Mathematical and Musical Death

I published my students’ lovely pictures of Death from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak a couple of weeks ago; I had one more project turned in after that, by an enterprising student who felt his artistic skills were not up to drawing a sketch of the character.

He may be lacking in artistic skills with a pencil and paper, but he is certainly not lacking in creativity.  He came up with these two alternate medium sketches of Death.

The first is Death as expressed by mathematics:

Book Thief Death math Olmos

Death: Primely Palindromic by Elijah Olmos (

Not satisfied with that, he came up with another idea: Death expressed by music:

D     E     A     T     H

4     5      1     20    8   (number of the letter in the alphabet)

This piece is in the key of A, since the middle letter of the word Death is an A.

To generate a chord progression:

I = A, obviously, since it’s in the key of A.  But also because A is the 1st letter in the alphabet.

IV – D, the 4th letter of the alphabet and also the IV chord in the key of A.  Also happens to be in the word Death.

V – E, the 5th letter of the alphabet; the V chord in the key of A.  Likewise just happens to be in the word Death.

vi – F#m.  Because the next letter in “Death” is T, which is the 20th letter of the alphabet, and F# is 20 notes above an A.  An F#m chord is the submediant in the key of A, or the vi chord.

8 –> I = A again.  Because if the names of the notes kept going alphabetically on the keyboard, the 8th note above A would be an H.  However, after G the names start over again at A, so the H in Death correlates with A.

So the word Death follows a I-IV-V-vi-I pattern:   A – D – E – F#m – A

Then he “threw together a little riff” following the above chord progression. And since he is a very thorough student, he printed out the sheet music for it.

Book Thief Death score Olmos

Death Riff by Elijah Olmos (

When I played it, I was surprised that it was in a major key.  This should not have been a surprise, because I can read music so I can clearly see it’s major.  It wasn’t until I heard it, however, that I realized I had somehow expected it to be in a minor key because, well, it’s Death.

And then I thought again and realized that Zusak does not characterize Death the way it is normally characterized:

“By the way, I like this human idea of the grim reaper.  I like the scythe.  It amuses me” (75).

“You see? Even death has a heart” (242).

“I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold…” (307).

So perhaps the major key was just fine for Death.  Perhaps minor would have been cliche.

And perhaps I am giving this far too much thought.

* * * * *

Also, did you notice I just used the literary device anaphora?  I used to use literary devices without realizing what I was doing – or at least, without realizing what the name of the device was.  Thanks to this unit on The Book Thief, I am now consistently aware of every device I use.

I think this is a good thing.


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The Faces of Death… and a Book Thief

Once again my students have amazed me with their creativity – in class the other day I mentioned that it would be interesting to see a drawing of Death, as personified in the book we are studying, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Someone asked if I would give extra credit points for a drawing, I consented, and I now have a lovely stack of drawings of Death.

Which is not something I thought I would ever say.

Book Thief Death Wightman

Preppy Death by Sandis Wightman

Book Thief Death Shank

Death-Mask Death By Jedidiah Shank



Book Thief Death Reilly

Plane Crash Death by Daniel Reilly


Book Thief Death Schmidt

Death & Leisel by Erin Schmidt

Book Thief Death Caparelli

Pocket Protector Death by Michael Capparelli

Book Thief Death Wilderman

Death Crashes a funeral by Shay Wilderman

Book Thief Death Sato

Conflicted Death by Darynne Sato

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Haiku – Lost in Translation

We had so much fun with our last Haiku assignment that I assigned some extra-extra credit.  I challenged the students to find Arakida Moritake’s “Fallen Flower” haiku in Japanese and feed it into Google Translate.

Three students took me up on it and I received three completely different translations:

The Original (from our textbook, Abeka’s World Literature)

The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly

Some of us found a different translation of that online, and we agreed it was the better of the two:

Translation by Steven D. Carter:

A fallen blossom
returning to the bough, I thought —
But no, a butterfly.

Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0804722124 p338

And here are the translations my students did with the help of Google Translate:

Translation by Sandis Wightman:

I went back to the branch and saw the drift
It was a butterfly

Translation by Darynne Sato:

If you look to the fallen branches and you see it.

Translation by Michael Capparelli:

Lukha.z When you return to the moon butterfly and clothes fallen flower branches, the moon is unprepared.

And this, students, is why it’s so important, when reading literature that originated in another language, to find a reputable translation.

