Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, and Identity

In the picture book Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio (illustrations by Christian Robinson), a bulldog named Gaston is part of a family of poodles. Although it does not come easily to him, Gaston learns to be prim and proper like the rest of the poodles. One day, Gaston and his family meet a family of bulldogs, and Gaston looks just like all of them except for Antoinette, a poodle, who looks just like Gaston's family.  

The parents of each family surmise that the puppies must have been accidentally switched, so Gaston goes to live with the bulldogs and Antoinette with the poodles. Both Gaston and Antoinette soon learn, however, that they don’t feel at home with their “blood” families; Gaston is too gentle for the bulldogs, and Antoinette is too rough for the poodles. The puppies switch back and are happy to be with their original families once more. 

The story ends with an epilogue in which Gaston and Antoinette raise a family of their own, teaching their puppies to be “whatever they wanted to be.”

The story raises questions about identity, including:

What parts of us are important to defining who we are? What parts aren’t as important?
How much of your personality and beliefs come from your parents?
Are we necessarily more like the people we look like?
What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of person does your family or friends want you to be?
What kinds of things can we gain and learn from making friends with different kinds of people?
To foster an inquiry about these questions in a classroom, give each student an index card before reading the story. Ask the students to write down the three most important words or phrases that describe who they are. They could be anything, from something about their bodies, their families, their backgrounds, their interests, or whatever else they find important. You can also frame it as the three things they would say first about themselves when first meeting someone.
When everyone is done writing down their responses, ask the students to share what they have written. Students will likely give a wide range of answers, and often their answers are quite different from what many adults would say. Whereas adults might respond with things like their jobs, their genders, and their ethnicities, children might list their pets or favorite school subjects as the things most important to defining them.
After the initial exercise and reading the story, the discussion can use Gaston’s journey to understanding himself as a way to begin exploring how the students understand themselves and their identities.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Big Questions and How We Answer Them

I developed this activity a couple of years ago and often use it in the early part of the school year. I have found that it engages most students and leads to interesting conversations, often lasting 2-3 class sessions. Part of the activity is based on an exercise created by Matthew Lipman and Ann Gazzard in Getting Our Thoughts Together: Instructional Manual to Accompany Elfie, 2003.

The activity begins by grouping students into groups of three or four. Each student is handed a blank index card. Then each group is handed an index card on which is written one of the following questions:
  • Do you have to see, hear, or touch something in order to believe it exists?
  • Are you responsible for the environment?
  • Are mistakes good or bad?
  • Should you always agree with your friends?
  • What is more important, to be happy or to do the right thing?
  • Are numbers real?
  • Is life fair?
Each group is given a different question.
Next, the students are asked to answer the question given to their group by writing their individual answers on their blank index cards, without talking to anyone else. At this point they do not need to give reasons for their answers.
Once the students are done writing, tell them to listen to all of the instructions before they do anything.
  • If you think that the answer you wrote down is completely true, put your head down on the desk.
  • If you think that your answer is mostly true, stay seated.
  • If you think that your answer is only slightly true, raise your hand.
  • If you no longer think that your answer is true, stand up.
After they’ve done this, ask the students who are standing why they decided that their answers were no longer true. Facilitate a brief discussion about this.

Then ask all the students to sit back down with their groups. Give each group another blank index card. Each student will then share with his or her group their answers to the question the group was given, and the group should decide on an answer with which they all agree. Then they should choose one student to be the group’s scribe, and that student will write the group’s answer(s) on the group’s index card, along with 2-3 reasons the group comes up with to support their answer.

The next part of the activity works best if the students can come together in one circle, with each group sitting together.

Start by asking one of the groups to read their question and answer, along with the reasons for their answer.
Then instruct the other students:
  • If you are completely convinced by the group’s reasoning, put your head down.
  • If you are mostly convinced by the group’s reasoning, stay seated and do nothing.
  • If you are only slightly convinced by the group’s reasoning, raise your hand.
  • If you are not at all convinced by the group’s reasoning, stand up.
Ask the students who are not at all convinced why this is so. Then facilitate a brief discussion with the whole group about the question and the reasons for answering it in various ways.

