived from the Greek alphabet, and was also influenced by the Etruscans. At the beginning, there were only 19 letters in the Latin alphabet.

Here’s a fun fact. The ampersand (&) was once a letter in the English alphabet. In the 1st century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive. When they wrote the Latin word et, which means “and,” they would link the “e” and “t” together. Over time, the combined letters came to signify the word “and” in English as well. So, the Latin alphabet at one time had 27 letters.

Domus Opus:  The Greek Alphabet Mini-Project is due Tuesday, May 18. This assignment has two parts: 1) typed written responses to The Greek Alphabet worksheet (it requires you to do some online research and type your responses into the Google Doc shared with you on Classroom); and 2) creation of a colorful and/or striking nameplate (you will upload a photo of your name plate on the slide provided).

See the rubric posted on Classroom for the scoring of this mini-project and use the resources provided for you on Classroom to determine how to create your nameplate.  If you have any questions about sounding out your name and  determining the phonemes in your name, or about the selection of the Greek letter that represents each phoneme, please check in with me.


Thursday & Friday, May 6 & 7:  We continued our look at the sources of power within a community and, more specifically, within a democracy.

While the origin of the word “democracy” means that “the people have the power,” to what extent was that the case in the direct democracy of ancient Athens and to what extent is that so in the representative democracy of our government?

We completed listening to the TED-Ed video “How to Understand Power” (you can watch the entire video below).

Written by Eric Liu, a noted author on citizenship and a former White House speechwriter, the video describes the following six sources of power, and suggests that understanding how they work will help us become better citizens:

  1. Physical force and the capacity for violence: control by force, such as by the police or the militia (the military).
  2. Wealth: money creates the ability to buy results (and thus, buy power).
  3. State action or government: the use of law and bureaucracy to compel people to act (or not to act). In a democracy, we give government its power through elections.
  4. Social norms: these operate in a “softer,” more subtle, way than government, as in peer to peer. They make people change behavior and government change laws (e.g., the recent changes in marriage equality laws).
  5. Ideas:  an idea can generate immense power if it motivates enough people to change their thinking and actions.
  6. Numbers: a vocal mass of people creates power by expressing collective intensity or interest and by asserting legitimacy.

We noted that three years ago, a large number of Park Middle School and SPFHS students took part in a nationwide protest/observance against gun violence by leaving their classrooms for 17 minutes. Students identified social norms, ideas, and numbers as the sources of power used that day. Most students thought that 20 years from now, those individuals would be just as likely to use wealth and state action to try to effect change.

We next looked at who has the power in a direct democracy: specifically, who could participate in the government of ancient Athens. Historians believe that, of some 45,000 male Athenian citizens, not more than 6,000 or so usually attended the Assembly and voted on policies. The vast majority of the 250,000-300,000 residents of Athens did not have the “power of the people,” which we demonstrated in class. Ancient Athens allowed neither foreigners (metics), slaves, nor women to vote. Nor did it allow Athenian men to vote if their parents were not native Athenian. Of the 20-some students in our classroom, only three ended up having the right to vote whether to purchase a new and improved hoplon for our hoplites.

We compared these numbers to the segment of our population that makes up the electorate in the United States. Under our scenario, only foreigners living and working in the U.S. would not have the right to vote. But because the proposed policy on which we were voting was about reforming our gun laws, none of the citizens in actuality had the right to vote. In a representative democracy, that right belongs to our duly-elected representatives.

To conclude class, we noted that in recent years gun control advocates have pushed for limiting the Second Amendment right to bear arms by calling for legislation requiring background checks on all gun purchases (currently, background checks are not required on 22% of gun sales: those completed online, at gun shows, or between private individuals). 

Background checks on all gun purchases are supported by the vast majority of  U.S. voters (most recently up to 84%). Then what power is preventing Congress, under our representative democracy, from passing universal background checks?

We were left to consider why the Senate’s action — or, in this case, inaction — did not reflect the will of the people in our representative democracy.  Are there other, more persuasive, forces of power in play here? Or have a majority of the senators simply based their decisions on logic — on what they viewed was best for the American people?

Many students correctly identified the powers that prevent the Senate from acting as state action and wealth. We will briefly explore these two causes when we next meet.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus! Five assignments have been collected for this marking period. Be sure you have submitted the following: 

  • Flipgrid presentation on your China topic
  • Confucianism & Taoism Stop & Discuss Qs
  • Legalism Stop & Discuss Qs and “Goodbye” Slip on the Three Philosophies
  • Evolution of Gov’t to Democracy
  • “It’s Greek to Me!” Outline Notes


Tuesday & Wednesday, May 4 & 5:  At the beginning of the period, we concluded our review of democracy, and students handed in their worksheet on the evolution of government.

Ancient Greece is often referred to as “the cradle of democracy.” But many of the democratic reforms came about during the rule of tyrants who took power over a 150-year period from 650 – 500 BCE.  We looked at achievements of several of the tyrants who ruled ancient Athens, and how the policies they introduced helped to expand the rights of the middle class and ordinary citizenry, which led to the birth of democracy. Examples included:

  • Draco — known for his harsh punishments — was the first to codify the laws of Athens.
  • Solon outlawed debt slavery, reduced poverty by encouraging trade, established a jury system, and gave citizenship to skilled foreigners residing in Athens.
  • Peisistratus lowered taxes, extended citizenship to men who did not own land, and loaned money to the poor (credited with the first welfare state).
  • Cleisthenes established the Assembly of Athens and the Council of 500, giving citizens the right to participate in  governing the city-state (polis). He also protected free speech rights, and set up a system whereby a citizen deemed a threat could be sent into exile for 10 years (by casting ostracons, from which we get the English words ostracism and ostracize).
  • Pericles ruled Athens during its Golden Age. He provided for paid positions in the Council of 500 and for jury service. He also oversaw a massive building program (which was also a job creation program). He commissioned the building of the Parthenon and was a patron of the arts,  funding public festivals and theater performances.

Vocabulary words reviewed include: draconian, meaning harsh and severe, and ostracize, meaning to exclude from a group.

At the end of class, we began an exploration of the sources of power within a community and, more specifically, within a democracy.

Yesterday we learned that the etymology of the word “democracy” – its origin – is the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power).  It is said that “the people have the power” in a democracy. But to what extent was that the case in the direct democracy of ancient Athens and to what extent is that so in the representative democracy of our government?

We noted the definition of power and listing sources of power in the civic arena, as described in the TED-Ed video “How to Understand Power.”



Friday & Monday, April 30 & May 3:  After completing a review of the impact of the geography and climate on ancient Greece — including what to do in a riptide (and here’s a 10-min video on the same subject) — we turned to a review of the forms of government that evolved over time in Athens, beginning with monarchy and ending with democracy.  Ancient Greece is often referred to as the “cradle of 

Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy.

democracy.” Between the late 500’s and early 400’s BCE, democracy developed in the city-state of Athens.

The city-states of Ancient Greece were not always democracies.  Due to their geography (mountainous terrain and many islands), city-states were isolated from one another. They each developed their own government, economy, and way of life. The early city-states (between 2000 BCE – 800 BCE) — or poleis, as they were called — were ruled by hereditary kings. Under this type of government, a monarchy, the kings were advised by wealthy nobles, or aristocrats. (If you’re interested in learning what countries still have monarchies, see the video posted below.)

As many Greeks grew tired of the kings, the richer, more powerful landowners were able to overthrow the kings and seize power. By the 8th century BCE many of the Greek city-states were ruled by aristocratic landowners. This type of government is called an oligarchy, which means “ruled by a few.” The aristocratic landowners had many of the powers that had been granted to the king, and common people had no say in the government.

Between the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, there were many middle class uprisings against the ruling aristocrats, the oligarchs. A new group of rulers emerged, the “tyrants” (in Greek, tyrannos, which means “usurper with supreme power”). Greek tyrants seized power from the aristocrats through military force with the support of the middle class. 

While today the words “tyrant” and “tyranny” have a negative connotation, in the beginning the tyrants  of ancient Greece were popular.  They brought needed reforms to the polis. They provided aid to the poor, canceled debt, and instituted land reforms. They tried to make life better with new building projects and increased employment opportunities. They also gave citizens more say in their government.

Draco Malfoy

One of the most famous tyrants to come out of ancient Greece was Draco, known for his cruel and unusual punishments. In all likelihood, JK Rowling named Draco Malfoy after the tyrant.

Tyrants had done a service to the polis by getting rid of the aristocrats and setting the stage for a new form of government:  democracy.

In 510 BCE, the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes overthrew the tyrants and turned to the people of Athens for support. Considered by many to be the founder of Athenian democracy, Cleisthenes proposed a constitution and created a new political structure, which he called demokratia, or democracy – rule by the entire body of citizens.

This type of government in which all citizens participate and meet to debate and vote on all issues is known today as a direct democracy. Democracy continued in Athens and spread to many other city-states in ancient Greece.

By the time the great Pericles became the leader of Athens, democracy was the way of life. Pericles expanded democracy to allow more citizens to participate by compensating them for serving in public office and jury duty. This compensation allowed the poorer citizens of Athens to participate.

There were two governing bodies at the time. The Council of 500 was selected by lottery to serve on the Council for one year. It met virtually every day, managing the daily affairs of the city-state and proposing laws for the Assembly to consider. If the Assembly approved a law, it was the job of the Council to enact and enforce it.  

The Assembly, on the other hand, was not limited to a defined number, but open to all adult male citizens. Each had the right to speak and cast a vote in the assembly. The assembly set all of the laws for the city-state and had the power to declare war. Through public debate and voting, citizens were able to create new laws, revise laws, and set foreign policy.  

Not all residents of Athens were considered citizens. Citizenship was limited to those whose parents were also citizens. Slaves, former slaves, and foreign residents were not considered citizens. Women whose parents were citizens were classified as “citizens,” but were not allowed to participate in government or politics. With these restrictions, only about 30,000 to 40,000 of the approximately 250,000 residents of Athens were actually eligible to participate in politics.

