Friday, December 11, 2009

Black and red figure pieces

Classwork: students finished, or attempted to finish, their Greek pottery-style drawings today. These are looking beautiful! Some are checking out markers over the weekend; please make sure they are returned on Monday.

Homework: Read Study Guide and write down any questions for Monday. We will go over questions about the final exam, take home old artwork, and finish the figure pieces.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

FInal Exam Study Guide

Sixth Grade Fine Arts Final Exam Study Guide

The exam is divided into four parts, one per Fine Arts subject area. Here's what you should know for each part.

I. Poetry

In this section, you'll be asked to list some terms and examples of how you would use them in your writing. You'll also write some poetry.

Know the different types of figurative language and how to use each one. These include: alliteration, onomanopoeia, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and personification.

Know the rhythm and rhyme schemes of haiku (17 total syllables, 5/7/5, no rhyme) and limericks (AABBA rhyme scheme). Know what a rhyming couplet is and how to write one. Know what a stanza is.

II. Music

Think back on the different activities we did during the music unit. We watched some video from the documentary "Music From the Inside Out;" took a listening walk around the school; listened to, discussed, wrote about, and made music maps charting different selections of recorded music; clapped and made rhythmic noises together, created our own rhythms and instruments, and learned about graphic scores. Know your vocabulary from this unit:

tempo, rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone, composer, musician, graphic score, orchestral instruments, music map

III. Visual Art

This section is mostly performance tasks - things you already know how to do, for which you will need to remember proper vocabulary. You will most likely spend the greatest amount of time on this section, since you will be asked to do some drawing. You should know:

Color wheel: primary, secondary, and tertiary/intermediate colors.

What is value, and what techniques can you use to create it?

Know your line and shape types! Organic, geometric, regular, irregular, broken, thick, thin, angular, wavy, etc.

Know line directions: vertical, horizontal, diagonal

We've done two types of drawing from life: contour and gesture. Know the difference.

IV. Drama

You'll need to remember a lot of vocabulary for this section. It's all words that we used all the time in drama. You will be asked to fill in the blanks of a story about directing a play with the appropriate words, and occasionally to write short answers responding to questions about the story.

Vocabulary: pantomime, actor neutral, improvisation, projection, diction, ensemble, pace, props, stage directions, monologue, dialogue.

Review terms from the Greek Tragedy unit as well. Know the parts of a Greek theatre (orchestra, parodos, theatron, skene) as well as the parts of a Greek tragedy (prologue, parodos, episode, stasimon, exodos). Review your notes on the essential elements of Greek tragedy, including late pont of attack, tragic hero, tragic flaw, chorus, masks, etc. I know you know this!

Greek Red and Black Figure Style Drawings

Students handed in their rough sketches and started working on their final drawings on red construction paper. I was so impressed by how well everyone has been working today - every person spent the entire period drawing. We went over some tips and tricks for proportion and started using the black permanent markers.

Tomorrow: finish drawings, go over Fine Arts Final Exam study guide.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Studio Day - 2 Sketches

We quickly reviewed heroic proportion and the requirements for sketches, then spent the entire period drawing. I love studio days! Every student is working hard to master proportion and the rules of Greek pottery art. I think we'll have a group of beautifully finished drawings on Friday.

Homework: finish sketches and bring tomorrow to prepare for final drawing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Greek Art - Pottery and Proportion

Homework: On the sheet with the skeleton, use a colored pencil to mark head lengths down the length of the skeleton.

Background: Artists developed a system for representing the "ideal" human body in their paintings, pottery, and sculptures throughout the history of Ancient Greece. By the flowering of the Classical period, around 500 B.C., every representation of the body had standard proportions, measured in heads. A head is the distance from the crown, or the top of the skull, to the point of the chin. Most adults are about 7 1/2 heads tall. The Greek artists used "heroic" proportions, making their figures a majestic 8 heads tall.

Classwork today: Students received their group and individual grades for the Greek tragedy project.

We looked at and discussed a slide presentation on Greek black figure and red figure pottery, examining artworks that depicted the Labors of Heracles. Many students pointed out the similarities they saw between Greek and Egyptian art: feet pointing in one direction while the torso faces forward, faces seen in profile with one eye visible. One big difference is that the Greeks used overlapping to show depth.

Some sections had time after the presentation to make some gesture drawings using willow charcoal on newsprint. Thanks to the student "models"! You did a good job of holding still.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Down to the Wire: Dress Rehearsals

Homework: Write four questions (and answers) to be used for the Fine Arts Final Exam, one question per subject area (i.e. one for visual arts, one for drama, one for music, one for poetry). These can be in any format you like: multiple choice, essay, short answer, matching, fill in the blank, definitions of vocabulary, true or false, or a performance task (shade in a circle so it looks like a three-dimensional sphere, for example).

Classwork: complete all masks/props. Dress rehearsals; pair groups.

We are on the home stretch! Performances are tomorrow and Thursday after school. Everyone has worked very hard towards this goal, and I've seen so much improvement since we began.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dress Rehearsals: Greek Tragedy

tragedy in the afternoon

Sixth grade dramatists present their original greek-style plays

Wednesday, December 2: 6a and 6b

thursday, december 3: 6c and 6d

located in the Annex

(across from the main entrance of north campus)

Showtime: 4 p.m. both days

call time for actors is 3:30

all family members and CPa students are invited to attend. please show up promptly no later than 3:55 to see the performances. all 6th grade students are required to attend. please make arrangements for pick up at 5 p.m.

