44 – Who was Aesop?

Aesop wrote over 700 fables . . . or did he? This ancient Greek writer’s work is at the foundation of literature, but who was he? Did he even exist? There are many different versions of his biography, because Aesop is one of those figures who comes from the blurry edges of the past where history vanishes into legend. All versions credit him with being an intelligent storyteller who traveled widely, dispensing moral wisdom with his pithy, entertaining stories. Although he met an untimely end, his work has become timeless, influencing global literature for over 2600 years.

Activity: Semihistorical Figures

History is the study of what happened in the past. Historiography is the study of how history is written down. Not all works of history are equally valuable. Some have false or missing information, and some are written by people who are trying to push a certain point of view. And then there are some people who get written into history who probably shouldn’t be in the story at all, because there isn’t any firm evidence about their lives or deeds.

Students can research one of the following semihistorical figures. These people often feature in old histories or in legends and works of fiction, but there is no hard evidence proving that they actually lived:

      • Ragnar Lothbrok
      • Mulan
      • Pythagoras
      • King Arthur
      • The Queen of Sheba
      • Robin Hood
      • Homer
      • John Henry
      • Lycurgus
      • Sun Tzu

This printable worksheet can help students answer questions about a semihistorical figure:

      • When was this person was supposed to have lived?
      • What is the person famous for?
      • What sources mention this person?
      • Does anything about the person’s life story seem unlikely to be true?
      • Do you think this person really existed? Why or why not?

39 – The Sneetches

In 1953, it was not popular to speak out against segregation, racism, and treating others badly because they are part of an out-of-favor group. But Dr. Seuss did just that in The Sneetches. In this year, Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his powers and Arthur Miller was attempting to speak against him with is play The Crucible. Segregated schools wouldn’t be struck down by the supreme court for another year, and Rosa Parks wouldn’t refuse to go to the back of the bus until 1955.

It can be easy to brush off children’s stories as unimportant bits of fun, but it actually took a lot of courage to publish a book that spoke out against the mistreatment of entire groups of people back in 1953. But the story is so simple that it holds up very nicely today as a tale about treating one another with civility.

Activity: How Does it Feel?

This activity is best suited for elementary age students. Have students recreate scenes from pages 4, 5, 6, or 7 from The Sneetches. This could be done through acting, drawing, or posing toys to recreate the images. On page 4, a star-belly parent and child walk with their noses in the air past a plain-belly parent and child. On page 5, star-belly children enjoy playing ball together while excluding plain-belly children. On pages 6 and 7, a group of star-bellies enjoy a beach barbecue while plain-bellies are shut out from the warm fire, tasty food, and lively conversation.

After the children re-create one or more of these scenes in their own way, facilitate a discussion about how the plain-belly sneetches feel. Ask the children how they would feel if they were excluded  in these ways. Encourage them to come up with ideas for how they can avoid mistreating others and encourage their peers to do the same.

Activity: Passing

This activity is best suited for high school students. In The Sneetches, the plain-bellies have stars applied to their bellies so that they can pass as star-bellied sneetches, who have a higher social status and are allowed full participation in society. This is a reference to the phenomenon of passing, in which a person who belongs to an oppressed group is able to look and behave as if they were a member of a privileged group. Passing can be done to save lives; during the Holocaust, some Jews were able to escape being sent to death camps by passing as non-Jews. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed-race African-Americans whose features were European enough, passing could be used to escape slavery or gain access to education, jobs, housing, and societal connections that would not be open to them if their ancestry were known.

Instruct students to select an example of someone from US history who was mixed race and was able to pass as white. Students can give a written or oral report giving a biographical overview of their chosen subject’s life, with the main focus being how and why the person passed for white. There are many examples to choose from, such as Eston Hemings, Jane Morrison, Walter Francis White, James Weldon Johnson, or George Herriman.