Students also learned that while ancient Athens had a direct democracy, our nation is a democratic republic; it is a representative democracy. Voters in the U.S. elect officials to represent the people in the legislative and governing processes. These elected officials make decisions on our behalf. The nation today that is closest to a direct democracy is Switzerland, which frequently allows its citizens to vote for legislation in a national referendum.

In the afternoon, we watched excerpts from two short videos on the Greek city-states. In most classes, we viewed the first four minutes of How Did Greek City-States Work?. In most classes we also watched the video posted below.

Domus Opus:  The bulleted set of notes on your “It’s Greek to Me!” character (which you may refer to when introducing your topic to our class) is due tomorrow at 8 PM for Periods 1 & 2 and on Wednesday at 8 PM for Periods 5, 7 & 8.  Remember to follow the rubric posted on Classroom and the model notes provided (that are included in the project description) to ensure your notes are completed correctly.


Wednesday & Thursday, April 28 & 29: We spent the beginning of the period assigning It’s Greek to Me! topics. If you were absent from class today and did not get an assigned topic, please contact me with your selection.

To begin our unit on ancient Greece, we viewed a short video on the geography of the region we now call Greece.

It would be wrong to regard ancient Greece as an empire or nation-state at this time.  It was actually a collection of different city-states, all of which were independent and which were at time rivals of each other.

The city-state — or polis (poleis in the plural), as it was called — wasn’t just an area inside a city wall, it was the whole area that the city-state controlled.  Most were restricted in size by the amount of arable, grain-growing land that they had.

The very mountainous terrain of Greece, along with its long coastline along the mainland on the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Ionian seas plus its many islands, encouraged the development of independent city-states.  And it’s said that the competition between the many city-states helped Ancient Greece achieve greatness in so many fields:

  • art (particularly sculpture);
  • architecture (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian)
  • literature (e.g., Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey); 
  • philosophy (Socrates, Plato & Aristotle);
  • theater (tragedy, comedy & satire);
  • military arts
  • sports (the Olympics)

For historians, during the Archaic Period (from approximately 800 BCE – 500 BCE), we begin to recognize ancient Greece we know. As the populations of a multitude of distinct, independent cities grew, grain had to be imported, and extensive colonization began. Coins appeared for trading purposes.

Earlier periods, not covered in today’s videos include:

The early Minoan civilization on Crete:

  • Dating back to 3000 BCE
  • 3-story palaces, no defensive walls, colorful artwork, bullfighting
  • It’s downfall
    • Greatest volcanic eruption in European history; tsunami
  • Crete never recovered
  • Invaders (Mycenaeans) swarmed in


  • City-state of Mycenae (Greeks) conquered Crete and the seas
  • Turned Mediterranean into a war zone
  • Claimed Crete’s culture as their own
  • In conquering Crete, they conquered the seas
    • Marine trade brought riches
    • All writing was financial accounts
  • Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey

The Dark Ages (1100 BCE – 800 BCE)

  • Literacy fell into oblivion during this period
  • Homer: blind poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey
  • Kings were illiterate
  • Dorians destroyed the Mycenaeans
    • Only left the sailing ship and potter’s wheel
    • Greeks in Ionia borrowed a new alphabet from the Phoenicians.

We took notes on two videos we viewed. In the PM session, students were given time to research their It’s Greek to Me! topic.


Monday & Tuesday, April 26 & 27:  Students were introduced to our next project, a part of the upcoming unit on ancient Greece, “It’s Greek to Me!” This assignment will require:

  • some outside research on an assigned Greek mythological figure;
  • the creation of a set of notes (in bullet format) that are detailed enough that would allow anyone to present your assigned topic on your behalf in your absence;
  • a brief oral presentation on your Greek mythological figure; and
  • the definition of the English vocabulary word/phrase that is derived from your Greek myth and a current event sentence  that uses the English vocabulary word derived from your Greek myth.

Topics will be selected on Wednesday for Periods 1 & 2 and on Thursday for Periods 5, 7 & 9, at the beginning of the school day and thereafter.

After completing the assignment on Chinese landscape art, students were introduced to the complexity of Chinese characters and also to a different way of writing: melding the look of Chinese characters with the spelling of English words. To discover some of  the symbolism behind Chinese characters, we viewed a short TED video on how to write a few Chinese characters (described a building blocks) and how one can build from a few simple forms (radicals) to more complex concepts. The TED video is posted below. If you would like to learn more Chinese characters, watch Lesson One of ShaoLan’s Chineasy video.

Square Word Calligraphy is a new way of writing designed by internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing. He devised a unique method to write English words that, at first glance, appear to be Chinese characters.  In fact, it is simply a new way of arranging the letters of English words to mimic Chinese calligraphy.

The idea of inventing this new form of writing came to Xu Bing when he observed the interest non-Asians showed in regard to Chinese writing. Intrigued, he sought to create a work that would demystify Chinese calligraphy and reward the Westerner’s engagement. In Square Word Calligraphy, Xu Bing designed a system whereby the slightly altered letters of English words are written in the format of a square, so as to resemble Chinese characters, yet they remain legible to the English reader. The letters are read from top to bottom and from left to right.

As we are not able to have fun with a day of watercolors and Square Word Calligraphy (due to social distancing), information and examples of Square Word Calligraphy have been posted on Google Classroom for students who’d like to try their hand at it at home.

In the PM session, students were also given a demonstration of an ugly and then a much improved “It’s Greek to Me!” presentation:  a short review of the Greek mythological beast the Chimera. A fire-breathing female monster (part lion and part goat, with a serpent for a tail), it would regularly appear before disasters, such as shipwrecks or volcanic eruptions.

The English word derived from this beast is the adjective “chimerical,” meaning “highly unrealistic” or “produced by a wildly fanciful imagination” (much like the mythological figure). 🙂

As was shown in class, it is important that students not only present correct information on the story behind their mythological character, but they should also ensure that they pronounce its Greek name – as well as the English word derived from the Greek – correctly. They also should ensure that the information that is shared enables their classmates to understand HOW the mythological figure connects to the English vocabulary word or phrase. 

We also looked at an ugly set of notes and a solid set of notes. The ugly notes are just sentences separated by bullet points that have been copied onto paper without any real sense of organization. Your notes should be easy for a classmate to use and present in your place. Please be sure you refer to the rubric for It’s Greek to Me!


Thursday & Friday, April 22 & 23: To wrap up our China unit,  we began exploring landscape painting of Imperial China.

We first focused on how Chinese art differs from Western art. The class looked at two pieces of art from the same period of time and made comparisons between the two. In the example of Western art (see Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters, above), people — whether they are working or resting or are in the foreground or background — dominate the pastoral scene. In the Ming era landscape (below), while humans have a place, they are merely participants in the natural scene. They are inconspicuous.

Some additional observations made about Chinese landscapes include:

  • calligraphy was the original art form from which landscape painting evolved;
  • great emphasis was placed on nature, showing Taoism’s influence;
  • scenes were painted from memory in the studio, not in the open air;
  • large areas were purposely left unpainted to depict air, water, mist, and clouds;
  • the medium was usually black ink on silk or paper, as color was regarded as a distraction; and
  • it included a wide range of scale – from small fans to 65-foot long hand scrolls.

Almost all early writing systems began with scrolls: e.g., the papyrus rolls of Egypt, which continued to be used during Roman times, and the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, were written on scrolls. Early materials used for writing, such as papyrus, could not be folded into book form but had to be rolled.  The same was true in China.

In earlier periods the Chinese used woven silk or strips of bamboo tied together as a writing surface, and the most efficient way to mount these surfaces was as long rolls. So the scroll format long preceded the use of the book. And in China the scroll persisted as the format of choice for artists who wanted to create long, narrative pieces, and long, landscape scenes. 

Waiting for the ferry

Unidentified Artist Waiting for the Ferry, early 13th century China, Song dynasty (960–1279) Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink on silk

While viewing an early 13th century landscape painting (see above), we read an excerpt from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which illustrates a key concept in Taoism:

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

As this passage illustrates, the central part of the wheel (pun intended) is the hole in the middle, where there is nothing. When clay is shaped into a bowl, we may notice and admire the beauty of the form, but it is the emptiness inside the bowl that makes the bowl useful. What is NOT there is as important as — and is more useful than — what IS there.

Similarly, in a Chinese landscape painting, while empty space depicts absence, the emptiness also reveals presence. The empty spaces of the landscape above — the blank background or pale wash of the paper or raw silk — reveals water, sky, mist, and snow on the mountains.

A significant difference between Eastern and Western painting lies in the format. Unlike Western paintings, which are hung on walls and continuously visible to the eye, most Chinese paintings are not meant to be on constant view but are brought out to be seen only from time to time. As a result, the viewing of paintings was always a special occasion. 

This occasional viewing has everything to do with the Chinese format: the scroll.  Hanging scrolls might be brought out for special occasions; they might reflect the marking of a season or a special event. After the passing of such an event, however, the scroll would be put away. Also, because works on silk and paper are light sensitive, they should not be kept out for long periods of time.

Early Spring

The Chinese express the concept of landscape with the term “shan shui” (in English, “mountain-water”). While humans are present in Imperial Chinese landscapes, they are inconsequential.

And the act of handling and viewing the hand scroll makes for a very intimate encounter with the work of art. To view a landscape painting on a hand scroll, the scroll had to be removed from a box and a protective covering. Handling the scroll, one was entering the world the painting portrayed. Viewers were encouraged to “travel” from one point to the next as they made their way through the scroll. As a result, the viewing of Chinese landscape paintings was always a special occasion. 

Students can watch this video,  The Ancient Art of Understanding and Appreciating Chinese Scroll Paintings, to better understand how one views a hand scroll.

Another interesting example of what distinguishes early Chinese landscapes from Western art — as shown in the video above — was the practice of the various owners of a painting to add their own reactions to the work, often in the form of poetry written in calligraphy on the artist’s work. 

The owner of a painting might not only add an inscription directly onto the painting or to its borders, but also place a red-stamped seal. The more owners a painting had, the more seals one would find on the painting. The addition of seals and comments was meant to show the viewer’s appreciation for the painting and served to record a work’s transmission and offered vivid testimony of an artwork’s continuing impact on later generations. It was believed these additions enriched the painting.