All sections: Dress rehearsals! Here is the performance order for Ms. Blumenfeld's classes.

Weds 12/2

6A: Oz, 3 Little Pigs, Hansel & Gretel, Boy Who Cried Wolf

6B: Pandora, Goldilocks, Pigs/LRRH, Oz

Thurs 12/3


6D: Peter Pan, 3 Little Pigs, Deinara, Rumpelstiltskin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Masks and props

Homework: None officially assigned, but students were instructed to practice their lines if they needed to.

Classwork: Finish and perfect masks and any small props that need to be painted, glued, or otherwise crafted.

Free time projects:
1. Draw a portrait of your character, full body, in an appropriate setting, with color.
2. Write a character monologue. Some prompts:
  • a speech talking about something in the play (choose an audience)
  • a news report
  • a one sided telephone conversation
Some etymological fun: monologue comes from the Greek word monologos, meaning "speaking alone." Dialogue, likewise, comes from the Greek dialogos, and means "conversation between two or more people." Both words came to English through Latin and then Old French.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tragedy rehearsals

Homework: Practice lines! Most students still need LOTS of work, not on memorizing, but on expression. ALL students could definitely benefit from more practice. Try reciting in front of a mirror.

Warmup: Circle mirror. In order, each person starts a movement which everyone else copies. We did a speedy version of this today to get everybody moving.

Rehearsal: Groups practiced once on their own with masks and props, then in front of class.

Tomorrow: mask repair, more practice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

mask making

No homework for tomorrow.

Today, students worked on their tragedy masks. Tomorrow, they will do the same. That's it!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Peer rehearsal

Everybody off book today! I'm so impressed by how well each actor is working, and how the groups are helping each other out.

Class started with each group making a props list to figure out who's bringing what.

Circle warmup: we played "What Are You Doing?" using a piece of cloth as a prop so actors could come up with imaginative uses for the cloth.

After a quick run-through in groups, everyone came back together to go over the guidelines for peer feedback. Then groups were paired off - one group performed while the other watched. The audience group offered feedback. Then the audience group performed their plays while the other group watched and offered feedback.

Tomorrow: masks

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More blocking, memorization

Homework: Tomorrow is the deadline for being off book. Over half the actors already have their lines memorized - way to go!

Blocking is going well. Actors are giving each other good feedback, especially when it comes to facing the audience, entering, and exiting.

Tomorrow, the props masters will hand in lists of props and supplies they need, we'll run through the plays without scripts, and we'll talk a bit about mask making.

Thursday and Friday: mostly masks. We will run through again on Friday to make sure everybody still remembers their lines.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Greek Tragedy: Blocking

Homework: This is a self-directed assignment - each student is responsible for memorizing their lines in order to be off book by Wednesday. Since everyone has different parts, students will have to judge for themselves how much time they need to put into memorization.

We will finish mask making after everyone is off book. So if Wednesday's rehearsals go well, we will spend Thursday and Friday on masks.

Today's classwork: We started with some quick physical and vocal warmups. Groups that didn't get a chance to perform for the class on Friday performed today and got feedback. The rest of the period was spent on rehearsal and blocking.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greek Tragedy: Class rehearsal

Final drafts of scripts were due today.

Each group ran through their play on their own, then performed for the class and took feedback. Things to watch out for:

  • turning backs to the audience
  • speaking too fast or too slow (pace)
  • speaking unclearly (diction)
  • speaking too loud or too soft (projection/volume)
  • standing in front of other actors so they can't be seen (levels/sightlines)
  • expression and characterization
I am so impressed with how well these groups are working together. Many students are putting in extra effort to make these plays as good as they can be.

Homework: work on memorizing lines

Next week: Let's be off book by Wednesday. We can do it! Once everyone is off book, we'll finish our masks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Greek Tragedy: Rehearse & Rewrite

Important dates:

Friday, 11/13: Final draft of script due
Wednesday, 11/18: All actors off book (lines memorized)
Wednesday, 12/2, 4 pm: 6A and 6B performances in Annex
Thursday, 12/3, 4 pm: 6C and 6D performances in Annex

All 6th graders are required to attend BOTH performances. They should last no more than an hour. Actors should bring snacks. Call time on both days is 3:30 pm.

Today we practiced some quick vocal warmups using character voices. Groups then ran through their plays and worked on their lines.

Groups that work from their final drafts tomorrow and find they still need to add lines may choose to revise over the weekend and hand in changes on Monday.

We'll aim to finish masks next week.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

read-throughs, rewrites, and etiquette

Due tomorrow: TYPED second draft, either printed out or emailed to me at

Thanks to everyone who brought in their mask making supplies! We are going to have some amazing looking masks. We will start with the papier mache base layer on Friday, so bring in your sloppy shirts/smocks/aprons to avoid the dreaded gluey uniform problem.

Today was dedicated to read-throughs in small groups and, for some sections, in front of the class. Audience members were asked to observe proper etiquette as well as to watch for who the tragic hero was, and what their tragic flaw was.

Some students may be familiar with audience etiquette as regards live performances like classical concerts, recitals, and formal plays. Etiquette between performers is just as important.