The point of this assignment is for students to understand the reasons someone chose to pass, not to judge the individual’s choices or to project themselves into their subject’s situation. Students should specifically avoid judging whether or not a person from history should have attempted to pass, because their frame of reference and personal options are quite different from that of the people studied. A good report will note the advantages and disadvantages afforded by the choice to pass, as well as the ways in which the person was successful at passing.

Activity: Star On, Star Off

Materials needed:
Paper
Scissors
Duct Tape
Four chairs
Soft balls for bouncing or catching

Cut up slightly more star shapes than there are students in the class. Put a rolled up bit of duct tape on the back of each star so that it can be applied and removed to clothing repeatedly.

Go somewhere where children have enough space to run around safely. In the middle of the room set up two chairs side by side with about three feet of space between them. This is the “Star On” door. In line with these chairs, set up two more in the same manner for the “Star Off” door. Leave enough space between the “doors” for two children to stand. Assign one child to be “Star On” another to be “Star Off”. Star On and Star Off should stand in the space between the doorways.

Divide the rest of the class into two groups of equal size. Do this in an arbitrary way so that the students will not be able to infer the members of each group later. Do not tell the students that they should remember who is in each group.

Stick stars to the sleeves of the children in one group. On your cue, allow the children to run around the room, but tell them they should go through the Star On and Star Off doors several times each. Students with a star may bounce a ball or play catch with a classmate who currently has a star, but if they are tagged by a student without a star they must go through the Star-Off door. Students may not collect more than one star at a time – they must go through the Star Off door after getting a star. As they go through each doorway, Star On and Star Off will apply or remove the stars. The teacher can help with transferring stars from Star Off to Star On if needed.

Allow the children to play for several minutes. Then cue the children to freeze. Have everyone sit down in a group. Ask if any of the children can remember the members of the original group. Unless one student has a particularly good memory, most should not be able to recall how the group was divided. Discuss how this relates to the plot of The Sneetches, and how there really isn’t any important difference between the children that would prevent them all playing together.

Activity: Stars of David

It can be daunting to begin teaching younger children about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. But children of all ages can be introduced to this dark part of history with a very simple lesson about how Jews were marked out as different in Nazi Germany.

After reading The Sneetches, explain that unfortunately it’s not just a funny story about some creatures that learn a lesson about being kind to one another. Explain that there have been times in history when people have been marked out as different so that they could be mistreated.

Research images of badges that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-controlled areas during the 1930’s, such as this one:

Here are some questions you might ask to help introduce the idea of segregation to children. Modify them as appropriate and allow children to take whatever time they need to explore them:

      • How would you feel if you had to wear a badge on your clothing that made it ok for everyone else to be unkind to you?
      • If one of your friends had to wear a badge like that and the other kids were unkind to him or her, what would you do?
      • Would you help people who had to wear badges if it meant that you or your family could also be treated badly?

Do not go into more detail than is appropriate for the children’s understanding, and pay attention to their emotional state. This part of history can be painful and difficult to begin learning about, and it’s important not to give children more than they can handle in one lesson.

34 – Ethics and Physics in “The Crow and the Pitcher”

“The Crow and the Pitcher” by Aesop doesn’t just have a wholesome moral that teaches children to solve problems with resilence and creative thinking. This fable also teaches about the concept of displacement in physics!

There’s also a fun video I’ve made to go with this episode at my YouTube channel, starring myself, my daughter, and a very cute puppet.

Activity: Volume Displacement as taught in “The Crow and The Pitcher”

Materials needed
– Black construction paper
– Safety scissors
– White crayons
– A clear plastic pitcher
– A large measuring cup with graduated measurement lines
– pebbles
– electrical tape in any color
– water

Have students use construction paper, crayons, and scissors to draw and cut out images of crows. A white crayon will stand out on the black paper to draw feathers, eyes, and beak details. If this project is being done for a Science Fair, you could buy a puppet instead as that makes for better storytelling.