Or you could learn the language.  That would work, too.  😆

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Renga – The Ancestor of Haiku

Since September, my World Literature class has been working its way through the ages of literature, starting at around 3000 BC with The Epic of Gilgamesh.  It is now December and we find ourselves reading the poetry of 16th and 17th century Japanese poets Moritake and Matsuo Basho.

Since we research every author we read, we have discovered that the Haiku form of poetry is actually a shortened version of the Renga form.

Renga is a cooperative form of poetry writing – one person writes a stanza of 3 lines with syllable counts of 5, 7 and 5, and then a different poet replies with a 2-line stanza of 7 and 7 syllables.  Historically, this would then be repeated, sometimes reaching hundreds of lines in length.

As homework, I assigned my class the task of writing a haiku.  When I was grading them, it suddenly hit me that I should be responding in renga form.

I was so delighted with the results that I just had to share them here:

by Erin Schmidt

Buzzing mosquito
Have you met my two hands?
Death can be sudden

My final meal; suddenly
Hands appear.  Ah, life was sweet.

Southern California Fires of December, 2017
by Michael Capparelli

The snowflake descends
Inhaled, it infects my lungs
Not snow, it is ash

L.A. fires burn but this is
Not what’s meant by “White Christmas”


The Test
by Erin Schmidt

Tears stream down their face
A test they have not studied for
Still they hope they’ll pass

Teacher smiles, vindicated
They should have listened in class!

Winter Time In California
by Darynne Sato

Songs of snow falling
I look out of the window
The sun is shining

Woes of Californians
Never get Snow Days off school

Green Tea
By Lizzy Diaz

Green tea is the best
It eases my mind from stress
Green tea is my life

The British know – there’s no cure
Like a proper cup of tea

by Elijah Olmos

World Literature
Every Tuesday and Thursday
Eternal torture

(Student added the marginal note: “Sarcastic, of course”)

Sarcastic student’s poem
Requires a grade of F… psyche!

Extra Credit
by Lizzy Diaz

I need to write this
So I can get my grade up
Please help me through this

Dear, your wish is my command
Here’s 5 points extra credit

by Lizzy Diaz

Mrs S is cool
She lets me turn in late work
Unlike Mrs R

Mrs R, the expert teacher
Perhaps I should grade harder

by Lizzy Diaz

French fries are so good
But they go right to my thighs
Then I want to cry

So sad that potato with
Oil and heat should make you cry

by Jed Shank

Cold winter is here
I feel something on my back
Pain from father’s fist

Lazy no-good son sits by fire
I must rouse him back to life

Soldier of Death
by Jed Shank

A shimmering blade
Honor, courage, loyalty
Now covered in blood

The glory of war requires
No shrinking from dealing death

Growing Up
by Jed Shank

A leaf falls from tree
Seeking out new adventure
Shattered on the dirt

They told me that I must fly
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

by Jed Shank

Embraced in warm arms
A dimming sense of relief
Never not alone

How soon they outgrow and leave
The circle of a mother’s arms

by Jed Shank

Folding brother’s clothes
Not sure whose clothes are whose
Now they are all mine

He may scold and cry but he
Can’t argue with possession

by Daniel Reilly

When winds do whisper
When words are carving rivers
The pages will turn

Canyons cut through stone by verse
Pen is mightier than sword

by Sandis Wightman

I don’t like poems
I don’t like reading poems
Or writing poems

Student complains of writing
But I have to read them all

Marital Bliss
by Michael Capparelli

She talks on and on
Her words destroy my small ears
My wife calls to me

My husband gazes into space
He must be both deaf and dumb

by Shay Wilderman

So roses are red
Violets are blue, yet
Pine trees are festive

Festive, yes, and it would be hard
To decorate a flower

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World Lit – What Abeka Missed

I’m teaching World Literature to high schoolers this year.  I’ve never done World Lit., so I’m really enjoying it.

We’re using Abeka’s textbook, because it is less distressing than any of the other textbooks I reviewed for the subject.  Apparently, to American publishers, “World Lit” means “American and British Lit with a token Foreign Author thrown in every six weeks or so.”

Balderdash, I say.

So we’re using the textbook as more of a guideline.  Like the Pirate Code.

At any rate, it’s been good so far.  Granted, we had to start in Chapter 11, because that’s when the course finally gets around to starting at the chronological beginning, but the content is pretty darned good.