Repeat this process with each group, spending time having a discussion about each of the questions. If there’s time and the students are engaged in these discussions, this can take two or three sessions.

Time permitting, it’s nice to end with a reflection question to which the students can respond in writing, in philosophy journals or just on paper, such as:
Did your view or your reasons change as you discussed the question with your group and then the whole class? Why or why not?
Students often struggle to come up with good reasons for their views, and working with a group to explain to the class why they think a given answer is a good one helps them think more deeply about what they believe and why. The whole class discussions about each question are deepened by having the group of students who have already thought about the question lead off the conversation. This activity is reliably engaging for students and allows every student to be involved.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Do I need this or just want it?

Distinguishing between what we need and what we want is challenging for all of us, children and adults. One of my colleagues at the Center for Philosophy for Children, Karen Emmerman, has developed a great classroom exercise for thinking about the differences between wants and needs.

Step One: Identifying Wants and Needs
Give the students a handout with the following questions:
1. What are some things you want?
2. What are some things you need?
3. What is the difference between what you want and what you need?
4. Do all people have the same wants?
5. Do all people have the same needs?
6. What should we do if what one person wants conflicts with what another person needs?
Give the students sufficient time to think about their responses and write them on their handouts. 
Step Two: Distinguishing Wants and Needs
When everyone has had a chance to think about the above questions, facilitate a large group conversation, using two lists on the board: Wants and Needs. This generally spurs a discussion about the difference between wants and needs and whether something that is a want for one person could count as a need for another. 

It is likely that you will not get through the whole list of questions in one session, so you can pick up where you left off in a later philosophy session. This exercise could take a few sessions to get through if you find you are having rich discussions.
Step Three: Ranking Needs
Provide students with the following list of needs (make any adjustments you’d like) and a blank numbered list from 1 to 10. Ask them to rank the needs with 1 the most important and 10 the least important. 

• Safe shelter
• Food
• Education
• Water
• Family (it’s helpful to clarify you don’t mean literally having parents since clearly we need to have had parents in order to exist; this is more about having people who love you and help care for you)
• Friends
• Clothes
• Medical Care
• Pets
• Ability to pursue projects or interests that help define who you are (depending on the age of the children, you may want to alter the language here; this item is aimed at the sorts of life projects that give life meaning and make it worth living, like working to become a poet or being excellent at sports).
It is helpful to have the students work in groups of 4-6 for step three. These allows them to think together and work through any disagreements about the rankings.

When the groups have finished ranking the needs, pull the class together as one group and ask each group to report what they put first through fifth. This works better than going through their lists one number at a time. 
Finally, facilitate a discussion about the differences in the rankings. Why do some groups think food is more important than education? Why did other groups think medical care is most important? After this discussion is over, go through their rankings for sixth through tenth. 
These discussions should lead students (and teachers!) to think more carefully about what constitutes wants and needs, and how to distinguish between the two.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Philosophy Warm-Ups

As we head back into classrooms after the summer, I thought the topic of warming up to philosophy would make for an appropriate first fall blog post.

When I am regularly in a classroom facilitating philosophy sessions, I try to develop a consistent structure for the session. This does not involve an attempt to control the content of the philosophical topics explored in the sessions, as it is my view that student ownership of the questions is deeply important. However, in my experience, putting into place a coherent and reliable framework helps to create a space ripe for philosophical inquiry.

I like to begin sessions with a meditative or quiet activity. This can be as simple as asking students to sit in silence for a couple of minutes, to suggesting that we all sit quietly and try to hear the farthest sounds we can, to a brief journal writing or art activity. After that, some kind of philosophical warm-up activity is an effective way to help students move into the mode of philosophical thinking, before then moving into the prompt, philosophical discussion and/or activity, and then a closure activity.

