Puzzle Me This: Piecing Together Akhnaten’s Story
For this activity, you will need the reproducible handout entitled Puzzle Me This, copies of Akhnaten’s summary plot overview and illustrated synopsis, colored pencils, scissors, glue sticks, and envelopes (any size).
Archaeology, Anthropology, History, Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Communication
- To deepen students’ familiarity with Akhnaten’s story and themes
- To foster students’ own creativity and problem-solving skills in a collaborative setting
- To challenge students to think deeply about historical narratives and the modern reconstruction of the past
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.
Imagine you have been given a box with 15,000 puzzle pieces. You don’t know if the pieces are all part of a single puzzle, or if there are multiple puzzles mixed together in the same box. You don’t know what the puzzle(s) depict(s). You don’t even know if you have all the puzzle pieces—you might put the whole thing together, only to discover that a large part of the puzzle is missing. Nevertheless, if you want to have any hope of understanding the image, you must try your best to put the pieces together. This, in essence, is what archaeologists faced when they started piecing together Akhnaten’s scattered history.
This activity will invite your students to consider a fundamental challenge of archaeology: How can we construct a historical narrative when all we have are fragmentary artifacts? By making (and then solving) a puzzle based on Akhnaten’s illustrated synopsis, students will have the opportunity to think deeply about archaeology and history while familiarizing themselves with the opera’s plot. Students will:
- Make a series of puzzles based on individual sections of Akhnaten’s illustrated synopsis
- Collaborate in small groups to reconstruct the illustrated synopsis in its entirety
- Think about the relationship between these puzzles and the structure of Philip Glass’s opera
- Reflect on what it means to craft a “creative depiction of history,” and think about how other media might be employed to imaginatively recreate historical events
This activity will use a collaborative, hands-on project to facilitate critical thinking, discussion, and reflection. Students will begin by using Akhnaten’s illustrated synopsis to craft a series of puzzles. They will then distribute their puzzle pieces to two other groups of students, who will be tasked with recreating the original image from these sparse fragments. As students attempt to reconstruct the full synopsis, conversational prompts will invite them to consider how Akhnaten’s plot reflects the fragmentary nature of the pharaoh’s real-life archaeological record.
Divide students into small groups of two to three students; ideally, the number of groups in the class will be a multiple of three. Number each of these groups “1,” “2,” or “3” (there will likely be multiple groups with the same numerical designation).
The early steps of this activity will be most successful if students have a basic understanding of Akhnaten’s story but lack detailed knowledge of the opera’s plot. Distribute the summary provided in this guide (but do not distribute the full synopsis) and ask students to read it aloud in their small groups. This summary is designed to whet students’ appetites rather than providing in-depth coverage of the opera’s plot. When your students have finished reading, ask them to write down any questions they have about the opera’s story. Students will return to these questions at the end of the activity.
The illustrated synopsis for Akhnaten consists of three full pages and one half-page. Distribute one page to each group: Give copies of page 1 to all the groups numbered “1,” give copies of page 2 to all the groups numbered “2,” etc. Randomly distribute a few copies of the final half-page, as well. Do not let students see the other pages of the illustrated synopsis.
Explain that each group is going to make a puzzle from their designated page. Distribute scissors and ask students to cut their image(s) into around 10-15 pieces; these pieces can be any size or shape the students wish. (For younger students, teachers may wish to have adult volunteers or classroom assistants do the cutting instead.)
Once all the puzzles have been cut, distribute two envelopes to each group. Ask the students to divide their puzzle pieces into two (approximately equal) piles and put one pile of pieces in each envelope; label both of these envelopes with the group’s number. Finally, collect all the envelopes.
Now it’s time to start reassembling the synopsis-puzzle. Give each group a glue stick and a copy of the reproducible Puzzle Me This. Then distribute one envelope of puzzle pieces to each group according to the instructions below:
- Each Group 1 will get one of the envelopes marked “2”
- Each Group 2 will get one of the envelopes marked “3”
- Each Group 3 will get one of the envelopes marked “1”
Tell students to write the number from the envelope at the top of their reproducible sheet (where it says “Synopsis Puzzle: Page ___”). Explain that the reproducible sheet will give them a space to recreate the original images from the synopsis.
Invite students to start putting the puzzle together, but remind them that they only have half the pieces. They’ll have to make an educated guess as to how the pieces fit together and where they would likely be located within the full image. Since students have only one puzzle per group, they will have to work together to decide where each piece should go. As such, they will need to practice careful communication skills, expressing their own opinions, listening respectfully to dissenting ideas, and working together to negotiate a solution that is satisfactory to all the people in the group.
As students work, ask them to keep track of their decision-making processes. How did they decide where each piece should go? Were there specific clues that helped them figure it out? Once students think they know the (approximate) location of each piece, ask them to glue the pieces in place on their reproducible sheet.
Students will now have a fragmented page from the illustrated synopsis. The next question is: What should go in the blank spaces? Ask students to decide as a group what is missing, and ask them to fill in the blank parts of the page with their own drawings and words. Again, students will have to collaborate respectfully to create their shared image. As students work, ask them to think about how they are deciding to fill in these blank spaces and why they have chosen to fill them in this way. Remind them that they will be expected to explain their decision-making process at the end of the activity.
Give each group another copy of the reproducible and repeat Steps 3 and 4, distributing the remaining envelopes according to the following instructions:
- Each Group 1 will get one of the envelopes marked “3”
- Each Group 2 will get one of the envelopes marked “1”
- Each Group 3 will get one of the envelopes marked “2”
(If time is limited, this step may be skipped.)
Now it’s time to compare the “reconstructed” images with the originals. Give each student a full copy of the illustrated synopsis and invite them to spend a few minutes walking around the room and observing how the different pages were completed. It may be helpful to display all the versions of page 1 together, all the versions of page 2 together, etc.
When students return to their seats, start an open conversation about this exercise and how it might reflect the challenges faced by archaeologists. The following questions will help guide the discussion:
- How did the “reconstructed” images compare to the originals? Were you surprised when you saw the original? Why or why not?
- Were the different reconstructions similar? Why or why not? What might account for the differences?
- How might this exercise be similar to piecing together artifacts in an archaeological dig? How might it be different?
- In a broader sense, why might it be difficult to understand an individual, culture, or society when the only traces we have are fragmentary?
Ask students to return to the questions they wrote down in Step 1. In their groups, they should discuss whether or not they have since learned the answers to these questions. Do they understand the plot better now? Are there any questions that remain unanswered?
Explain that when Philip Glass began composing Akhnaten, he faced a challenge similar to the puzzle activity students just completed. He knew some pieces of Akhnaten’s story, but there were still large chunks missing. Based on what your students now know about Akhnaten’s plot, do they think Philip Glass filled in these “missing pieces,” or does it seem like some parts are still “missing”? Why do they think so?
Invite your students to share any final thoughts and impressions of this activity.
Opera is just one way that modern artists can tell an ancient story. You may wish to conclude this activity by asking your students to imagine they have been hired to tell Akhnaten’s story in any medium of their choice. Some possibilities include:
Video game | Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel | TV series | Epic poem
What medium would students choose? Why?