Etiquette means "proper or socially accepted behavior." The earliest known usage is from 1750, from French étiquette "prescribed behavior," from O.Fr. estiquette "label, ticket." The sense development in French is from small cards written or printed with instructions for how to behave properly at court (cf. It. etichetta, Sp. etiqueta), and/or from behavior instructions written on a soldier's billet for lodgings (the main sense of the O.Fr. word).

This information is from the Online Etymology Dictionary at:

So audience etiquette just means how you should behave as an audience member. When you are an audience member during a school performance by your classmates, even in rehearsal, you need to exercise special care and consideration. Here are some guidelines:

1. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. If something would distract you while you were performing, don't do it while someone else is performing.

2. Give focus. Your attention helps the actors keep their minds on performance.

3. The performers can see and hear you just as well as you can see and hear them.

4. When asked to give feedback, keep it positive and relevant. If you're evaluating the tragic hero and you comment about a student's performance, you're off-topic. If you're making a suggestion for improvement, do it gently and give options - don't just tell someone they did something badly.

Performance dates are tentatively set for December 2nd and 3rd at 4 pm in the Annex at the North Campus. More on that later.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Greek Tragedy - Rewrites and Run-throughs

Complete first drafts of the entire script were due this morning. I wrote comments for each script I received - these should help your groups with rewrites.

Due tomorrow, Thursday: mask making materials. Bring to Room 103 if you have items to share with all the classes. Keep items that are just for yourself in your cubby.

Due Friday: typed copy of the second draft. Someone from each group will need to take responsibility for finishing this. Scripts may be printed out and handed in to Ms. Blumenfeld or emailed to

Today's classwork: groups got together to read through each script. Reading through helps during the writing process, especially to show how long the play is, what parts make sense together, and what needs to be rewritten. You can also improvise off the lines you already have written to see how scenes might be made more clear.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tragic tragedies

Scriptwriting Day 2:
It's a long hard slog, but we're getting there. I'm seeing some similar issues in every class.

1. We should know who the tragic hero is, and what their flaw is, by the prologue.
2. The play should focus on the tragic hero, not on telling the story. The audience already knows the story. Our job is to tell it in a tragic way. So even if you are retelling, for example, Snow White, you would spend more time with the Queen as tragic hero than you would following Snow White around through the forest.
3. Choose the late point of attack carefully and jump right into it in the prologue. It's right before the climax of the story, at the most convoluted and tense part of the rising action.
4. The second episode should occur after the climax and should depict, through dialogue and monologue, the suffering of the tragic hero.
5. Only the chorus speaks during the stasimons.
6. Please, please please don't script "valley girl" characters with snotty attitudes. It's really not funny, and it's an easy answer that's far below your abilities.
7. Break up the writing tasks - have a few people work on episodes, while the chorus members write their stasimons.

On the other hand, I'm also seeing, in every class, some great things:
1. Good teamwork and collaboration on coming up with lines.
2. Teams are being responsible about working steadily for the entire period.
3. Everyone has a good grasp of the structure of tragedy and seems to understand what kind of action belongs in the different parts of the play.
4. Your work on developing personality traits for the different characters and making connections to other stories (for example, other Greek myths or fairy tales) has been well thought-out and original.
5. All the groups are doing a good job of imagining how their masks and costumes will look.

Tomorrow: 2nd draft.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Greek Tragedy - Scripting/Mask Materials

Today's warmup was to write about how to show characters' personalities using the Actor's Tools: voice, body, imagination.

In class we began the actual script writing process. Groups were in charge of how they wanted to do this - either writing all together, having some students write their lines by themselves and bringing it back to the group, acting some parts out, or a combination. Our goal was to have a first draft ready to hand in by the end of the period, but most groups only got through the first episode or so.

Also, each group assigned a costumer/propsmaster in charge of making a list of necessary supplies. I will compile all the lists from each section and send out a letter to parents requesting materials.

No homework tonight.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Greek Tragedy Writing - 3rd Day - Outlines

Today was an early release day. Students worked in their groups on finishing outlines and character sheets, then started designing their masks.

Homework due Monday: On drawing paper, sketch and color a design for your character's mask. If you play more than one character, make a mask design for each. On the back of your paper, list any special materials you might need for your mask (sequins, glitter, feathers, gold coins, etc.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Greek Tragedy Writing - 2nd Day - Outlines

Warmup: Students wrote about who their tragic hero is and how her/his tragic flaw leads to her/his downfall.

Students then worked in their groups to complete both the Tragedy Worksheet started yesterday and today's handout, the Play Outline. This provided the play's structure - prologue, parodos, episode, stasimon, exodos - and places to write in the characters and action for each part. We talked a bit about how the climax takes place offstage and at what point it's necessary to show the tragic hero's psychic suffering. We also discussed the need to make the tragic hero a sympathetic character with some good qualities, so that the audience can feel pity and fear. The worksheets were handed in at the end of class.

Tomorrow: complete character worksheets for each person in group.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Greek Tragedy Writing - 1st Day

Warmup: in notebooks, students listed as many familiar stories as they could remember and circled the ones they thought might make good tragedies.

Brainstorm: on the board, we listed the stories and talked about who the tragic hero would be in several of them. We erased the ones that wouldn't work at all.

Each section was divided into groups of 5 to 6 students. Groups chose from the stories on the board and got started filling out the Tragedy Worksheets.