Thus, a painting was not finalized when an artist set down his brush, but it would continue to evolve as later owners and admirers appended their own inscriptions or seals. Most such inscriptions take the form of colophons placed on the borders of a painting or on the endpapers of a handscroll or album; others might be added directly on to the painting.

“Night-Shining White” by Han Gan, a leading horse painter of the Tang dynasty (618–906 CE)

The act of ownership entailed the responsibility of not only caring for the work properly, but to a certain extent also recording one’s response to it.  (Nota bene: Night-Shining White, shown above, was embellished with a record of its transmission that spans more than a thousand years – no wonder it has so many stamps and inscriptions!)

The Taoist influence is easily seen in early Chinese landscapes. Mountain peaks and waterfalls are complementary and contrasting. Like yin & yang, water and mountains are in constant play with each other and make up much of Chinese landscape painting. In fact, the most common term for Chinese landscapes is shan shui (pronounced “shahn shway” – in English, “mountain-water”). The artist’s goal was not only to capture the outer appearance of the subject but its inner essence as well—its energy, life force, spirit.

People seeking to understand the power of nature, the Dao, often contemplate landscape paintings when they cannot go to the countryside and view an actual mountain or waterfall. In many landscape paintings, humans have a place. They are participants in the natural scene, but they do not dominate it.

The Chinese way of appreciating a painting is often expressed by the words du hua, “to read a painting.”  Chinese art was frequently an integration of calligraphy, poetry, and painting:  scholar-artists combined these “Three Perfections” in a single work of art.

Also, because the format for paintings was most often handscrolls or double-leaf albums, du hua also suggests that physical connection to the work by the act of unrolling a scroll or leafing through an album.

Southern Inspection Tour

Here nature gives way to a busy Chinese city (dated 1770). This is a scene from a 65-foot long handscroll!

In the PM session, we viewed the Taoist story, The Farmer’s Luck (see below). The moral of the story is that no event can truly be judged as good or bad, lucky or unlucky, fortunate or unfortunate. It takes time to understand the whole story. And no one lives long enough to discover the whole story, so investing energy in judging what is happening may not be fruitful.

Instead, it is better to take things in stride and not judge them “good” or “bad.” It is better to accept what comes our way and make the best of our life circumstances. It is not that the farmer is disengaged. Rather, he has a greater perspective. He sees the bigger picture. He knows that he can’t stop things from happening, but he can control how he reacts to them. 


Domus Opus: Nolo Domus Opus  — but students should be sure that they have submitted the Stop & Discuss Qs on Confucianism & Daoism, the Stop & Discuss Qs on Legalism, and the Creative Juices Exit Slip on the Three Ways of Thought.


Tuesday & Wednesday, April 20 & 21: Today’s class examined the last of the three major Eastern philosophies, Legalism. Founded by Han Fei, a Chinese prince educated by Confucian scholars


It is said that Qin Shi Huangdi, who practiced Legalism, had a zero-tolerance policy for disrespect. Even his own generals were executed.

during the Zhou dynasty, Legalism is based on the belief that people are naturally evil and selfish and require detailed laws with severe punishments.

Instead of being devoted to conformity to the processes of nature — like Taoists — Legalists devised elaborate means for controlling people’s lives and actions through laws and a system of clear punishments and rewards.

In attempting to control every aspect of people’s lives, Legalist rulers sought to instill in peasants the discipline to work hard in the fields, and they sought to instill in their warriors the discipline to fight hard in the battlefield. While rewards for obedience could be generous, punishments often meant mutilation or death.

Legalists believed that effective rulers should never reveal affection or charity and should trust no one, including family members (as that indicates the ruler can be controlled). Legalist principles were applied during the short-lived Qin dynasty, which existed a short-lived 15 years because it was too strict.

During its brief tenure, however, the Qin dynasty witnessed some monumental achievements: it unified China for the first time, extending its military influence over a vast geographical area; it ordered the building of the Great Wall to defend against Mongol invaders; and it built one of the most ambitious monuments to self ever created, the Terracotta Army.

After reviewing an assigned reading and two videos, students completed a short worksheet on which to take a bulleted set of notes on Legalism, and a “creative juices” exit slip on the three philosophies. All resources are posted on Classroom

Domus Opus: Domus Opus:  If you did not complete the Stop & Discuss Qs on Legalism, and the Exit Slip responses, which you were to complete during class today, please do so for homework. It is due Friday at 4 PM.


Friday & Monday, April 16 & 19:  During a teacher absence, students learned about the basic tenets of Confucianism and Taoism through assigned readings and two videos posted on Classroom: Confucianism: The Basics and Daoism: The Basics

Around 1100 BCE, a group of people living in confuciusnorthwest China, called the Zhou, overthrew the Shang dynasty. Tired of paying tribute to Shang rulers, they justified their actions by claiming they had been given the “Mandate of Heaven,” or the divine right to rule. 

The Zhou dynasty lasted for more than 800 years during which time feudal lords became powerful regional leaders, and Zhou kings became little more than figureheads. It was a period of political instability as feudal lords engaged in battle with each other over wealth and territory. Rulers sought advice from advisors, scholars, and military strategists on how to expand their power while controlling their people. 

As various masters came into favor, their philosophies were compiled, recorded, and circulated. Among the most important schools of thought, or philosophies, that grew out of the Zhou dynasty were Confucianism and Taoism.

Under Confucianism, citizens followed rules according to their position and rank in confucius-in-chinese-characterssociety (as determined by the citizen’s status, gender, or age) and were expected to follow standards of behavior reflecting Confucian beliefs and practices. Students were introduced to Kong Fuzi (as spelled in Pinyin, a transcription of Chinese into the Roman alphabet — the Anglicized, or Westernized, version of his title and name is Confucius).

Kong Fuzi believed that if everyone followed li – proper behavior — society would be ordered and peaceful. According to Confucius, all of society was built on five key relationships:

  • ruler & subject
  • parent & child
  • husband & wife
  • older sibling & younger sibling
  • friend & friend

The first four relationships are hierarchical relationships (ranked according to status or authority). The superior must show benevolence (show kindness, as in have a desire to show goodwill) toward the inferior and be a good role model. The inferior must respect and obey the superior.

Kongfuzi, the founder of Confucianism, believed that:

  • People are inherently good.
  • Reverence for ancestors and learning is important.
  • People should follow standards of good behavior
    • Respect and obey those above you
    • Those in authority must be benevolent and set a good example

His sayings were collected in The Analects.  A key tenet of Confucianism is filial piety (xiao), deep reverence respect for parents and deep reverence for ancestors.  Just as parents have looked after children in their infancy and nurtured them, so the young are supposed to look after parents when they have reached old age and to revere them and to sacrifice to them after their death as well.  Confucius also emphasized the importance of respect for ritual. Through ritual, people could learn proper relationships.

Another Eastern philosophy that grew out of the Warring States period was Taoism. Believed to be founded by Laozi in the 6th century BCE, Taoism taught that the purpose good-luckbad-luckwho-knowsin life is to achieved inner peace and harmony by following the way of Nature. Taoists believed that followers of Confucianism, by insisting on focusing on human relationships and responsibilities within those relationships, exaggerated the importance of man and failed to pay attention to the lessons which Nature has to offer about time and change, gain and loss, and what is useful and useless. Taoists maintained that the only human actions which ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature — the Dao or the Way.

Daoist doctrine of wu-wei or non-action: doing nothing unnatural, no excessive desires because such desires are bound to cause injury both to oneself and to others.

The Yin & Yang symbol reflects Taoist thought (the circle has two sides, one flowing into the other and a part of each side is contained within the other, intertwined and bound together within a unifying circle, together forming a whole, one side requiring the other to be complete. …)

Domus Opus:  If you did not complete the Stop & Discuss Qs on Confucianism & Daoism, which you were to complete during class, please do so for homework. It is due upon my return.


Wednesday & Thursday, April 14 & 15: We began class learning more about President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan. The sweeping American Jobs Plan includes spending to repair aging roads and bridges, jump-start transit projects, and rebuild school buildings and hospitals. It would also expand electric vehicles and EV stations (which one student astutely noted would not create jobs but remove jobs), replace all lead pipes, and put in place programs that go far beyond infrastructure, such as providing additional support for caregivers serving the elderly and disabled.

And we learned more about the pressing immigration concerns the Biden administration and Congress are facing this year: not only the growing immigration crisis at the southern U.S. border, but also what to do about the Dreamers: the anywhere from approximately 650,000 to more than 1.2 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and have lived in America much or most of their lives, despite technically not being allowed to stay here.

We completed reviewing factors that can help a president win reelection: decreasing taxes, creating jobs (and thereby decreasing unemployment), improving border security, improving the U.S. trade imbalance, and promoting a fair justice.

In the afternoon session, students learned that during the first 200 years of the Zhou dynasty, things were going swimmingly under the Zhou dynasty’s strong central government. But within a couple of centuries, the Zhou divided their lands among local lords, and eventually these lords grew too powerful and independent. They fought among themselves and disobeyed the Zhou rulers. 

China descended into a time of constant warfare. This period, which lasted about 250 years (from 475 BCE to 221 BCE), was called the Warring States Period. While China fell into increasing chaos, it sought ways to restore order. A number of new philosophies were proposed, including two still influential today: Confucianism and Taoism (also spelled Daoism). 

To introduce students to Confucianism, we viewed a TED-Ed video about its founder, Kong fuzi, better known to Westerners as Confucius.

Domus Opus:  1) Complete your presentation on Flipgrid. The due date has been extended to Saturday, April 17, at 8 PM. The link to the Flipgrid assignment is posted on Classroom.


Monday & Tuesday, April 12 & 13:  Obviously, in the U.S., we aren’t governed by dynasties. Rather we have presidential

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a grade of C-, better than the D+ it received 4 years ago!

administrations that come and go. An administration is the executive branch under a specific president. Some administrations last eight years, some last four years, and some last even less that that, if the president resigns or dies while in office.