This summer my colleague David Shapiro and I put together a list of philosophical warm-up activities, which can be found here: https://depts.washington.edu/nwcenter/lessonplans/range-warm-activities-philosophy-sessions/ We thought it would be helpful to organize them by topic  ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc.  but any of them can work for any session.

Frequently, particularly in the early part of the school year, these warm-ups can launch the students into an extended conversation that takes up most of the session, and then you can follow that up with some kind of closure exercise. I will write more about closure activities in a later blog post.

Looking forward to another inspiring year of philosophical conversations with young people.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Institutional Humility, or What Philosophy Can and Can't Do

This will be my last blog post until the fall, and I wanted to explore further some of the issues I began examining in my last post.  In particular, I have been thinking more and more about the marketing of philosophy and the ways in which those of us in the field talk about philosophy, or "sell" philosophy, as part of outreach and/or development efforts (efforts that, as the humanities are increasingly devalued, are playing growing role in the field). When you market or sell something, you focus on its strengths, i.e. what is beneficial in whatever it is you're selling, to whomever it is you are trying to convince of its value. But part of what is valuable about philosophy, in my view, is that it is challenging, that it pushes us and often makes us uncomfortable. That's a hard sell.

This is especially relevant when we are talking about K-12 philosophy, a relatively new field that most of us involved in want to see grow and be accessible to more young people. And there are many positive aspects of introducing philosophy to young students, some of which I discussed in my last post. But some of philosophy's benefits are not easily marketable, and the effort to sell pre-college philosophy can lead us to both to play down its challenges and to shy away from looking closely at the discipline's shortcomings (its history of sexism and racism, the gatekeeping that is endemic to academic philosophy, the difficulty of doing philosophy well, the obstacles to public philosophy efforts, etc.).

When we facilitate philosophy sessions in classrooms, we try to create what is called a "community of philosophical inquiry." One of the essential elements of such a community is what historically has been referred to as "epistemological modesty," an acknowledgement that all members of the group, including the teacher, are fallible and therefore hold views that could end up being mistaken. It's a kind of humility, an awareness that our knowledge is partial and we often think we understand things that, upon closer examination, we don't.

In thinking about the larger field, I began considering the importance of institutional humility.  I have just begun reflecting about this, so these are very preliminary ideas, but I am thinking that institutional humility for philosophy involves at a minimum an awareness of the limits of what philosophy can do, both as an approach for understanding the world and as a way of life, and the challenges of its propensity to make people uncomfortable (at its best, in a good way), as well as a recognition of the partialness of the field itself and the way that many voices — women, people of color, children, etc. — have been (and are still being) denied entry to its conversations. Shouldn't humility be at the core of a field that emphasizes the partialness of what we know? To adopt this would convey an understanding that philosophy itself still has a lot to learn.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Challenges of Engaging All Students in Philosophy

Philosophy in K-12 classrooms is still a rarity in the United States. My work over the past 20 plus years has involved introducing philosophy into schools and helping educators and policy makers to recognize young people's philosophical proclivities and the benefits of bringing philosophical inquiry into their lives. This involves a lot of "selling" of the strengths of philosophy for young people, of focusing on all of the reasons this effort is important  philosophy's unique advantages as a discipline for teaching critical thinking skills, the ways in which philosophical inquiry helps young people to recognize the multiplicity of perspectives in our world, the confidence in expressing one's own ideas and questions that can come from thinking about philosophical issues with others, and the importance of encouraging young people to continue to wonder about the world.

What we don't talk about very much are the challenges. This is due, mainly, I think, to our status as a still-new field, seeking to gain credibility and visibility. However, I think that at least some of the challenges we face are endemic in schools, and perhaps our experiences as relative newcomers can provide fresh perspectives on some of the issues faced by many or most teachers.