Tomorrow: complete Tragedy Worksheets, review structure of Greek tragedy, fill out character sheets for each person

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Intro to Greek Tragedy

Above: Bust of Sophocles, 4th century BC

Tragic Hero:

-Has tragic flaw, usu. hubris: Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance

-Goes from high to low

-Is an important person

-Suffers psychically/emotionally

Characteristics of Greek drama:

-Uses story that will be familiar to audience

-Late point of attack - point in story after the characters and setting are established, but a little while before the climax

-Violence takes place offstage

-Messengers used to tell characters about offstage action

-catharsis: emotional purgation that returns balance (Oedipus is banished and Thebes is restored)

-arouses pity and fear in audience

Actors: all men, usu. 3 actors who played multiple parts, masks

Chorus: comments on play, dialogue w/actors, sings and dances


Prologue - one or two characters give mythological background of play

Parodos - chorus enters - they are the "moral voice" of the play

Episode - action with characters, dialogue, monologue

Stasimon - chorus summarizes previous episode in verse

Exodos - end of play; chorus gives speech, "moral of the story"


- 3 male actors represented all characters, using masks

- chorus of 12, some could act as incidental, non-speaking characters (like Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene)

Sophocles (born 495 BC, died 405 BC)

- only 7 out of his 120 plays remain

-1st playwright to add third actor

-1st playwright to write tragedies that stand on their own, not as part of a trilogy

Origins of Greek Drama

-late 7th century BC, first plays called "tragedoi," sung by groups of men dressed as satyrs

-6th century BC, Pisistratus creates Dionysia, a 3-day state religious festival in Athens

-Thespis was a famous actor and the first playwright, winning the Dionysia in 536-533

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reader's Theatre

Today was our reading of Oedipus the King. Students took notes during the reading and wrote down two discussion questions for tomorrow. We went over the Actor's Goals, below, to help students know what to look for in their own and other actors' performances.

Student Actor Goals:

Poise/Focus: staying in character, no giggling, knowing lines
Characterization: show understanding of role through vocal inflection, facial expressions, and body language
Eye contact: look up at audience and other actors as much as possible
Projection/Diction: loud, clear voice with good enunciation; no yelling
Pace: speed of performance neither too fast nor too slow
Ensemble: working with other actors; timing
Peer Evaluation/Questions: notes taken during reading, plus good, open-ended discussion questions

I was so impressed with how well prepared students were, and especially with those who volunteered to read more at the last minute to fill in for absent actors. You all took this challenging play seriously and did your best!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Park Bench, Bus Stop, and Oedipus the King

A Greek drama mask sculpted in stone

Homework for Monday: Read your assigned section of Oedipus the King. Highlight the lines you will read aloud. Characters were assigned in class. Make sure you mark any unfamiliar words, look them up, and know how to pronounce them.

The play is divided into sections. Everyone should read the list of Characters and the description of the Scene on page 1.

Section 1: starts on p.1 with Oedipus' first line "Children, why do you sit here...," continues to the end of page 2, concluding with "[Oedipus returns.]"

Section 2: Starts on p. 3 with Oedipus' monologue, continues to halfway down p. 4, concluding with "[Teiresias and Oedipus exit separately]"

Section 3: Starts on p. 4 with the Chorus: "By Delphi's oracle, who is proclaimed..." and ends 1/4 of the way down p. 7 with Jocasta's line and the direction "[They exit]"

Section 4: Starts on p. 7 with Chorus: "I pray that I may keep pure..." and ends halfway down p. 9 with "[Exit all but the Chorus. A messenger enters.]"

Section 5: Starts on p. 9 with Second Messenger: "O princes, our glorious queen Jocasta is dead." and ends at the bottom of p. 10

Today we did more character, imagination, and attention work with improv games. We started with a student-led physical warmup, did Group Walks using internal emotions, and tried out different characters with motivations, needs, or personality traits for Park Bench and Bus Stop.
Next week we start the Greek drama unit with Reader's Theatre. Then we'll move on to a general introduction of Greek drama and start writing plots and characters for our Greek plays.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Drama: showing emotion and character

All sections did drama exercises for the entire class period today. Here are a few things we tried:

1. Review of the Actor's Job and Actor's Tools, plus additional goals for today, like "do something you haven't tried before" and "feel the emotion you're trying to communicate; don't just pretend."
2. Breath of Fire: stick your tongue out and pant like a dog. Then try it with your mouth closed so the air moves through your nose and you can feel your belly button moving.
3. Tongue twisters
4. Group imagination walk, led by student
5. This is a Test
6. Character walks
7. Character walks with emotions
8. Park Bench: entrances, exits, transitions, needs, dialogue

Tomorrow: more character work, Bus Stop, assign parts for Reader's Theatre on Monday

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drama: Character

Sections are moving at different speeds getting through the drama unit, so here's what we did in each:

6B benefits from the extra few minutes of announcement time in the mornings, apparently, because this section zoomed through dramatizing the Labors of Heracles yesterday and managed to do some solid character work today. First we discussed the Actor's Job and the Actor's Tools (see yesterday's post for those notes), then we tried out some exercises for imagination and living in character.
1. Guided group walks
2. This is a Test with emotions
3. Character Walks
a. Across circle
b. To center and back, with emotions

6D finished dramatizing the Labors, with spectacular results, like a particularly expressive and ferocious Cerberus. We talked about the Actor's Job and Tools, and got some great examples from students of using the imagination to create places and objects on stage.

6A was particularly drowsy today, but nevertheless worked through the remainder of the Labors heroically. We spoke about the Actor's Job and Tools, focusing on consistency (staying in character, making imaginary places real), and finally did Group Walk and one quick round of This is a Test.