The Chinese emperors ruled through a system of feudalism. The U.S. operates under federalism system of government, in which a territory is controlled by two levels of gov’t: there’s an overarching national government responsible for governing larger territorial areas, while smaller regions (like states) govern issues of local concern.

We saw evidence of the federalism system of gov’t through the mask mandates that vary from state to state.

We also reviewed factors that help a president win reelection: decreasing unemployment, a strong stock market, improved infrastructure, job creation programs, and border security.

We focused in particular on the need for a dependable infrastructure to help our communities function. Basic physical systems like roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, railways, airports, ports, electrical grids, water lines, and sewer lines — in addition to law enforcement, emergency services, health care, and education — provide a community with the transportation systems, communication systems, utilities, and other services a community needs to survive and thrive.

Infrastructure projects require huge investments and so are funded by the government either in whole or in part, through gov’t subsidies.

Domus Opus:  1) Complete your presentation on Flipgrid by Thursday, April 15. The link to the Flipgrid assignment is posted on Classroom.

2) The Shang and Zhou dynasties developed many cultural behaviors and beliefs that have become part of Chinese civilization and continue to influence China today. We will next be learning about three of the new belief systems that grew out of the late Zhou dynasty: Confucianism, Daoism (also spelled Taoism), and Legalism. For background, please read page 96 (beginning with “Religious Beliefs Develop in Early China”) through page 98 and pages 101-102 in your textbook.


Thursday & Friday, April 8 & 9:  At the beginning of the period we viewed a short video of two Harvard professors explaining what

Students will be handing in their China Unit outlines later today.

constitutes a dynasty — along with a fun musical number used by Harvard students to remember the chronological order of the major dynasties (see below).

The professors described a Chinese dynasty as:

  • the name of a country
  • under the rule of a single imperial (royal) family — usually for generations
  • which governs a territory through a gov’t hierarchy
  • with a temporal limit, beginning with a military conquest and ending in military defeat
  • and which oftentimes has a prosperous age (Sheng shi)

We spent most of the period identifying events during the rule of various Chinese dynasties that caused its subjects to believe that the dynasty either possessed the Mandate of Heaven or lost the Mandate of Heaven. For example, improving border security (building the Great Wall); opening up of trade routes (expanding the Silk Road, building the Grand Canal, and expanding maritime trade); and improving and protecting food surpluses (through building of irrigation systems, using iron tools, promoting terraced farming, and building granaries to store surplus food) led subjects to believe that their emperor had the Mandate of Heaven.

On the other hand, a weak central government, high taxes, constant warfare, infrastructure in need of repair, extravagant spending, and a decrease in trade are all examples of events that led citizens to believe their dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven. Without the Mandate of Heaven, the dynasty should be overthrown and replaced with a new one.

We made comparisons to the present day as well. One of the Zhou emperors was criticized for spending too much time focused on the sport of hunting rather than on the plight of his people. In our most recent history, whether fair or unfair, both Presidents Obama and Trump have been in the news for their time spent on the gold course.

We also made note that under the Qin dynasty, the strong central government was run by a bureaucracy. Similarly, a bureaucracy is key to the executive branch of government.  The Cabinet of the United States consists of the highest-ranking appointed officers in the executive branch of the federal government: the secretaries of each of the 15 executive departments. They serve as advisors to the president. and are considered expert in their field.

The president nominates secretaries to their offices, and the Senate must confirm them by a majority vote. 

Last, we began noting reasons why a citizen would want to reelect the president and why they would oppose reelection.  We will complete listing reasons tomorrow.

Domus Opus: See Friday & Monday below.


Tuesday & Wednesday, April 6 & 7:  Today we began hearing some “emperors” boast about their successes and some “rebel leaders” attack failing dynasties. If students were inclined, we cheered on dynasties during their successes (“Tell me what a dynasty looks like! This is what a dynasty looks like!”) This Is what democracy looks likeand jeered dynasties when they fell on hard times (“Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! The Han Dynasty has got to go!”).

For centuries China was almost completely isolated from the other centers of civilization by mountains to the south and east, deserts to the north and east, and seas to the west. This


King Wen Zhou justified his overthrow of the Shang Dynasty by claiming the Shangs had lost the Mandate of Heaven by their misrule.

isolation helps explain the great originality of China’s culture. It also created problems of political unity. At the same time, the great river valleys of the Yangtze and Huang He facilitated the spread of a homogeneous culture over a greater land area than any other civilization in the world.

It is in this western region that China’s dynasties ruled. Like all rulers, China’s dynastic emperors during the Shang dynasty (one of the earliest dynasties) came upon hard times. The Zhou people, a western frontier tribe, overthrew their Shang ruler, claiming that he had failed to rule fairly and benevolently. The Zhou leader of the rebellion announced that Heaven (Tien) had given him a mandate (a command or instruction from a higher authority) to replace the Shang.

The Zhou thus introduced a new aspect of Chinese thought: the Mandate of Heaven. An impersonal and all-powerful heaven, sits in judgment over the human ruler. Heaven ultimately decided who was to rule and who was not.  When Heaven sent its support, the dynasty had peace and prosperity.  But a displeased Heaven could as easily withdraw that support, causing China to fall into chaos.

When the reigning emperor could not protect his people from barbarian raids, when flooding rivers destroyed crops, or when Chinese clans and their leaders fought each


When a new dynasty rises to power, it claims to have the Mandate of Heaven. When a dynasty is in decline or becomes corrupt and cannot deal with disasters, invasions, and/or revolts, its subjects believe the dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven and should be overthrown and replaced with a new dynasty.

other, the failure of an emperor to hold the peace and security of China was an indication to the Chinese that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven.  This was the signal for the various clans to try to secure the imperial title by a show of superiority in battle with the other clans. The victor established the new ruling dynasty, showing that he had won the Mandate of Heaven to rule as China’s new emperor.

This cycle of the rise and fall of dynasties that obtained and then lost the Mandate of Heaven is referred to as the Dynastic Cycle. (See the diagram above.)

We reviewed the steps in the Dynastic Cycle and how the concept of the Mandate of Heaven supports the overthrow of one dynasty by another. A dynasty is a ruling family. The ruler of a dynasty is the emperor. Power typically passed from one generation to another.

The emperor maintained control through a feudalist system. Feudalism is a system of government in which local lords governed their own lands but owed their military allegiance to the ruler. Feudal lords exercised real power and profited from the lands worked by peasants within their domains. The feudal lord was the head of a clan: a group of families that claim a common ancestor. Clans thus governed most of the land and owed service and support to the ruler of the dynasty.

The Mandate of Heaven was the divine right to rule. When rulers came into disfavor – due to any number of reasons, including corruption, an increase in taxes, a decrease in government services, attacks from invaders, natural catastrophes, etc. – the people took it as a sign that the dynasty had lost its favor from heaven. The dynasty had lost its divine right to rule. The people were then justified in rebelling against the dynasty and putting a new ruler — a new dynasty — in its place.

Vocabulary reviewed today includes dynasty, clan, feudalism, mandate, Mandate of Heaven, and Dynastic Cycle. 

In the afternoon session, we enjoyed viewing some of the students’ African masks and excerpts from their curatorial statements.  While doing so, students learned that when editing quotes they can use the following tools: 

  • Use an ellipsis ( . . . ) to indicate omissions in the text. 
  • Mark additions or changes by placing the edited text in square brackets [ ].

In our next class, we will complete the worksheet we began today.

Domus Opus:  See Friday & Monday below.


Friday & Monday, March 26 & April 5: Students were given the day to work on their China topic outlines. The video below on how to outline was posted on Classroom for students who wanted additional instruction.

Domus Opus:  Continue researching your China topic.and working on your outline of the information you gathered. All research for your outline should be done using our World History textbook along with the links on the “Imperial China & China Today” page under the Helpful Links tab of this weblog. The new due date for the outline is Friday, April 9, at 10 PM. The new due date for the presentation is Tuesday, April 13, at 8 PM. we will be using Flipgrid for the presentations.


Wednesday & Thursday, March 24 & 25:  We viewed the remainder of the video China’s Geography Problem, which was posted yesterday. We noted the following:

  • Tibet serves as a buffer to protect China from a military invasion by India to the south. Tibet does not have enough power economically or militarily to resist occupation by China.
  • Water is another reason that China needs Tibet. Both the Yellow (Huang He) River and Yangtze River begin in Tibet. China needs all of the water from the Tibetan Plateau for its agricultural productivity. It does not want foreign control of their water supply.
  • Mongolia, to the north of China, is an asset because it is an enormous, sparsely populated, and a friendly country. Its Gobi Desert and other desolate terrain makes it hard for any land-based army to invade from the north across Mongolia.

We also learned that China’s population is so big that it cannot support its population with its land alone. In the past, China was able to be self-sufficient. (It never colonized other territories; nor did it have a big navy in the past.) Today, however, China has turned to Africa to help provide it with what it needs. Africa “supplies the country that supplies the world” — so called “China’s China.”

China has invested heavily in the African continent (many refer to its new presence as “neo-colonialism”). Chinese companies have bought huge amounts of land to mine minerals, drill for oil, and grow food. China now imports more food and oil than it exports. Now that China is more reliant on foreign powers, it is also more vulnerable.

China’s eastern border – its Pacific coastline – is its most vulnerable border. Powerful nations are just off China’s shores. The U.S. has a military presence through its military bases (South Korea, Japan, and Guam). Other close U.S. allies in this region are Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. If a serious dispute with China occurred, the U.S. could blockade China and cut off its maritime access to the seas, disrupting not only its export trade but its import of food.

We viewed part of a video on the artificial islands and military bases China is building. To summarize:

  • China has spent significant time and resources to establish sovereignty in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and constructing military bases on the islands. China wants to protect its interests in the Pacific in the case of war. It wants control over a passage through which more than 30 percent of the world’s shipping trade flows. The South China Sea also offers significant oil and natural gas reserves, and it’s a leading fishing zone.
  • China’s entire economy relies on exports. If access to the South China Sea is restricted, it means economic ruin for China. With its enormous population, it also relies heavily on importation of food, most of which comes on ships. Without jobs or food, there’s a possibility the population would rebel against the Chinese government and end the current regime.

