Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Do We Go to School?

I had an interesting discussion earlier this month with a group of 5th grade students from Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, about why we go to school.

Thurgood Marshall is an interesting and unusual school. It has a General Education program, which serves neighborhood students who are almost entirely students of color with about 70% qualifying for free and reduced price lunches, and is also one of the Seattle's hosts of the "Highly Capable Cohort (HCC)," which serves students who are mostly white and Asian, largely from middle to upper income families. These two programs have in the past been completely separate, and the school has for the past couple of years been working on ways to ensure that all the children have access to a rigorous and enriching education. Connecting the community and giving the students experiences working together is one of the school's goals.

As part of that, four of us from the Center for Philosophy for Children are leading philosophy discussions all year for all fifth grade students, approximately 125 children, in groups that are a mix of students from the General Education and HCC programs, with a focus on social justice and race issues. In my first session with the group I am leading, in a warm-up activity I asked the students to think a big thought.

"What is the meaning of life?" said one child.

"Why do we go to school?" said another.

"Why is that a big thought?" I asked.

"Because there are so many possible answers," he responded.

"And because we spend so much of our lives in school," added another student.

"So why do we go to school?" I asked.

This led to a long conversation that took up the entire hour we had together. One student suggested that we go to school to learn, but several students pointed out that we "are learning all the time," in and out of school. Another student remarked that there is a difference between learning and education, and that we go to school to be educated. We puzzled for awhile about what it meant to be educated, and several students contended that this was a more formal process than learning and that education, unlike learning, required teachers and certain requirements.

"Is getting an education important?" one student asked.

Several students said that getting an education helps you to decide what you want to do in life. One student argued that education would be better if you could focus on what you wanted to learn and what you needed to do what you thought you wanted to do in life, and another student responded that part of the job of school was to help you figure out what you wanted to do by introducing you to things about which you might not otherwise be aware.

A student then said that education wasn't the only reason to go to school. "There are social reasons too," she stated. "If you homeschool, you don't have to deal with kids you don't know and maybe don't like that much, but in school, you have to learn how to deal with all kinds of people."

"And on the bus," put in another child. "There are all kinds of annoying kids and you just have to learn to put up with them."

Then another student interjected, "What exactly makes a school, as school, anyway?"

We thought about that. One student suggested that a school was a place with lots of different people moving around, but I responded that this is also true of a train station. Other students suggested that school has to have teachers, but we also acknowledged that you can have teachers outside of school.

We ended the session by noting that we had begun by thinking about why we go to school, and eventually began reflecting about the very concept of school itself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What Do You Do With An Idea?

What Do You Do With An Idea? Written by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom, this charming picture book explores the nature of ideas and their role in our lives.

The story begins with a young boy, who has an idea. "Where did it come from?" he wonders. "Why is it here?" The idea at first seems "kind of small and fragile " like a small golden egg in the boy's colorless world. But it follows him everywhere. He can't get rid of it. The boy is afraid that his idea will not be liked by others, so he protects his idea and hides it. And people do make fun of his idea, and he "almost" listens to them.

But he realizes that he understands his idea better than anyone else, and he decides to nurture it. The idea grows and one day it "spread its wings  took flight, and burst into the sky."What do you do with an idea? The final line of the story is, "You change the world." 

This is a wonderful story to inspire discussions in classrooms or at home with your children. Some questions you might ask include:

Why was the boy embarrassed about his idea?
Why did it take the boy so long to share his idea?
Can ideas follow us around?
Where do ideas come from?
Do ideas add to our lives?
Can you imagine a world without ideas?

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Other Side

Jacqueline Woodson's picture book The Other Side begins as follows: "That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger." The story is narrated by Clover, who lives in a house on the side of the fence that separates the black townspeople from the whites in the town. Clover's mother tells her not to climb over the fence, because it isn't safe.

That summer Annie, a white girl Clover's age, begins sitting on the fence each day, by herself. When Clover and her friends are jumping rope, Annie asks if she can join, but one of Clover's friends, Sandra, says she can't. Clover recalls, "That summer everyone and everything on the other side of the fence seemed far away. When I asked my mama why, she said, 'Because that's the way things have always been.'"

Clover finds herself always looking for Annie sitting on the fence. One day she comes close to the fence and Annie asks her name, and they begin talking. Annie notes that the fence was made for sitting on. Clover responds that her mother had told her not to go on the other side, and Annie says that her mother says the same thing, but that she hadn't said anything about sitting on it, and the two girls begin sitting together on the fence. Clover's mother observes this, but doesn't tell Clover to stop sitting there, and one morning she notes, "I see you made a new friend." 

Eventually Annie and Clover ask Clover's friends if they can join them jumping rope, and Sandra replies, "I don't care." So Annie and Clover join the group of young black girls playing. When tired, they all sit on the fence together. 