The specific challenge about which I am reflecting today is the goal of engaging all of the students in a class. In philosophy, we often talk about how children and youth are curious about philosophical topics and come to philosophy sessions with philosophical interests of their own. We also point out that the fact that philosophical questions have no final and settled answers creates spaces for students to discuss issues of interest to them without fear of getting it wrong, and that open and student-led philosophy sessions appeal to many students who might not be otherwise engaged in school. I believe that all of this is true. But what we don't, at least in my experience, talk openly about is that despite our efforts, it is often a challenge to involve all of the students in a class, as some or many are disinterested and disengaged.

I routinely facilitate regular weekly or bi-weekly philosophy sessions in classrooms of 28-32 elementary school students. I use a variety of prompts  picture books, activities, games, philosophical puzzles, journals, small groups, "turn and talk," silent discussions, etc. There are many sessions in which the students end up discussing deeply and intently a philosophical question that matters to them, and some continue the conversation with me and/or each other after the session concludes.

However, there are almost always some students who are clearly checked out. Not just not speaking, as I am very aware that there are many ways to participate and not every student is comfortable speaking in a group, and I routinely read student journal entries from students who never speak but are clearly absorbed by philosophical inquiry. But there are also students who just don't seem to be at all interested in philosophical inquiry, who are bored, and to whom almost no philosophical topic seems to appeal. In some sessions, these students are the majority. And I hear the same thing from other K-12 philosophy instructors.

Is philosophy for everyone? I have written elsewhere about my belief that we all engage in philosophical thinking at some point, whenever we consider questions like what is the right thing to do, is someone really a friend, do we really know something, etc., and that philosophy is much broader than the academic discipline as it is practiced in college and universities. But does that mean that regular involvement in philosophical inquiry with others is something that is necessary or even beneficial for all students, even if some of them aren't particularly interested?

Of course, not all students are attracted by math, or reading, or history, or science, yet these subjects are routinely taught because we as a society think they are important for students to learn. Is philosophy like this? We don't tend to speak of philosophy in this way, in part because, at least in elementary school, we are not "teaching" the subject of philosophy, lecturing students about Descartes' dream argument or Kant's metaphysics,  as most young students are not ready for this and would have no interest in it.  Our focus is on creating spaces in which students can discuss topics of interest to them, with the facilitators helping them to listen closely to each other, give good reasons for their views, anticipate objections, ask clear questions, etc. What K-12 philosophy instructors tend to say we are doing is responding to a children's propensities to ask philosophical questions and think about philosophical topics. But is this true of all children? And if not, is it valuable for children not drawn to philosophy to be exposed to it?

If it is important that all students be acquainted with philosophy, what are strategies we can use to engage all or at least most of the students who don't seem inclined to it? If it is not important for all students, where do we go from here?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Other Way to Listen

The Other Way to Listen, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, tells the story of a boy who wants to learn to listen. He knows an old man who can "walk by any cornfield and hear the corn singing," who has heard "wildflower seeds burst open, beginning to grow underground,"and many other sounds that most people do not hear. When the boy wonders why most people don't hear these sounds, the old man responds that "[t]hey just don't take the time you need for something that important." The boy notes that the old man "always asked himself hard questions that take awhile to answer."

The boy asks the old man to teach him how to listen to such things, and the old man explains that he wishes he could, but it is something one has to learn from "the hills and ants and lizards and weeds and things like that." He advises the boy to start with something small. The boy tries, but nothing works, and he only hears the things anyone hears. Then one day, he is walking alone in the hills, and he hears the hills singing. "I never listened so hard in my life," the boy reflects.

When I read this story with children, I ask them, after I've finished reading, to sit in silence for 5 minutes and just listen. What do they hear?

The story raises many interesting philosophical questions, including:

What does it mean to hear something?
Are hearing and listening the same?

Why do some questions take longer to answer than other ones?
Are there advantages of taking more time before answering a question?
Can we learn from the following things? Why or why not?
  • Hills
  • Ants
  • Trees
  • The stars
  • Weeds
Does a teacher always need to be a human? An adult?  Why or why not?
Is it important to spend time alone? Why or why not?
The old man describes how, “[y]ou have to respect that tree,” if you want to hear it and that “if you think you’re better than that thing, you’ll never hear its voice.” What does he mean?
What is silence? Can we experience silence even if there is sound around us?
Can we learn anything from silence?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Invisible Boy

The Invisible Boy, a 2013 picture book written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patricia Barton, was recommended to me recently by a colleague. The "invisible boy" of the story is Brian, who, unlike some of his classmates, doesn't "take up a lot of space" and isn't noticed by either his teacher or the other students.