Tomorrow, we will do more character work and improvisations to prepare for creating characters on Friday and learning about Greek theatre next week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Labors of Heracles - Dramatization

Warmup: everyone re-read the Labors quickly, paying attention to the sequence of events in each Labor in order to prepare for their parts.

In class, directors selected actors to represent the different characters, monsters, and places from the story of Heracles' Labors. Actors acted out each Labor while the Narrator read, then we reflected on what worked, what didn't, and the job of the actor and the director.

Tomorrow, we will finish up any leftover Labors, then start going in depth with characters and improvisation. Later this week, we'll start exploring Greek drama and, if there's time, do a reading of Oedipus the King, by Sophocles.

Here are my notes for actors so far:

Actor's job:

  • listen

  • respond

  • give and receive focus

  • show, don't tell - use concrete sensory details

  • character: appearance, movement, voice, decisions

  • objects: look, find, manipulate, release

  • setting: locate landmarks and maintain

  • story: cause and effect sequence - have a reason

  • communicate with audience by communicating with each other

  • be consistent

Actor's tools:

  • voice

  • body

  • imagination

  • attention

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Labors of Heracles

Heracles fighting the Stymphalian Birds

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a great break.

Today in class, students took turns reading from the Labors of Heracles. The spelling of "Heracles," is more true to the original Greek pronunciation, even though we're more familiar with the Roman "Hercules." The stories of Heracles' adventures are very similar in both Greek and Roman retellings, with some variations, as you'll see.

Tomorrow we will act out each labor dramatically - directors were assigned for each. The directors' job will be to carefully read over their Labor, decide how many actors they'll need to represent Heracles, monsters, caves, other heroes, etc., and tell their actors what to do as the Narrator tells the story.

The Labors of Heracles

When he had come of age and already proved himself an unerring marksman with a bow and arrow, a champion wrestler and the possessor of superhuman strength, Heracles was driven mad by Hera. In a frenzy, he killed his own children. To atone for this crime, he was sentenced to perform a series of tasks, or "Labors", for his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. By rights, Heracles should have been king himself, but Hera had tricked her husband Zeus into crowning Eurystheus instead.

Labor One: The Nemean Lion

As his first Labor, Heracles was challenged to kill the Nemean lion. This was no easy feat, for the beast's parentage was supernatural and it was more of a monster than an ordinary lion. Its skin could not be penetrated by spears or arrows. Heracles blocked off the entrances to the lion's cave, crawled into the close confines where it would have to fight face to face and throttled it to death with his bare hands. Ever afterwards he wore the lion's skin as a cloak and its gaping jaws as a helmet.

Labor Two: The Hydra

King Eurystheus was so afraid of his heroic cousin that when he saw him coming with the Nemean lion on his shoulder, he hid in a storage jar. From this shelter he issued the order for the next Labor. Heracles was to seek out and destroy the monstrous and many-headed Hydra. The mythmakers agree that the Hydra lived in the swamps of Lerna, but they seem to have had trouble counting its heads. Some said that the Hydra had eight or nine, while others claimed as many as ten thousand. All agreed, however, that as soon as one head was beaten down or chopped off, two more grew in its place.

To make matters worse, the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints was enough to kill an ordinary mortal. Fortunately, Heracles was no ordinary mortal. He sought out the monster in its lair and brought it out into the open with flaming arrows. But now the fight went in the Hydra's favor. It twined its many heads around the hero and tried to trip him up. It called on an ally, a huge crab that also lived in the swamp. The crab bit Heracles in the heel and further impeded his attack. Heracles was on the verge of failure when he remembered his nephew, Iolaus, the son of his twin brother Iphicles.

Iolaus, who had driven Heracles to Lerna in a chariot, looked on in anxiety as his uncle became entangled in the Hydra's snaky heads. Finally he could bear it no longer. In response to his uncle's shouts, he grabbed a burning torch and dashed into the fray. Now, as soon as Heracles cut off one of the Hydra's heads, Iolaus was there to sear the wounded neck with flame. This kept further heads from sprouting. Heracles cut off the heads one by one, with Iolaus cauterizing the wounds. Finally Heracles lopped off the one head that was supposedly immortal and buried it deep beneath a rock.

Labor Three: the Cerynitian Hind

The third Labor was the capture of the Cerynitian hind. Though a female deer, this fleet-footed beast had golden horns. It was sacred to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, so Heracles dared not wound it. He hunted it for an entire year before running it down on the banks of the River Ladon in Arcadia. Taking careful aim with his bow, he fired an arrow between the tendons and bones of the two forelegs, pinning it down without drawing blood. All the same, Artemis was displeased, but Heracles dodged her wrath by blaming his taskmaster Eurystheus.

Labor Four: the Erymanthian Boar

The fourth Labor took Heracles back to Arcadia in quest of an enormous boar, which he was challenged to bring back alive. While tracking it down he stopped to visit the centaur Pholus. This creature -- half-horse, half-man -- was examining one of the hero's arrows when he accidentally dropped it on his foot. Because it had been soaked in poisonous Hydra venom, Pholus succumbed immediately. Heracles finally located the boar on Mount Erymanthus and managed to drive it into a snowbank, immobilizing it. Flinging it up onto his shoulder, he carried it back to Eurystheus, who cowered as usual in his storage jar.