Partly fill the pitcher with water. Use a strip of electrical tape to mark the water level on the side of the jug. Tell the story of The Crow and The Pitcher. Students can bring their crows to the pitcher as the bird attempts to drink. Have students add pebbles at the right moment in the story. Observe how the water rises as the pebbles displace volume. Have students bring their crows back to the pitcher when the water level is high enough that the bird can “drink.”

Pour off water into the measuring cup until the water level has gone back to the original position. Note the amount of water. This amount tells you the volume of the pebbles added to the pitcher. For younger students, keep the explanation simple: “that’s how much space the pebbles would take up if you could smoosh them all together.” Older students can learn that 1 milliliter equals 1 centimeter cubed, so the solid volume of the rocks in cm3 is the same number as the milliliters of displaced water.

Students may also be interested in researching how scientists have proven that crows are able to understand volume displacement, meaning that it’s possible for this fable to be based on real life observation and not just the author’s imagination.

Music in this episode

Seikilos Epitaph

29 – A French Lesson with The Fables of La Fontaine

Generations of French children have grown up reading and memorizing the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, and these stories have had a huge impact on the French language.

You can’t really be fluent in any language unless you know certain stories, songs, and figures of speech, most of which are learned in childhood. Native speakers of French are almost automatically familiar with the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, who collected and retold 239 fables in twelve books. Each story contains pithy phrases and morals that show up repeatedly in common speech, news articles, political cartoons, and even scientific papers.

This episode takes a look at one of La Fontaine’s Fables — Les Animaux Malades de la Peste, or Animals Sick with the Plague. Originally written by Aesop, this is a deeply political tale that is sadly still relevant today with its moral warning that it is easy for the powerful to escape justice, instead heaping blame upon a weaker — and innocent — scapegoat.

Activity: The Moral of the Story . . .

Have students read one of the Fables of La Fontaine. If you or your kids are able to read French, the original versions can be found here:

www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/fables.htm

A selection of the Fables translated into English can be found here:

en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Original_Fables_of_La_Fontaine

After reading a fable, have students fill out this printable worksheet, which has spaces for the following:

      • Name of the fable
      • Origin of the fable (Aesop? Horace? A French folktale?)
      • Most interesting sentence in the fable
      • What is the moral of this story?
      • How can you use this moral to improve your life?

Students can then share their findings with one another.

Activity: Translating Important French Phrases from the Fables

This activity is appropriate for kids who are learning the French language and have enough ability to engage in short translations. Below is a list of some commonly quoted phrases from the Fables de La Fontaine. Alone, in pairs, or in small groups as appropriate, have students translate one or more of the phrases into their native language. Then, ask the students to try to figure out what the moral means. It may be necessary to read the fable from which the quote is derived in order to get good context. Students should then share their findings with one another.

Title of Fable – Book, Number Quotation
La Cigale et la Fourmi – I, 1 Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant.
Le Corbeau et le Renard – I, 2 Apprenez que tout flatteur, vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.
Le Loup et l’Agneau – I, 10 La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure
Les Frelons et les Mouches à miel – I, 21 À l’œuvre on connaît l’artisan.
Le Lion et le Rat – II, 11 On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi.
Le Renard et le Bouc – III, 5 En toute chose il faut considérer la fin.
Le Petit Poisson et le Pêcheur – V, 3 Petit poisson deviendra grand, pourvu que Dieu lui prête vie.
Le Petit Poisson et le Pêcheur – V, 3 Un Tiens vaut, ce dit-on, mieux que deux Tu l’auras.
Le Lièvre et la Tortue – VI, 10 Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point.
Le Chartier embourbé – VI, 18 Aide-toi, le Ciel t’aidera.
Le Lion amoureux – IV, 1 Amour, Amour, quand tu nous tiens, on peut bien dire: Adieu prudence.
L’Ours et les Deux Compagnons – V, 20 Il m’a dit qu’il ne faut jamais, vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Crier Haro sur le baudet.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir.
Les Lapins – X, 15 Mais les ouvrages les plus courts sont toujours les meilleurs.
Le Milan et le Rossignol – IX, 18 Ventre affamé n’a point d’oreilles.