Brian spends much of his time drawing, which leads to a connection with a new student, Justin, and this connection leads to Brian finally being "seen" by the other children.

I read the story with a group of 4th grade students yesterday, and the questions they wondered about afterward included:

Is it harder to be laughed at or to be invisible?
Was Brian actually invisible or did he just feel invisible?
What would it feel like to be Brian?
Does drawing make Brian feel visible?

The children chose to begin our discussion with the question, Was Brian actually invisible or did he just feel invisible? The child who asked the question said that she was wondering, given the illustrations, if Brian was meant to actually be invisible to those around him, or just to feel invisible.

I asked, "What is the difference between being invisible to others, and feeling invisible?"

"Well," she responded, "I guess that when you feel invisible, it really is about what is inside of you and not the people around you. So if someone notices you, then it might be easy to stop feeling invisible. If you actually were invisible to others, that would be harder."

"I agree and disagree," said a second student. "I mean, if you feel invisible, that usually is because other people make you feel that way. But also you have to do something not to feel invisible. Other people aren't going to go out of their way to be friends with you if you don't try. I don't think Brian tried very hard in the story."

"I disagree," replied another student, "I think he did try. Look at the part where he was waiting to be chosen for a kickball team. He was trying."

"And he was the one who tried with Justin. That's when he started to feel visible. When he made friends with Justin."

"So do other people help us to feel visible?" I asked.

"Yes, but we also have to try. Most people feel invisible at some point, but you can't expect other people to make you feel visible."

"Yeah, but someone who is really shy, they might feel invisible more than other people. Some people find it easy to walk up to people and just say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' But other people are just more shy."

"But if you don't want to feel invisible you have to take some responsibility," contended another student. "You can't just wait for someone to come up to you. It might be harder for someone who is shy, but they still have to do something to make a friend."

"Yeah, like take someone who is really popular," a different student put in. "They probably have a lot of friends, so they're not going to go out of their way to be friendly to someone new."

"Yes, if you already have a lot of friends, you're probably not going to go up and just start talking to some random person."

"So does having lots of friends mean you become less friendly?" I asked.

"Not necessarily. But sometimes popular people aren't very friendly."

"There have been several comments about being popular. That makes me wonder, what does it mean to be popular?" I asked.

Hands shot up all around the room.

"It means having lots of friends."

"It means lots of people like you and want to be your friend."

"It means people want to hang around you. But that doesn't mean you have a lot of friends. People might want to be friends with you because you are popular, but that doesn't make them friends."

"What does make someone a friend?" I asked.

"It has to be two ways. I was friends once with a popular girl, but she really didn't care about me or how I was feeling. It was always about what I could do for her. If I had a bad day or was sad, she wasn't interested. So she wasn't really a friend."

"It's really not important to be popular if popular means having lots of friends. What matters is having a few real friends. But you can be popular and have real friends. It just depends."

"I agree. Sometimes popular people have real friends and sometimes they don't."

"What does 'having real friends' require?" I asked.

"It requires that you like being together, that it's not always about one person giving something to the other."

"I agree. Having a real friend means that being with that person makes you happy."

"Always?" I asked.

"No, not always. But the friendship makes you happy because you both care about each other. Some friends can be people you like to do something with, and others can be from different parts of your life. Like if your parent is your friend, that's different than a friendship with someone in your class."

"So are there different models of friendship?" I asked.

"Yes, because you can have friends in lots of different ways. But having real friends always requires two things: time and attention. Both people have to give time and attention to each other."

We ran out of time after an hour, but could easily have kept going!