In sum, China has been rapidly piling sand onto reefs in the South China Sea, creating seven new islands and military bases in the region. Geopolitical tensions that were already taut have been further strained. See the video posted below if you’d like to learn more about why China is building islands to lay claim to the South China Sea.

In any time remaining, students could research their China topic.

Domus Opus: 1) If you forgot to submit the worksheet China’s Geography Problem that we completed together in class, please do so.

2) Create an African Mask Mini-Project — due date was postponed to Friday, March 26, at 10 PM.

3) Continue researching your China topic. If you did not select a topic today, check your email for the topics that are available. All relevant documents are posted on Classroom and many resources are posted under the “Helpful Links” tab. Periods 1 and 2 had Friday devoted to research and working on their outline, which is due April 7. Periods 5, 7, and 9 will be given time to do so on our first day back from spring break. Their outline is due April 8.


Monday & Tuesday, March 22 & 23:  Students were  introduced to our next project: a one-minute presentation on a topic about imperial or contemporary China (see Classwork posted onchina-satellite Google Classroom on March 22).  The project includes researching and consolidating information into an outline and sharing the information learned in a presentation to the class. 

Topics were picked during today’s Office Hours and the afternoon session. This project will be due after our spring break.

A model outline on China’s geography was posted for students on Classroom. Here are a few key points:

  • Remember to use the proper indentation to identify the information you are including as a main topic, main idea about a topic, a detail about the main idea, or more specific information about a detail.
  • Begin the first main topic with Roman numeral I, the second main topic with Roman numeral II, etc.
  • Roman numerals should be followed by capital letters (for main ideas), then Arabic numerals (additional detail about a main idea), then lower case letters (add’l info about the previous detail), etc. Use the sample outline as your guide and use the Numbered List tool in Google Docs (select the option beginning with Roman numerals).

Sample Outline showing Indentations

For more information on how to outline, watch the video posted under the China One-Minute Presentations assignment. You can also go to the “How to Outline” page of this blog under the “Reading and Writing for Literacy” tab.

We also briefly reviewed how students should begin their research.

  • First go to our World History textbook (use the index, but know too that most topics appear in Chapters 3 and 12 of our textbook).
  • Then check the links that appear on the “Imperial China & China Today” page under Helpful Links. 

We looked at a website to help students with pronunciation — should a student need it. (Here’s a more detailed Chinese pronunciation guide, for those who are interested.)

The Chinese words we read in class are written in pinyin; that is, they are written not in Chinese characters, butMa in Chinese using the Roman alphabet. This makes it easier for us to pronounce the words. It is important for students to use the correct pronunciation when they learn about their topic from the beginning; they should take the time early on in the course of their research to learn how to pronounce words unfamiliar to them. 

The website also demonstrates the various tones used in the language. While using the correct tone is essential for correct pronunciation (a different tone may give the word a completely different meaning), students are NOT expected to know the correct tonality of the Chinese vocabulary in their presentation.

We spent the second half of the morning session learning about the various geographical barriers that make up China (e.g., The Tibetan Plateau, the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts, the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayan Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean). 

China’s physical geography had a major impact on the settlement of China. The Himalayan Mountains to the southwest prevented settlement and intruders heading north.

To the north of the Himalayas is the Tibetan Plateau (pronounced “Plat-TOE”), where two of China’s major rivers begin: the Huang He, also known as the Yellow River, and the Chang Jiang, also known as the Yangtze. A challenging place to live, with its high elevation and arid, cold climate, the Tibetan Plateau served as an additional buffer against invasion.

The northwestern part of China includes the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts. These expansive deserts were difficult to cross, providing another protective boundary for Inner China.

The North China Plain and the Chang Jiang Basin of Inner China provided grassy fertile land that allowed China to provide the crops necessary for its population. Out of the constant flooding of the Huang He River (also known as “the River of Sorrows”), grew the need for a centralized government to oversee the building of dams to control devastating floods.

To conclude class, we viewed the beginning of a video examining how geography impacts present-day China. (Students who missed class today should watch the video posted below to the 2:42 mark.)

China’s geography has allowed the nation to grow to more than 1.44 billion people: the most populous in the world. The food plain of the Yellow River has some of the best agricultural land in the world. All of eastern China is perfectly suited for agriculture, which is why its population could grow to the extent it has.

Farmers use double cropping: their main crop is cultivated in June/July, and a second crop is planted for harvesting in October, increasing rice output by 25%. As a result, China can cultivate (grow) more food using same amount of land.

With rice as its main crop, China grows 11 million calories worth of food per acre compared to Europe’s 4 million calories of food per acre of farmland, growing primarily wheat.

Domus Opus: Begin researching your China topic. If you did not select a topic today, check your email for the topics that are available. All relevant documents are posted on Classroom and many resources are posted under the “Helpful Links” tab.

Students who missed class today should watch the video posted below to the 2:42 mark.


Thursday & Friday, March 18 & 19: We reviewed our responses to Appreciating African Art. We first explored Ms. Sweeney’s single

Like the Nkisi, students have the power within them to push through, endure, and persevere. This is what makes us stronger — whether it’s as basic as preparing for a presentation or as major as getting through a pandemic.

story about the Nkisi N’konde, giving her some ideas about how she could more accurately use “him” to provide some advice on her blog.

We noted that the Nkisi  is called upon to tackle not only crimes in a village, but civil disputes as well, enforcing contracts and regulating trade agreements. The Nkisi is roused to action after being impaled with a sharp metal object or after experiencing verbal abuse — being insulted or mocked. We reflected on whether we would response in the same way if we were verbally chastised. Very few said they would rise to take action. Instead, we tend to internalize such attacks.

We reflected on artist Pat Steir’s comment on the Nkisi: “I love the parts where he’s broken as much as the parts where he’s complete.” Students shared that people today want to be loved despite their imperfections. We are all broken in ways, but are also complete beings, despite those broken parts. Steir shared that she doesn’t care about his imperfections. She accepts him for what he is and all he has done for his community. 

We next took a closer look at the Dogon Couple, focusing on how the sculptor represented male and female roles in Dogon society. We  considered how our own perception of male and female roles impacts how we view the Dogon Couple. In a number of responses, if students viewed the sculpture with the man’s arm around the woman, he was identified as being the protector, the provider, or the controller. If it was the woman with her arm around the man, more students used words like supportive, close, and trusting and described the woman as relying on the man. But not all responses were consistent in this way. …

We noted the features in the sculpture that were added or exaggerated to represent ideas about the roles of Dogon men and women. The sculptor depicted the woman as a caretaker and nurturer (the baby on her back, her swollen breasts) and the man as a protector, hunter, and provider (the quiver on his back, his pectoral muscles, his arm around the woman).

In the PM session, students were introduced to their next mini-project: Create an African Mask. We learned that African masks are a big part of storytelling in Africa, re-enacting myths and sharing stories of a people’s history and culture. It takes a major role in celebrations acknowledging life events. 

African masks generally have the following characteristics:

  • Resembles a human, animal, spirit or any combination
  • Abstract
  • Symmetrical
  • Patterns   —  geometric shapes
  • Often enlarged, out-of-proportion  facial features
  • Natural or earthy colors
  • Favored material = wood
  • Also used bronze, copper, ivory, terra cotta, raffia, textiles
  • Often decorated with cowrie shells, colored beads, bone, animal skins

Unfortunately, few African masks of long ago still exist today. The moist climate and wood-eating insects have destroyed many older masks. In addition, the impact of colonialism has taken its toll. Missionaries destroyed masks, viewing them as reminders of a pagan past. Campaigns to convert native Africans to Christianity and Islam resulted in a demise of traditional religious practices.

Domus Opus: Create an African Mask Mini-Project — due Thursday, March 25 at 8 PM. After completing the background reading, “Two Curators on African Masks,” carefully read and review the project description, “Create an African Mask” and follow the directions to complete your African mask and accompanying curatorial statement. Remember, your mask should be the size of an adult face or slightly larger. When you have completed your mask and the paragraph-long curatorial statement, post them on the slide provided. (You can create a second slide if you prefer for the curatorial statement.)

For ideas on the different ways one can design an African mask, students can check out the the ArtyFactory website and additional instructional videos posted on Classroom. Students are also welcome to explore additional resources on their own. (If you find a helpful resource you think I should share with your classmates, send me the link!)


Tuesday & Wednesday, March 16 & 17:  We had a short review and a short quiz on how Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel theory applies to the history of Africa.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond

Most of the period we reviewed the criteria in the rubric that is used to determine the most appropriate placement of students for 9th grade social studies. The rubric assesses both the skills and dispositions of 8th grade students, who will be recommended for either Academic or Advanced US History I.  As noted on the rubric, students who are recommended for Academic but would like to be considered for Accelerated in the following year should aspire to develop the skills and dispositions described in the Advanced column of the rubric.

In any time remaining in the AM session, we looked at recent data on Zambia, the nation Professor Diamond visited at the end of the documentary. We discovered that, in the past 20 years, life expectancy has increased from 35 years to almost 66 years. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adults in Zambia is just over 12%, and diarrhea and malaria remain a significant threat to the health and life span of the population.

Interestingly, almost 46% of the population is age 14 years or younger. With a median age of 16.9 years,  Zambia’s poor, youthful population consists primarily of Bantu-speaking people representing nearly 70 different ethnicities, and almost as many languages/dialects.  

In the PM session, we viewed a brief interview of Jared Diamond by Bill Gates about Professor Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval.  In it, he looks at how countries have dealt with nationwide crises and what we might be able to learn from them. He also notes that the U.S. must deal with big issues of political and social polarization, as well as addition to low voter turnout, obstacles to voter registration, inequality, and  limited socio-economic mobility. 

In the interview, conducted about 2 years ago, Diamond says he believes the U.S. has become so polarized because due to technology we’ve experienced a decline in face-to-face communication due to technology (he points out that children in Papua New Guinea are much better at conversation than American children), and we have weaker social ties than other nations due to our size. This polarization is having a negative impact on our democracy.

