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Abby Formella

The Class: Religions and Philosophical Traditions of the Ancient World

This course focuses on the religious and ethical traditions of ancient and preindustrial cultures around the world. The goals are to understand the key concepts and values that underlie these traditions and to consider the importance of religious and ethical thinking to the human experience. Students examine the continued influence of these traditions on the modern world. They consider Mesopotamia and Egypt, Classical Antiquity, and the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as West African, Mesoamerican, and East and South Asian traditions.

The Task: Create a Pacific Northwest Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead refers to scrolls produced during ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom (c. 1550–700 BCE) that contained a series of spells and instructions meant to ease the passage of the deceased through tests that must be overcome to reach the Field of Reeds (paradise in the afterlife). Students use their knowledge of ancient Egyptian traditions to create a modern Book of the Dead that reflects their own culture and daily life in the Pacific Northwest. The finished group project needs to demonstrate an understanding of the scroll’s purpose by showing the deceased being guided through tasks by a deity or deities before facing a final judgment. Students also must demonstrate their understanding of artistic conventions used in ancient Egypt.

The Outcomes:

Students slowly build their academic skills during this yearlong 8th grade class, and this rigorous and joyful group project is well placed, said History Teacher Raj Bhat. “As someone who also teaches 9th grade history, I have a clear sense of what lies ahead,” he said.

Note taking is one example. The goal is to teach students to create a note-taking habit and to take notes in a systematic way that is efficient and helps them retain information. “I learned a new style of note taking where you don’t directly copy [what the teachers says or writes] but paraphrase in your own words,” said student Zoe Mann.

Raj said the Book of the Dead project is the perfect marriage of knowledge and creativity. “It’s the most fun students have all year, and it’s often one of the best demonstrations of what they’ve learned, not just about ancient Egypt, but what they’ve learned about how to learn,” he said, noting that History Teacher Gus Feliu created the project when he started teaching at UPrep in 2012, and that this is the first time in three years that students have done the project due to the pandemic.

Raj said the project is about taking creative risks, not about creative ability. Students take something they have learned about from the distant past and graft it onto a milieu that they are more familiar with. “For example, if Amit is a soul devouring monster from ancient Egyptian mythology who is part hippo, part croc, and part lion, what would the Pacific Northwest version of that be? I’ve gotten everything from the Fremont Troll to orca-eagle hybrid beasts, all from making a creative leap that is based on connecting new knowledge with something familiar,” he said. “The risk is in the fact that this is one of the few projects they’ll do at this age where they can’t look up the right answer. That’s often a scary leap for them to make.”

Student Delphine Laramee said it was fun to play with stereotypes of the Pacific Northwest. Her group, which included Zoe, Jin Hyun, and Sam Berntsen, created the character Primeit, an Amazon box with legs, to be the representative of Amit, the soul-devouring monster. The character Insert Name Here or INH was a Starbucks employee who hoped to pass tests to get into the afterlife. Their salmon-headed character Posidon represented Anubis, the god who guides the dead. A $10 Amazon gift card was weighed against the feather of order on the last final judgment panel.

Jin said this project taught him about effective time management and the responsibility of holding up your part of the project. “It was a lesson on the balance of putting in a lot of effort into it and meeting the time constraints at the same time because we had so much to do,” he said.

To keep the students on task, Raj repeated the instructions often and reminded them to look over the rubric to remind themselves of his expectations as they started each workday. “One of my key goals is to move them, little by little, toward the much more complex projects they will be asked to tackle in high school,” he said. “I want them to practice meeting many expectations, but in a way that is fun, lower-stakes, and less stress-inducing. In many ways, I think of this project as training wheels for next year.”

While Raj aims to teach students how to record, organize, manage, and make connections between all the bits of information delivered in the course, he also hopes the information is meaningful to the students, too. “Specifically, with this project, I hope they synthesize the information in a way that is useful, creative, and valuable to them in some way,” he said.

Delphine said it has been interesting to see what different cultures and religious groups think the parameters are for living a good life. “It’s made me apply this knowledge to my daily life and think about my own parameters for living a good life,” she said.



The more time Raj spent teaching while earning a master’s in art history at the University of Washington (UW), the more he liked it. “I get the biggest kick out of noticing flashes of inspiration, when a seed is planted with the potential to grow even bigger. Hopefully, when students experience that spark, they go and explore a new path,” said Raj, who also earned a BFA at the Parsons School of Design and a master’s in teaching at the UW. He was one of the founding consulting teachers for the World History Project, a free online course for high school students that will be used in thousands of U.S. classrooms within a few years. Before becoming a teacher, Raj wore many hats: he owned a coffee cart called Orbit Espresso in the 1990s and spent time as a freelance graphic designer, too.

  • Academics
  • Middle School