Labor Five: The Augean Stables

Eurystheus was very pleased with himself for dreaming up the next Labor, which he was sure would humiliate his heroic cousin. Heracles was to clean out the stables of King Augeas in a single day. Augeas possessed vast herds of cattle which had deposited their manure in such quantity over the years that a thick aroma hung over the entire Peloponnesus. Instead of employing a shovel and a basket as Eurystheus imagined, Heracles diverted two rivers through the stableyard and got the job done without getting dirty. But because he had demanded payment of Augeas, Eurystheus refused to count this as a Labor.

Labor Six: The Stymphalian Birds

The sixth Labor pitted Heracles against the Stymphalian birds, who inhabited a marsh near Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia. The sources differ as to whether these birds feasted on human flesh, killed men by shooting them with feathers of brass or merely constituted a nuisance because of their number. Heracles could not approach the birds to fight them - the ground was too swampy to bear his weight and too mucky to wade through. Finally he resorted to some castanets given to him by the goddess Athena. By making a racket with these, he caused the birds to take wing. And once they were in the air, he brought them down by the dozens with his arrows.

Labor Seven: the Cretan Bull

Queen Pasiphae of Crete had been inspired by a vengeful god to fall in love with a bull, with the result that the Minotaur was born -- a monster half-man and half-bull that haunted the Labyrinth of King Minos. Pasiphae's husband was understandably eager to be rid of the bull, which was also ravaging the Cretan countryside, so Hercules was assigned the task as his seventh Labor. Although the beast belched flames, the hero overpowered it and shipped it back to the mainland. It ended up near Athens, where it became the duty of another hero, Theseus, to deal with it once more.

Labor Eight: the Mares of Diomedes

Next Heracles was instructed to bring Eurystheus the mares of Diomedes. These horses dined on the flesh of travelers who made the mistake of accepting Diomedes' hospitality. In one version of the myth, Heracles pacified the beasts by feeding them their own master. In another, they satisfied their appetites on the hero's squire, a young man named Abderus. In any case, Heracles soon rounded them up and herded them down to sea, where he embarked them for Tiryns. Once he had shown them to Eurystheus, he released them. They were eventually eaten by wild animals on Mount Olympus.

Labor Nine: Hippolyte's Belt

The ninth Labor took Heracles to the land of the Amazons, to retrieve the belt of their queen for Eurystheus' daughter. The Amazons were a race of warrior women, great archers who had invented the art of fighting from horseback. Heracles recruited a number of heroes to accompany him on this expedition, among them Theseus. As it turned out, the Amazon queen, Hippolyte, willingly gave Hercules her belt, but Hera was not about to let the hero get off so easily. The goddess stirred up the Amazons with a rumor that the Greeks had captured their queen, and a great battle ensued. Heracles made off with the belt, and Theseus kidnapped an Amazon princess.

Labor Ten: the Cattle of Geryon

In creating monsters and formidable foes, the Greek mythmakers used a simple technique of multiplication. Thus Geryon, the owner of some famous cattle that Heracles was now instructed to steal, had three heads and/or three separate bodies from the waist down. His watchdog, Orthrus, had only two heads. This Labor took place somewhere in the country we know as Spain. The hound Orthrus rushed at Heracles as he was making off with the cattle, and the hero killed him with a single blow from the wooden club which he customarily carried. Geryon was dispatched as well, and Heracles drove the herd back to Greece, taking a wrong turn along the way and passing through Italy.

Labor Eleven: the Apples of the Hesperides

The Hesperides were nymphs entrusted by the goddess Hera with certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by Ladon, a many-headed dragon. The grove was located in the far-western mountains named for Atlas, one of the Titans or first generation of gods. Atlas had sided with one of his brothers in a war against Zeus. In punishment, he was compelled to support the weight of the heavens by means of a pillar on his shoulders. Heracles, in quest of the apples, had been told that he would never get the them without the aid of Atlas.

The Titan was only too happy to oblige. He told the hero to hold the pillar while he went to retrieve the fruit. But first Heracles had to kill the dragon by means of an arrow over the garden wall. Atlas soon returned with the apples but now realized how nice it was not to have to strain for eternity keeping heaven and earth apart. Heracles wondered if Atlas would mind taking back the pillar just long enough for him to fetch a cushion for his shoulder. The Titan obliged and Heracles strolled off, neglecting to return.

Labor Twelve: the Capture of Cerberus

As his final Labor, Heracles was instructed to bring the hellhound Cerberus up from Hades, the kingdom of the dead. The first barrier to the soul's journey beyond the grave was the most famous river of the Underworld, the Styx. Here the newly dead congregated as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves, awaiting passage in the ferryboat of Charon the Boatman. Charon wouldn't take anyone across unless they met two conditions. Firstly, they had to pay a bribe in the form of a coin under the corpse's tongue. And secondly, they had to be dead. Heracles met neither condition, a circumstance which aggravated Charon's natural grouchiness.

But Heracles simply glowered so fiercely that Charon meekly conveyed him across the Styx. The greater challenge was Cerberus, who had razor teeth, three (or maybe fifty) heads, a venomous snake for a tail and another swarm of snakes growing out of his back. These lashed at Heracles while Cerberus lunged for a purchase on his throat. Fortunately, the hero was wearing his trusty lion's skin, which was impenetrable by anything short of a thunderbolt from Zeus. Heracles eventually choked Cerberus into submission and dragged him to Tiryns, where he received due credit for this final Labor.