If you missed class today, the video is posted below.

Domus Opus:  Stay tuned. ….


Friday & Monday: March 12 & 15:  We completed viewing excerpts of Episode 3 of the National Geographic documentary Guns, Germs & Steel.

Wet markets that sell live animals can risk creating the types of dangerous conditions where viruses can spread from animals to humans, due to the close quarters and potentially unsanitary practices.

Beyond the human toll (the life expectancy in Zambia was reported at the time to be 35 years), students learned that the economic toll of malaria is significant. We focused on the relationship between disease and poverty: how disease creates poverty, and poverty makes disease harder to treat, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle.

The economic toll wrought by virulent diseases, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, is significant. We noted the various ways disease impacts a developing nation: e.g., it increases health costs, while decreasing expenditures on education; it saps worker productivity and scares away business investment; it sends people already in poverty who can’t afford treatment even deeper into poverty; and it decreases GDP.

Students earlier this year learned the meaning of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.  The definition discussed in class = total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period. One can think of it as the size of the economy.

In the documentary (which was produced about 15 years ago, in 2005), Zambia’s GDP per capita was reported to be $1,500, and it was experiencing negative 1% annual growth in GDP. (Zambia was the nation visited by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs & Steel.)  According the the CIA World Factbook, the most recent figures for GDP growth shows a 3.4% growth rate in 2017 and an estimated GDP per capita of $3,470 in 2019.

In the remaining time, we watched a short video (see below) explaining where the novel coronavirus came from: how COVID-19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, and how zoonotic disease jumps between species, from animals (oftentimes bats or birds) to intermediary animals to humans. These zoonotic diseases are quite common; some cause a mild illness (such as the flu) and others are more virulent, like COVID-19.

The video explained how researchers believe that the current pandemic began in a wet market in Wuhan, China. A wet market is a shopping area where butchers and grocers sell fresh produce and meat straight from the farm, as well as fresh fish. Some sell live animals and wildlife, which is where the problem lies. Wet markets that sell live animals risk creating the types of dangerous conditions where viruses can spread from animals to humans, due to close quarters and unsanitary conditions — especially, if the markets have rare animals (like the pangolin) or those captured in the wild. 

The last time we had a major pandemic was the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, which researchers now believe did not begin in Spain but on a pig farm in Kansas. That flu pandemic was much more devastating than the one we are facing today. It affected a third of the global population and killed 50 million people.

Domus Opus: Nolo Domus Opus! If you missed class today, please read the blog summary and watch the video on the origin of the Coronavirus.


Wednesday & Thursday, March 10 & 11: We spent most of the period viewing additional excerpts from Episode 3 of the National Geographic documentary, Guns, Germs & Steel. This segment focuses on the impact of germs: how smallpox – brought by Europeans to the African cape – devastated the native populations; malaria’s impact on Europeans that tried to settle in the tropics; and the current impact of mutating, more virulent strains of malaria on the native African populations.

We learned that European settlers in Africa experienced a reversal of the pattern of carrying germs that devastated native Africans. Rather than introducing germs to the people they hoped to conquer, they were being infected by the germs that were indigenous (native) to Africa and lost their livestock and their own lives as a result.

Native Africans were able to protect themselves from the germs that caused diseases, such as smallpox and malaria. Native Africans had developed immunity to smallpox through repeated exposure over thousands of years and through vaccination.

They also knew how to avoid diseases like malaria; they chose to live in high, dry areas where the mosquitoes responsible for spreading the disease do not typically live. They lived in small communities spread out over relatively large areas; they could thereby minimize the transmission of diseases when outbreaks occurred. In other words, they understood the importance of social distancing!

European settlers, on the other hand, did not understand the causes of malaria; they concentrated their settlements near rivers & water sources where they faced the greatest exposure to malaria. They also lived in close proximity to each other. As a result,  epidemics were frequent and deadly to the settlers.

Students who missed class today can watch the documentary posted below through the 26:35-min. mark.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus — but students submitted their notes that we worked on during two earlier classes on the reading Why Do Some Societies Have So Much While Others Have So Little? 


Monday & Tuesday, March 8 & 9:  In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Professor Jared Diamond sought to answer the biggest question of post-Ice-Age human history: why Eurasians — rather than people of other continents — became the ones to develop the ingredients of power (guns, germs, and steel) and to dominate other regions of the world. In other words, why do some societies have so much and others so little?

Diamond’s theory, examined four bodies of information (the fields of social science, botany, zoology, and microbiology). He ultimately concluded that human societies of different continents followed widely divergent paths of development due to advantages of geography.

We created a set of notes covering the “different overarching forces” behind the development of societies, which explain why — according to Diamond — some societies flourished, grew, and conquered other societies less fortunate.

As Prof. Diamond noted, food producers were not nomadic because – thanks to domesticated plants and animals – they could live and work in a small area rather than hunt and gather their food. The advantages were numerous: they could have children more often because they could stay in one place and raise them — and put them to work. Their crops, especially with the assistance of the domesticated animals, could feed a larger population. 

As they grew from tribes into chiefdoms, they eventually became states, with a hierarchy of government and more advanced job specialization. These both were more receptive to new new inventions, and eventually the technology of guns and steel gave them the needed power to conquer societies less fortunate, by accident of their geographic location.

But there were also disadvantages. Germs, the second element in his book’s title, was also a result of animal domestication and food production. Many diseases originate in and evolve from animals, and only societies with domesticated animals typically allow such a disease to make the crossover to humans.

The major infectious diseases in humans all evolved from animals (smallpox, plague, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, cholera, and COVID-19). Societies whose members lived next to animals eventually developed immunities from repeated attacks of the disease. So germs proved to be another deadly weapon in the arsenal of the advantaged societies.

Students who did not have time to watch the video in class on the impact of domesticated animals on the success of early civilizations, can view the video below.

Students learned that most deaths worldwide in children under age five are caused by infectious diseases.guns-germs-and-steel

An estimated 5.4 million children under the age of five died in 2017, which translates to 15,000 deaths per day.  More than half of these early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions against infectious diseases and malnutrition.

At least 40% of the millions of deaths that occur worldwide each year could be prevented by administering existing vaccines. The three most deadly diseases worldwide affecting children under the age of five are: pneumonia (19%); diarrhea (17%); and malaria (8%).

Sadly, diarrhea — easily treatable here in the U.S. — is the second leading cause of child mortality — the cause of death of children under the age of five. More than 50% of the world’s deaths from diarrhea among children occur in just five countries: India, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.

When one compares these figures to the three leading causes of death of children and adolescents under the ago of 18 in the United States —  motor vehicle crashes; fire-arm related injuries; and cancer — none of the causes in the U.S. are infectious diseases. We can credit our nation’s access to quality health care (including antibiotics and vaccines), our access to clean water and to adequate sanitation.

Unfortunately, too many regions of this world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, do not have access to the rotavirus vaccine, access to antibiotics, nor access to safe and adequate drinking water, sanitation systems or hygiene.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus — but you will be asked to submit your notes that we worked on during the last two classes on the reading Why Do Some Societies Have So Much While Others Have So Little? Be prepared to do so later this week.


Thursday & Friday, March 4 & 5:  As we looked at examples of presidential portraits we noted examples of symbolism of the power

The chrysanthemum signifies Chicago where Obama began his political career and his family.

and authority behind the office. Presidents are often portrayed in full-length, or comfortably seated, and presented in a dignified and serious manner. Examples of symbolism included the U.S. Capitol Building; architectural columns; throne-like chairs; globes; books; and papers, pens, and quills showing work interrupted.

As one reviewer noted, “at some level, all portraits are propaganda, political or personal.” We observed that Obama’s portrait — outside of perhaps the chair — seems to focus on the personal part, as the artist has surrounded him in an expanse of greenery which seems to almost take over. Within the expanse, Obama is surrounded by flowers that each hold a specific meaning. Jasmines for Hawaii, African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage, and chrysanthemums, which are the official flower for Chicago, where Obama began his political career and his family.

Since 1962, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, has received official commissioned portraits of the nation’s presidents. Working directly with White House staff, the museum puts together a list of potential artists, and the painting is ultimately installed in the museum’s ongoing America’s Presidents exhibition. Soon the 45th presidency will be memorialized in the NPG.

Students were asked to make suggestions as to what the artist should include in President Trump’s presidential portrait; examples included both complimentary examples symbolism showing power and patriotism and not-so-complimentary examples suggesting tumult and dissension.

We next turned to the theory developed by Professor Jared Diamond made famous in his seminal work, Guns, Germs and Steel. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Professor Diamond sought to answer the biggest question of post-Ice-Age human history: why Eurasians — rather than people of other continents — became the ones to develop the ingredients of power (guns, germs, and steel) and to dominate other regions of the world.

In other words, why do some societies have so much and others s o little?

Diamond’s theory, examined data in four different fields: social science, botany, zoology, and microbiology. He ultimately concluded that human societies of different continents followed widely divergent paths of development due to advantages of geography.

In class we are reading, and summarizing into a set of notes, a summary of Professor Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel theory. We will complete our notes in our next class.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus.


Tuesday & Wednesday, March 2 & 3: As another artwork entitled Dogon Couple exists — not a sculpture but a painting by the contemporary portrait artist Kehinde Wiley — we took a closer look at some of his paintings and then segued into presidential portraits.

Wiley is known for his paintings showing young Blacks in revamped versions of classical, traditional portraits. He places his Black models into positions formerly just reserved for white subjects, and transfers to them the prestige of the original painting. By fusing the past with the present, he encourages the viewer to confront our notions of power, wealth, race and gender. His artworks often confront the social issues that dominate our news cycles. 

As Wiley is best known for painting the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, we took the opportunity to contrast and compare several famous presidential portraits, sharing our thoughts on the different ways power and authority are portrayed in each of the portraits. 

Domus Opus: Assigned on Monday, Appreciating African Art: Nkisi N’kondi and the Dogon Couple is due Friday, March 5 at 8 PM. All materials — the worksheet, the slides, the reading (and a recording of the reading), and a short YouTube video — are posted on Google Classroom. Remember to answer Questions 1 & 2 BEFORE you turn to the reading and video.  You need only refer to slides numbered 1 – 14 for this assignment. We will be discussing the remaining slides in class.