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Book of Mistakes

The Book of Mistakes is a first book by Corinna Luyken. I knew Corinna when we both lived in the Methow Valley, in the north central part of Washington State, some years ago. The book is about the way mistakes can lead to creative and novel ideas, and how they can provide a source for new ways of understanding the world and ourselves.

The book begins with one mistake.

"Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake."

Full of charming illustrations, the story goes on to demonstrate how "mistakes" can end up producing new ideas, ideas that would not have emerged without the mistakes.

I introduced the story last week in a fifth grade class at John Muir Elementary School in which I have been doing philosophy each week this year. I chose this book because earlier this spring, in the course of a conversation about beauty and ugliness, one of the students had asserted that "[O]ne thing is the most beautiful. Mistakes. You cannot learn without mistakes." This had led to a long and very spirited conversation about whether in fact all mistakes were beautiful and, specifically, about terrible mistakes such as murder that lead to capital punishment, and then about the ethics of capital punishment and the assumption that some mistakes, and perhaps some people, are beyond repair.

This week we had visitors from Colegio Newland Campus Juriquilla, a school in Queretaro, Mexico – fourteen 6th and 7th grade students visited the Center and participated in some of our K-12 classes. Philosophy is part of these students' regular education, and they were eager to learn about the way we are doing philosophy in Seattle schools.

After listening to the story, the John Muir students and the Colegio Newland students explored together the questions, "What is a mistake? What makes something a mistake?" In the course of the conversation, the children reflected about whether mistakes are always accidental or can be intentional acts that are then characterized as mistakes after the fact. We examined the differences between bad decisions and mistakes.

The students suggested that bad decision involve choice, but mistakes don't usually happen intentionally. However, some students pointed out, sometimes you can point to an intentional decision and characterize it as a mistake. One student suggested that mistakes are things we learn from, but another student responded that we can learn from bad decisions too. The students concluded that mistakes are always part of learning, though some mistakes can be more consequential than others, but that bad decisions do not always present learning opportunities.

Are mistakes beautiful, then? The students seemed to reach consensus that it all depends on where the mistake leads. As one student noted, mistakes are not beautiful when they involve bad choices that have the potential to hurt you or someone else. However, the students also acknowledged that, as in Corinna Luyken's beautiful book, mistakes can lead to inspiration and beauty, and this awareness can help us to be unafraid of making mistakes in many areas of our lives.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Four Feet, Two Sandals

Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, tells the story of two ten-year-old girls, Lina and Feroza, and their families, who are living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, having fled the war in Afghanistan. The girls become friends when each finds one sandal from a matching pair, after relief workers throw used clothing from the back of a truck. The girls meet and decide to share the sandals, taking turns wearing them. 

The story describes the girls' lives in the camp and the stressful wait for new homes. The girls wait in long lines for water, wash their clothes with rocks in the stream, and practice their writing skills with sticks in the sand because the only "schools was small with only nought room for the boys to study."

Eventually, Lina's family receives permission to emigrate to the United States, and Feroza gives the sandals to Lina, saying, "You cannot go barefoot to America." But when it is time for Lina to leave, Lina gives the shoes back to Feroza, as Lina's mother has saved money to buy her shoes. However, Feroza tells Lina she must keep one sandal, noting that "it is good to remember." 

The story, with its beautiful illustrations, explores concepts of friendship, home and homelessness, the experience of being a refugee, and identity.

Here are some questions that elementary school students have asked after listening to the story:

Why do people become refugees? 
Are countries that can provide safety obligated to allow in people escaping their homelands?
Do countries have different obligations to their citizens than to other people around the world?
Why do the girls decide to share the shoes?
What makes Lina and Feroza friends?
Can friendship help people to feel more at home when they have fled their homes? If so, how?
Why are only boys in school in the refugee camp?
Are Lina’s and Feroza’s experiences in the camp different than they would be if they were boys?
Why does Feroza give Lina one shoe at the end of the story? 
Did Lina do the right thing in accepting the shoe?
Can giving help us even when we need what we are giving away?