Heracles had a great many other adventures, in after years as well as in between his Labors. It was poisonous Hydra venom that eventually brought about his demise. He had allowed a centaur to ferry his wife Deianara across a river, and the centaur had attacked her on the other side. Heracles killed him with an arrow, but before he died he told Deinara to keep some of his blood for a love potion. Deinara used some on Heracles' tunic to keep him faithful, little realizing that it had been poisoned with Hydra venom from the arrow. Heracles donned the tunic and died in agony.


Heracles was the only hero to become a full-fledged god upon his demise, but even in his case there was his mortal aspect to be dealt with. By virtue of his spectacular achievements, even by heroic standards, he was given a home on Mount Olympus and a goddess for a wife. But part of him had come not from his father Zeus but from his mortal mother Alcmene, and that part was sent to the Underworld. As a phantasm it eternally roams the Elysian Fields in the company of other heroes.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Poetry Unit Wrap-up

Introduction to Poetry

Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


1. Finish revising your concrete poem and copy onto a clean sheet of paper.

2. Finish poetry unit evaluation form and hand in at my desk.

3. Use writing prompts to get ideas. Write quietly on your own until everyone is finished.

4. Last 15 minutes of class: read concrete poems aloud. Hand in.

Homework: None! Enjoy your fall break.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Revise and Rewrite

Warmup: Students chose 2 items out of a list of boring phrases to rewrite poetically. The boring phrases:

1. The fire scared me.
2. Flowers bloomed near the house.
3. A small, colorful fish swam.
4. Something sad happened.
5. It was cold outside.

We shared some of the rewrites and talked about different ways to rewrite our poems to make them more exciting and meaningful. A favorite from 6B: "The fire tossed me up and caught me in its flames." Wow!

1. Appeal to the senses
2. Name names: be specific about things you're describing. What kind of tree is it? What kind of bird?
3. Show, don't tell. Your reader can figure out what you mean. Trust them, don't hit them over the head with meaning.
4. Figurative language adds spice.
5. Use concrete details in your descriptions, and be specific.
6. Filler words: search and destroy! Get rid of redundant words, or strings of words that over-explain, or words that don't say anything but that you just stuck in there to make a rhyme.

Students partnered up to read each other's concrete poems and give advice. The main thing you want to ask your partner is "Does this make sense?" If your partner can't tell you what the poem means, then it might be time for a rewrite. Your next task is to go through the poem one line at a time and ask "How does this line help the reader understand the meaning of the poem?"

One way to think about poetry is that it's like a mystery novel. You want your reader to do some of the work to figure out the mystery - the meaning of the poem - but you need to give them enough clues to do so. That's why it's good to get rid of filler words. Your reader doesn't know which words are important right away - you show them which ones are important to the meaning of the poem by making those words more interesting with figurative language, specific details, rhythm, and all the other poetic devices we've been talking about.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rhythm in Poetry

Homework: Read both sides of handout about "Rhythm and Meter" and "First Lines"

Warmup: Copy "Counting-Out Rhyme" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Underline and label different parts of figurative language.

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow.

If you read this poem to a 4/4 beat, all the stresses fall on the first and third syllables. Try it out!

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.

Pretty great, right? You could easily sing this poem to a melody.

For our next exercise, we listed some well-known songs on the board, like "Happy Birthday," "London Bridge," and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Students kept the rhythm of the songs but rewrote the lyrics, to hilarious effect.

Then we looked at some limericks, which have a very specific rhythm and rhyme scheme. Students wrote their own limericks and shared them out loud.

Tomorrow: Time to revise again! Concrete poems will be due at the end of the period.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Haiku part deux and the Art of Revision

Warmup: Haiku writing on the theme of Saturday

1. We shared some haiku out loud and talked about how to cut out unnecessary words to leave just the good stuff.

2. The class watched their section's junk band performances, received a CD with the videos, and were handed back their evaluations with grades for the project. The videos require Quicktime to be viewed, which can be downloaded in a few minutes from the Apple website. Instructions are on the README files on each disc.

3. Revision time! Students got their poems back and partnered up for rewriting. Some tips:
  • Cliches: search and destroy! Replace overused, tired or common phrases with fresh new ones
  • Accidental repetition: find and rephrase. Pretty often, poetry students will get caught up just getting words on the page and they'll end up repeating words or phrases that, while accurate, could be expressed more vividly. Repetition that you use on purpose to emphasize an idea is okay. Good repetition: "Oh captain, my captain!" Dull repetition: "The wind blows in my face. My hair was blown back by the wind. The wind blew."
  • Abstract words and phrases: figure out if you can express that idea more precisely and beautifully by using a concrete description. "Fun" is abstract. "the electricity that shoots up my spine at the very top of the roller coaster" is concrete. Abstract words are often too general to express exactly what you mean, so get specific. Show, don't tell!
  • Awkward rhyme: trash it. If trying to fit a rhyme scheme made you choose a word you don't really mean, get rid of it.
No homework tonight. We'll rewrite more tomorrow and get started on a final poetry project due Friday.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Haiku poetry

Warmup: 5 min. free write. You can do this any time you get "stuck" to jump start your writing. Just sit and write uninterrupted for 5 minutes. Don't worry about spelling or grammar, just dump whatever's in your head onto the page.