Friday & Monday, Feb. 26 & March 1: In most classes we finished listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” — see the video posted below.

Through an eloquent series of stories about her life experiences, the novelist Adichie tells listeners that inherent in the power of stories is the danger of only knowing one story about a group. One-sided viewpoints, biases, and stories that go unheard can dispossess people of their dignity and true existence.

On one level this prevents people from authentically connecting with people as individuals. On a much larger level, the single story threatens to create stereotypes — overly simplistic generalizations about a people — that stick to groups that are already disempowered.

As Adichie explains, when we hear the same story over and over again, it becomes the only story we ever believe. And this stands especially true for the story of Africa. Too often do we hear this version: Africa, the poorest “country” in the world, where only dry landscapes exist and people are plagued with widespread disease and live in terror of wild animals.

Relating stories from her own experience, Adichie encourages listeners to acknowledge their own “single stories” without judgment. While many people’s limited knowledge of Africa has distorted their perceptions of her (she shares a telling story of her own single story of the young houseboy who worked in her home and one of her college roommate), Adichie switches the locus of blame away from the individual and toward the stories they have heard and the people who have told them — be it a family member, Western literature, or the news media or social media.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We must remember that — whether we are meeting a person, visiting a place, or learning about a time or place in history — lives and identities are composed of many overlapping stories.

In periods 5, 7, and 9, in any remaining time we reviewed the requirements for the next homework assignment, Appreciating African Art: Nkisi N’kondi and the Dogon Couple. Please check Google Classroom for the materials you will need to complete this assignment.

Domus Opus: Periods 1, 5, 7, and 9 should hand in The Danger of a Single Story (most of which was completed in class) by 8 pm Monday, March 1. Period 2 should have all of the worksheet completed before Tuesday’s class with the exception of Question 7. We will be answering Question 7 in class on Tuesday, and then students will hand in the completed assignment.

Appreciating African Art: Nkisi N’kondi and the Dogon Couple is due Friday, March 5 at 8 PM. All materials (the worksheet, the slides, the reading, a recording of the reading, and a short YouTube video) are posted on Google Classroom. You need only refer to slides numbered 1 – 14. We will be looking at the remaining slides in class.


Wednesday & Thursday, Feb. 24 & 25:  We completed reviewing the events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and the more recent Black Lives Matter Movement.

voter-id-stats from DNC

An example of a current barrier to voting.

To understand the barriers to voting that were in place in this country a little less than 60 years ago, we started class listening to an excerpt from Robert Caro’s book Master of the Senate, in which he shares the experience of one African-American woman, Margaret Frost, in her attempt to register to vote in her county in Alabama. She entered the Registrar’s Office with two other people seeking to register to vote:

When she asked Stokes [the chairman of the Registrar’s Office] for an application, he said, “There’s twelve questions you have to answer before we give you an application.” He asked just two. Mrs. Frost answered them both correctly, as did one of the other applicants. But the third applicant answered the second question incorrectly, and Stokes told them that therefore they had all failed. “You all go home and study a little more,” he said.

John Lewis beaten

John Lewis’s skull was fractured during the Bloody Sunday Civil Rights March.

To better understand John Lewis’s role in the Civil Rights movement that fought for desegregation and the right of African Americans to vote, students watched a short Note to Self video (see below) and were asked to note some of the interesting facts they learned about Rep. Lewis. He spoke about the moral obligation one has to speak up and speak out when one sees injustice and unfairness. He was arrested more than 45 times in his lifetime for speaking out. His earliest experience was taking part in sit ins to protest segregation in public facilities. (He mentioned being spat upon during these protests in the 60s; a little more than 50 years later, he was spat upon again while heading to work at the Capitol Building by an anti-Obamacare protestor.)

Students learned that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” entered the lexicon in 2013, after the acquittal of a 28-year-old neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, for the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated housing community in Florida.

We noted what an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement would say to someone who responds that “all lives matter.”  Black Lives Matter proponents say that people who rejoin with “all lives matter” misunderstand the meaning. As President Obama explained in the video assigned for homework:  “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase “black lives matter” was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. … What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

Mr. Obama observed that some interpret that Black Lives Matter movement as a reverse racist or anti-police social media movement. He emphasized the tough job police officers have in protecting our communities and having to make split-second decisions and that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are doing their job. In his remarks, he also observed that there are socioeconomic inequities and inequities in the justice system that this nation need to address. In short, we need to understand that our nation has had a history of racial disparity since the institution of slavery. In short, it’s not that only black lives matter, it’s that black lives matter too

We next turned back to the history of trade on the African continent and learned about the Scramble for Africa. The Transatlantic slave trade was the greatest forced migration of a human population in history. (See the TED-Ed video below if you do not remember the Transatlantic slave trade from 7th grade.)

All told, approximately 25 million Africans were transported to the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe, and the Arabian Peninsula. Africa was the only continent to experience this tremendous loss of population, which was a major factor leading to its economic underdevelopment.

Although the slave trade was banned entirely by the late 19th century, Europe’s involvement in Africa did not end. Instead, the desire for greater control over Africa’s resources resulted in the colonization of the majority of the continent by the European nations of France, Belgium, Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 resulted in the regulation of European colonization and trade in Africa. By 1914, the entire continent, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, was colonized by these European nations.

In the remaining time, we began Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

We will continue watching and discussing the video in our next class.

Domus Opus: 1) Hand in A Tax on Trade: From Medieval Africa to Today, which we completed in class on Monday and Tuesday.

2) We will continue working on The Danger of a Single Story in class this Friday and Monday, but students should record their answers to the “Do Now” on the worksheet, as well as their answers to Questions 1 and 9 to get a head start.

3) Read or listen to the posthumous op-ed by John Lewis, “Together You can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.”  It is also posted on Classroom.


Monday & Tuesday, Feb. 22 & 23:  We completed our discussion of how tariffs work, who ends up paying for them, and how the imposition of tariffs can escalate into a trade war.

When a tariff is placed on a good, a middleman — the U.S. importer of record — pays the tariff when the product lands in the country. The importer might absorb the cost, OR the importer might pass the cost along to a wholesaler, who might pass it on to a retailer, who might raise the price for consumers. Thus, the extra costs of tariffs imposed on imported goods are usually passed on to consumers thru higher prices

Another problem with placing a U.S. tariff on imports from another country is that the country may also retaliate against the U.S. by announcing its own tariffs, which could hurt American businesses, workers, farmers, and consumers.  This retaliation can escalate into a trade war (see the NYT Interactive Graphic we viewed in class here), which can end up “costing” the U.S. as follows:

  • higher costs lead to higher prices of goods paid by consumers
  • this leads to lower demand for goods
  • which leads to decreased production; increased unemployment
  • factory workers and farmers can be biggest victims
  • can tear apart relations between allied countries
  • thru trade redirection, it may benefit OTHER countries who export to the U.S. (Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea)

As we saw in the bar graphs, while President Trump’s trade war did result in lowering the trade deficit between the U.S. and China, it did not make a dent in the U.S. – world trade deficit. (See the bar graph below.)

We next turned to reviewing our responses to the homework assignment on the NYT editorial The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter.’

We began class reviewing theop-ed difference between an editorial and an op-ed, what each looks like, where they are located in a newspaper, and the various authors that write op-eds.

The name “op-ed” is derived from “opposite the editorial page” — which refers to its location in the newspaper. The op-ed page of a newspaper (or other news media) features opinion pieces written by outside contributors and the newspaper’s own team of columnists.

Editorials, on the other hand, are written by individual editorial board members of the newspaper in consultation with their colleagues and editors and reflect the opinion of the newspaper’s editorial board.

We next reviewed the two major pieces of legislation that came out of the Civil Rights Era and what each law sought to accomplish.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It required equal access to public places and employment, including the desegregation of schools – which the Supreme Court had called for 10 years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education.

Black Lives MatterThe Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment, which was ratified back in 1870, almost 100 years earlier.

In the century following Reconstruction, African Americans in the South faced overwhelming obstacles to voting. Despite the 15th and 19th Amendments – which enfranchised black men and women – Southern voter registration boards used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic impediments to deny African Americans their legal rights. (In 1960 in Mississippi, for example, while 45% of the population was black, only five percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote.) This piece of legislation banned racially discriminatory voting practices that had effectively prevented African Americans from voting at the local, state, and federal level.

We also briefly discussed the role of John Lewis in the Civil Rights movement, including leading more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state.  The event became known “Bloody Sunday,” as the marchers were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers. News broadcasts and photos revealing the cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We will complete discussing what we learned from the assignment, The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’ when we are next together in class.

Domus Opus:  Read “The Partition of Africa,” pages 754 – 760 of the textbook for background reading by our class on Wednesday or Thursday.


Thursday & Friday, Feb. 18 & 19: We began class watching a TED-Ed video to learn about Mansa Musa, the ruled the Kingdom of Mali

The wealth of the Mali empire was renowned as shown by this detail of a 1325 world map showing Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, offering gold to a trader.

from 1312 – 1332. He promoted education and learning and turned the city of Timbuktu into one of the greatest learning centers in the Muslim world. Mansa Musa oversaw the construction of hundreds of mosques, and was a great supporter of developing cities.

In 1324, Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, left Mali for the hajj to Mecca. On the trip, he gave away enormous amounts of gold. As a result, he alerted Europe and the Middle East to the great wealth of Mali.  In 1375, a Spanish mapmaker created an illustrated map showing Mansa Musa’s kingdom in western Africa. Drawn on the map is Mansa Musa holding a gold nugget.

The early African trading kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and later Songhai built up great wealth by controlling gold and salt trade routes in West Africa.  What is impressive is that neither of these resources were actually found in the kingdoms.  Instead, they took advantage of their location, where salt traders from the north and gold merchants from the south would meet up in the middle.

These kingdoms not only placed a tax on all transactions of gold and salt, but also taxed all traders entering and leaving the kingdom. This helped grow the kingdoms into extremely wealthy centers of trade. 