That is, until you get to the end of Chapter 13 (Roman Times).  That chapter ends with an excerpt from Histories and Annals by Tacitus, which was written in Rome around 110-115 AD.  Chapter 14 (The Middle Ages) starts with an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was written in Italy from 1308-1320 AD.

So according to Abeka, nothing was written, in the entire world, between 110 and 1320 AD.

So we had to fix that.  Here’s a photo of the timeline we put together on the board.  It doesn’t have everything on it that we discussed, but it does at least have some major political events and references to a few pieces of literature.  It’s a stab in the right direction anyway.

Timeline - What A Beka Missed in the Middle Ages.JPGLuckily all this literature is old enough that I was able to find copies of it online and send the students home with a stack of handouts to read.

I’m fuming, however, about the fact that I had never heard of this stuff, other than Beowulf and Everyman and The Song of Roland, considering I was a Lit Major in college.  World Lit was not a requirement back in the day.  Next year I’m going back to finish my degree and boy howdy, Multicultural Lit is one of the first courses I aim to take!

Because for one thing, I’m probably doing most of the homework this year as I plan my lessons…. 🙂


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“And then she slugged me…”


For the last writing assignment of the year for my twice-weekly Comp/Lit class, I assigned this prompt, which comes from the book Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston:

“Write a paragraph that starts with this sentence: Why don’t you learn how to talk to a rooster? and ends with this one: She slugged me.

This has made for some highly enjoyable grading.  In fact, I have enjoyed reading the responses so much I may just make this an end-of-the-year tradition.  Out of all of them, though, my favorite was the last one I corrected, turned in late by the one student who was often late turning in homework.  She is highly dyslexic and the administration wasn’t even sure she should be in my class.  However, I had already had her in my Classical Conversations class the year before and knew how brilliant she is despite her struggles with writing, so I agreed to have her included in the class.

All that to say, not only do I love this piece for its humor, and for the fact that she wove the sentences together in a less-than-direct manner, but also because this is what a dyslexic, who last year struggled with complete sentences, can do when given a chance (and, I might add, a private tutor, with whom she worked on the side all year).

“Why don’t you learn how to talk to a rooster?” Arnold, I hoped, joked. We were sitting in his living room looking at the classes to take when he made his outrageous comment. When I explained to him that I was in the middle of deciding which language to take, either Japanese or Spanish, that is when Arnold thought of the rooster language.  Mainly, I think, so that he could volunteer me to go to his uncle’s farm this summer and not him.  When he saw that I was not convinced he set out to explain why his made up language was better.

“First off, you only want Japanese because you and your cousin are going to Japan in the summer,” he concluded.

“And what’s wrong with that?” I interjected.

“Nothing, but it’s hard and you’ll need more time to really retain it and you are way too lazy and busy to do that well.”

“I am not!” I yelled like a little kid. “But I do see your point.  And besides, my cousin does speak Japanese fluently and did say she would love to translate for me.  So that leaves Spanish?”

“Well, first off, don’t you speak Spanish effortlessly?” Arnold reminded me.

“Well yes, but…”

“And didn’t you want to really work for your grade and gain something, not just breeze through it like art last year, where you complained the whole time that you were bored?” he lectured.

“Okay, okay, you are right, as always,” I conceded.

“Okay, so rooster it is!” he shouted joyfully.

“No… I have another idea…”

The next day I sat in Latin class, not because that was my idea but because French was all booked and when I told my teacher it was a dead language, she, who must have heard that a lot, slugged me.

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DNA Part One – With Fear and Trembling

Since I have four blogs, I’m not always clear in my head. That is, I’m not always clear in my head when typing a post, as to which blog should be the platform for it. And once it is published, it’s too late to change. So here is the first of a four-part series inspired by a Classical Conversations Challenge II Biology experiment, which I posted on one of my other blogs before realizing it really belonged here — you can find the rest of the series once you get there.

Julia's Inner Monologue

strawberrySome of you may know that as a Classical Conversations Challenge II Director, along with tutoring the students through subjects for which I have a personal affinity, I must also work with them on their Biology.  Now, Biology is a perfectly respectable, and may I say, necessary subject for high school students. However, it was the one subject I avoided at all costs during my own high school career, managing to take what amounted to a Biology For Dummies class in college in order to fulfill graduation requirements and hoping upon passing the class to never have to revisit it.

It’s not the dissection.  I have control of my gag reflex, so I can dissect.  I can even appreciate the marvels of anatomy that we are exploring as we dissect, and last year I actually had a lot of fun guiding the students through their microscope labs and dissections.


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