Classwork: some sections did Exquisite Corpses, some just went right into learning about haiku poetry. Haiku are short poems, usually three lines of seventeen syllables total (5 in the first line, 7 in the second line, 5 in the third line). They are very concrete and traditionally the subject is about something in nature, though modern haiku can be about anything. The best haiku are very compressed (using words that bring very strong images to mind) and often will introduce a description in the first line, an action or event in the second line, and "sum up" in the third line.

No homework for tonight. If you like writing poetry, though, I love reading it, so bring in your poems from home!

Here is a little bit about Basho's haiku from a scientist's website:

The images used by Basho in capturing the moment of truth were most often visual, as in the haiku about the frog, or the equally famous:

kareeda ni On the withered branch

karasu no tomarikeri A crow has alighted -----

aki no kure Nightfall in autumn.

This verse presents so sharp an image that it has often been painted. But Basho did not rely exclusively on visual images; the moment might equally well be perceived by one of other senses:

shizukasa ya Such stillness -----

iwa ni shimiiru The cries of the cicadas

semi no koe Sink into the rocks.

And sometimes the senses were mingled in a surprising modern way:

umi kurete The sea darkens,

kamo no koe The cries of the seagulls

honoka ni shirosi Are faintly white.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More Poetic Devices

Homework: Due Monday, October 5th
Write a descriptive poem about an abstract topic. Each class picked a topic. 6B chose "flying." 6D chose "winter." 6A chose "sacrifice." The poem should use concrete descriptive words to say something about that abstract topic. You can use as many poetic devices as you like, but try to use at least two. Some poetic devices are:

hyperbole (exaggeration)


a story
a list of descriptive words that don't have a point
a list of phrases such as: "Winter smells like __________,"
or "Thursday tastes like __________."

The idea is that you are practicing writing that helps the reader form a picture in their mind. When you say "justice," for example, every person who hears it will have a different picture in their head. You don't communicate your unique ideas about justice unless you give the reader some concrete, specific details to chew on.

A helpful hint is to think of an example, some specific instance which expresses the idea of justice for you. You can use memory. Maybe you were playing a game once and somebody cheated and got caught. This doesn't necessarily have to be an example from real life. You can use your imagination. What would it feel like to be an Olympic athlete who got third place because another athlete cheated? What would it be like to be the cheater? Or the judge who finds out? What would justice look like in this situation?

After you've imagined or remembered your scenario, think about what specific concrete details you can use to show the reader what you think about justice in that scenario. Let's use our Olympic athlete. I might list a bunch of words like sweat, aching legs, breath, etc. that describe how the athlete feels physically. I might think about where they are, what the weather's like, what the crowd sounds like, how the other athletes look. I might think about how the first gulp of water tastes after a hard race. Then I start thinking about how it feels to lose a race to someone who you know doesn't deserve to win. What are some concrete words I could use to describe that feeling? Is it painful? What else can I compare it to?

If you get stuck with your poem, just keep asking questions like What if? What else? What would that be like? How would it feel? And don't worry! It's just a poem.

When you think you're finished, read through your poem carefully and check for cliches. See if you can change a familiar-sounding word or phrase to one that's more vivid or interesting. For example, saying something is big doesn't tell us much. But enormous, gigantic, titanic, and huge say a lot more about the size of what you're describing.

Enough from me already. Get writing! I can't wait to read your amazing poems.

Today's class:
For our warmup, we wrote Exquisite Corpse poems. Each student wrote the first two lines of a poem on a sheet of lined paper, then folded it over so only the last line was visible. Then they passed it to their neighbor, who wrote the next two lines, folded it down, and passed it along. When the poem got to the first student, they unfolded it, wrote a title, and read it aloud. These came out great!

We also practiced our pronunciation with an alliterative tongue twister written by Lewis Carroll, who also wrote Alice in Wonderland. Here it is:

What a to-do to die today at a minute or two to two,
A thing distinctly hard to say but harder still to do.
For they'll beat the tattoo at a quarter to two: A rat-ta tat-tat ta tat-tat ta to-to.
And the dragon will come when he hears the drum
At a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two to two.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poetry - Concrete and Abstract Language

Warmup: Copy and discuss the following poem by Emily Dickinson (born 1830, died 1886):

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Students found definitions in the dictionary for words they didn't know. Then we talked about how metaphor is different from simile and found the metaphors in Dickinson's poem. Students found imagery and details in the poem that support the central metaphor, i.e. hope = bird.

Some helpful definitions:

simile: a comparison between two things using "like" or "as"

metaphor: a more direct comparison, not using "like" or "as"

cliche: anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse

imagery: words or phrases that bring a picture to mind

concrete language: specific, descriptive words based in the senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Adjectives and verbs are often very concrete.

abstract language: ideas, concepts, not accessible through the senses. Words like truth, hope, justice, love, color, emotion, and transportation are all abstract. You know what they are, you can give examples of types of justice or types of transportation, but you can't touch, see, hear, smell, or taste them using your body. A lot of nouns are abstract.

It's confusing when we talk about feeling something, because we use the same word for feeling an emotion as we do for feeling an object. When I feel surprised it's a different beast than when I feel the warmth of the sun.

To help us figure out the difference, the class listed some concrete words for sounds that expressed abstract ideas like: Heart, hate, hope, heavy and happy. We got some great lists of very specific verbs for each abstract word. Individual students then made their own lists using as many concrete sense words for abstract words as they could.

No homework tonight.

Tomorrow: more work with using concrete language, plus alliteration and the exquisite corpse game.