We next examined what happens when the U.S. decides to increase its tax on imports. We turned to the subject of tariffs and how the recent implementation of new tariffs by the United States on goods from China, the European Union, Canada, and Mexico escalated into a trade war.

Students learned that free trade has been promoted by the United States since the end of World War II. Free trade is trade that is conducted without barriers of any kind. Governments lower barriers to trade in order to allow international trade without restrictions.Goods and services that are exchanged between nations are described as either imports or exports:

Imports = Foreign goods and services purchased from sellers in other countries.

Exports =  Domestic goods and services sold to buyers in other countries.

What is the political cartoonist’s perspective on the tariffs put in place by the last administration?

In 2017, imports from China to the U.S. exceeded the value of U.S. exports to China by $375 billion — meaning that the U.S. imported $375 billion more from China than it exported to China. This difference is called a trade deficit, the amount by which a country’s imports exceeds the value of its exports.

The opposite of free trade is “protectionism,” an economic strategy to limit trade. Governments construct “barriers” to restrict trade in order to help protect domestic businesses. Examples include embargoes, quotas, and the more recently popular tariffs.

From the beginning of his administration, President Trump, who liked to call himself “Tariff Man,” had maintained that China (and other trading partners like the EU, Canada, and Mexico) have long taken advantage of the U.S. He pointed to the trade deficit (this difference between imports and exports) as evidence of a hollowing out of U.S. manufacturing and the loss of American might.

Beginning in 2018, he decided to attack the growing trade deficit with extensive tariffs (a tax on imports). And he encouraged U.S. companies, with manufacturing plants overseas now hurt by tariffs, to move production — and jobs — back home.

We will complete our review of the trade war next week. See the videos posted below for background information on how tariffs work and who is most impacted by trade wars.

Domus Opus:  Nolo Domus Opus.


Tuesday & Wednesday, Feb. 16 & 17:  We began class noting that the impeachment trial of former President Trump concluded on

Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado was the youngest member of the House prosecution team. His parents fled Eritrea almost four decades ago and came to the U.S. as refugees.

Saturday (in record time!) and that the former president was acquitted by the Senate by a vote of 57 guilty to 43 not guilty — 10 votes shy of a guilty verdict.

After viewing a brief video on the impeachment trial and taking notes on some key facts about the impeachment process, the arguments presented by the House managers (the prosecutors), and those by President Trump’s defense team, we had a short open-notes multiple choice quiz in the PM session on what we had learned.

Vocabulary words reviewed included: impeach, incitement, insurrection, supermajority, acquitted, bipartisan, January exception, 1st Amendment right to free speech, and censure.

We also viewed more slides on the West African trading kingdoms. Slides on the geography of the African continent focused on the various regions (the Sahara, the Savannah, and the rainforest).

Geographic regions influenced culture by acting as natural barriers or highways to movement of people, goods, and ideas.

  • Barriers = deserts, rainforests, high plateaus, and cataracts (waterfalls in rivers)
  • Highways = Great Rift Valley (interior passageway), Mediterranean and Red seas served as trade routes to Europe and southwest Asia.

We also noted the importance of natural resources to Africa’s history, beginning with the salt trade in the early African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. (The word “salary” comes from sal, the Latin word for salt.)

Slabs of mined rock salt from West Africa

Much of the trade at the time exchanged gold for salt – each was a valuable product, or commodity. Salt was plentiful in the Sahara and was exchanged for gold, which was more common in West Africa. Salt was a valuable commodity because people needed it to stay healthy in the hot climate and to preserve food. Other natural resources, such as iron and copper contributed to the wealth & power of trading cities.

The Sahara was at one time forested and had rivers, along which Neolithic farmers established villages. By 2500 BC, however, the Sahara suffered desertification (process by which fertile land becomes desert)

Social scientists have traced migration patterns through language. Bantu, the root language of West Africans, spread when West African farmers and herders migrated south and east. This Bantu migration, avoiding desert and rainforest regions, occurred between 1000 BC and 1000 AD.

Extensive trade routes through the Sahara (using camel caravans) linked Africa to other continents. It was along these trade routes where ideas and belief systems were also exchanged. Shortly after the founding of Islam, Muslim Arab traders interacting with Berbers (nomadic North Africans), eventually spread the teachings of Muhammad, and Islam replaced Christianity, Arabic replaced Latin, and North and West African cities became famous for their mosques and universities (Cairo, Marrakesh, and Timbuktu). 

Domus Opus: Nolo Domus Opus.


Thursday & Friday, Feb. 11 & 12: We began our unit on Africa, first straightening out some popular misconceptions about the continent of Africa (e.g., “Africa is not a country”).


Most of the period was spent practicing taking notes while listening to a podcast about the geography of Africa. The second-largest continent — three times of the size of the U.S. — it is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. It has four major biomes, including the desert, the savanna, and the rainforest. It is divided in half almost equally by the equator. 


Defined terms included biomes, desert, the Sahara, the Savanna, rainforest, biodiversity, and plateau. Students learned that the many cataracts in African rivers made the waterways less navigable. 


We also learned that the abundance of natural resources in Africa, which has had a major impact on its history and its development. Over the years, competition for these resources has brought trading kingdoms and later the nations of Africa significant conflict.


In the afternoon session, we reviewed what has been going on with the impeachment trial in the Senate and watched a few highlights of the House managers’ prosecution, who ended their argument yesterday. Basic facts reviewed included: the impeachment trial is being held in the Senate; the jurors number 100 (as in all the senators); the vote to convict must be a supermajority in favor (i.e. 2/3 of the Senate or 67 senators); the president has been charged with incitement of insurrection for his role in inciting a violent mob to attack the Capitol; the House managers’ (prosecution’s) goal is to get a conviction and bar President Trump from running again; the Senate first argued over the constitutionality of the impeachment proceeding (can the Senate impeach a president who is no longer in office?); and few expect enough Republicans will vote differently than the last impeachment proceeding, and they predict President Trump will be found not guilty.


President Trump’s defense team argue that any statements he made are protected by the First Amendment. 


The House managers (who are managing the prosecution) contend that an impeachment trial is concerned with abuses of official power, so statements that may be legally defensible when uttered by a private individual can be grounds for impeachment. The First Amendment would therefore not apply here. The House managers also argue that the statements on Jan. 6 should not be considered in isolation but as part of a month-long campaign to violate his oath of office and try to retain the presidency despite the Electoral College results.


Domus Opus: 1) The The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’ worksheet is due by 8PM on Friday, Feb. 12. 2) Read pages 340-351 of the textbook, “Early Civilizations of Africa” and “Kingdoms of West Africa” — the background reading for our Africa unit — by the beginning of next week.


Tuesday & Wednesday, Feb. 9 &10: On Tuesday (and for B Day students on Monday), we reviewed the requirements of the assignment The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter.’  We also and completed viewing and discussing Amal Kassir’s TED Talk The Muslim on the Airplane.


“When we don’t ask someone their name, we’re not  asking for their story,” she explains.


Kassir notes that by getting to know people, and asking things as simple as their names, you show your willingness to understand them, and their story, and not what negative connotations are associated with them.  You show them that you are not trying to assign a name to them. She encouraged her audience to shut down any narratives that try to tell our stories for us.


Toy Exports
Cartogram of toy exports


In any time remaining, most classes were introduced to cartograms. A cartogram is a map in which the geographic size — here of nations — is scaled to be directly proportional to a particular value or variable, such as population. The geographic size is thus warped to show the distribution of the variable.


Domus Opus: Same as Monday below. Read the NYT editorial The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and complete the accompanying worksheet — due by 8PM on Friday, Feb. 12.  Remember, you will have to complete some outside research (on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and on John Lewis). Four short videos to complete the worksheet have been posted on Google Classroom, and links to the videos are also included in the worksheet.


Muslim on the Airplane


Friday & Monday, Feb. 5 & 8:  Most of class was spent watching and discussing a TEDx Talk by Amal Kassir entitled The Muslim on the Airplane. We learned the meaning of “the elephant in the room:” an idiom for an important and obvious topic which all those present are aware of but which isn’t discussed, because discussing it is considered uncomfortable.


In her TED Talk, Ms. Kassir first shares with the audience who she is and then shares how she is perceived by many — that is, the assumptions made by many — based purely on her appearance. Because she wears a hijab, she is the elephant in the room. For those who don’t know her, she may be viewed as “oppressed” (who is making her wear the Islamic headdress) — or even worse, a threat (a suspect, a jihadist, a supporter of Islamic terrorism, etc.)


People who do not know here — whom she has never met —  make generalizations about her, often with negative connotations, and often perpetuated by social media and mainstream media, which prevent any understanding of her as an individual. She points out that that can be avoided simply by asking someone their name: asking them who they are and to share some of their story.


Ms. Kassir was born and raised in Colorado, but many in her family live in war-torn Syria, which has seen many of its citizens flee the country as refugees. She noted in her TED Talk that the media in Europe has been referring to these refugees as migrants. As the UN has noted, “The term ‘migrant’… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.” 


A refugee, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, “is any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”


By designating a people as refugees, it implies that we have an obligation to help safeguard those people. … It implies that we should let them in to our territory or nation and give them the chance to seek asylum. Below is a video explaining the difference between and migrant and a refugee by the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. concern-refugees-definitions-c-1180x632


Students learned that President Biden last week signed an executive order to expand the U.S. refugee program. He plans to raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. 


When President Trump took office in 2017, the refugee ceiling for the fiscal year set by President Barack Obama stood at 110,000. Trump left office after setting a cap of just 15,000 for this fiscal year — the lowest level since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980.  Biden pledged to increase the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 in the 12-month period starting Oct. 1. The president must consult Congress before setting the annual limit.


We will complete viewing Amal Kassir’s TEDx Talk when we next meet again.


Domus Opus: Read the NYT editorial The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and complete the accompanying worksheet — due by 8PM on Friday, Feb. 12.  Remember, you will have to complete some outside research (on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and on John Lewis). Four short videos to complete the worksheet have been posted on Google Classroom, and links to the videos are also included in the worksheet.