The book ends with Annie saying, "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down," and Clover responding, "Yeah, someday."

The story's text and illustrations are ideal for raising questions about race and racial identity and about the ways in which small acts can lead to social change. The questions the story raises include:

Why did the fence stretch through the town?
Why wasn't it safe for Clover to climb over to the other side of the fence?
Why was it safe for Annie to climb over to Clover's side of the fence?
Why did Annie want to sit on the fence?
Were Clover and Annie friends?
Does race define a person? Is it an important part of our identity?
Why did Sandra say no when Annie wanted to join the jump rope game, but agreed to let Annie join them later that summer when she was with Clover?
What does the fence represent?
Are there many kinds of fences?

Monday, September 19, 2016

A New School Year

The school year is off to a busy start for the UW Center for Philosophy for Children! We will be hosting an event for parents on October 6 and are excited about the growth of our work with parents and family members to encourage and support children's philosophical thinking!

We are also planning regular philosophy sessions in, at this point, 10 different schools this fall. An example is John Muir Elementary School, where we have been building a strong philosophy program for six years. In 2013 at the school, the Center started the first Philosopher-in-Residence project in the Seattle School District. 

John Muir is a culturally diverse K-5 school in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, and many students there are among those least likely to have access to academic enrichment programs. We have been working closely with teachers and staff to bring philosophy into most of the school’s classrooms, and philosophy has been introduced into every grade level at the school. Center staff have facilitated several regular philosophy professional learning communities for teachers and staff at the school, and many John Muir teachers have attended at least one of the Center’s workshops.

“There are no barriers in our minds — we can think of anything." 
Third grade student, John Muir Elementary School

Some of our John Muir philosophy students are featured in this video about the Center's work:

I will be posting regularly again this fall!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New Book!

I have had a number of inquiries recently about this blog and the time lapse since my last post. I have not been posting since the spring because I been working on a new book, which will be out this month!

I hope to return to posting more regularly in 2016. Happy holidays to all!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Amazing Grace

Mary Hoffman's 1991 picture book Amazing Grace tells the story of Grace, who loves stories and especially loves acting them out. Filled with imagination and dramatic flair, Grace decides that she will play the part of Peter Pan when her teacher tells the class that they are going to perform the play.

One student tells her, "You can't be Peter -- that's a boy's name." And then another student informs her, "You can't be Peter Pan. He isn't black." But Grace keeps her hand up to indicate that she wants to play this role.

When Grace goes home and tells her mother and grandmother what happened at school, they tell her that she can be Peter Pan if she wants to do so. "You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it," her grandmother says.

Soon after, Grace's grandmother takes her to the ballet to see a African American ballerina play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. After the ballet, Grace dances around her room, telling herself, "I can be anything I want."

After the class meets for auditions, everyone in the class votes for Grace to be Peter Pan. The play is a great success and Grace is an "amazing Peter Pan."

This is a wonderful story for inspiring discussions about race, gender, role models, the limits to our ambitions, and the importance of imagination. Some of the questions students have asked when we've read this book together are:
Why do other students tell Grace she can't be Peter Pan because she's black and a girl?
Is Grace's grandmother right that Grace can be anything she wants to be?
Why did seeing the ballerina make Grace more confident that she could be Peter Pan?
Why do we think that appearance is so important?

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Lifeboat" Activity with Children's Hospital Patients

This week at Children's Hospital's school, in my weekly session with the older students, I facilitated an activity adapted from an exercise created by my colleague David Shapiro.

Here is a brief description of the activity (in a larger class, this is done in small groups, and there are dozens of characters -- the exercise can be found in David's book Plato Was Wrong!):

We are all in a lifeboat, and our boat is sinking. In order to save everyone, we have to sacrifice one person in the boat, otherwise all of us will drown. I assigned each student a couple of characters, who they will play in a lifeboat. The following are some of the characters:

·     A 22-year-old mailroom clerk in a large law firm, who is planning to get her law degree when she graduates college.  She is not married and has no children.  
·      A 45-year-old Certified Public Accountant, who is married with two two teenaged children, and is an active community and church volunteer.  
·      A 12-year-old student in 6th grade, who is the president of his class and hopes to be a doctor when he grows up.
·      A 55-year-old homeless person who has been out of work for 10 years, is not married and has no children.
·      A 26-year-old world-famous rock star with fans all around the world, who is single with no children, and has a bad drug habit.
·      A 6-month-old baby who is her parents’ first child and the first grandchild for her grandparents.
·      A 30-year-old police officer, who is married with 2 young children.
·      A 28-year-old welfare recipient who hasn’t worked in 3 years, and has 6 children, none of whom live with her. 

The key is that the group has to work together to decide who will be sacrificed, and to agree on the principles, or reasons, that the person who is to be sacrificed is chosen.   And then, most importantly, the person who is to be sacrificed has to be able to articulate why he or she was chosen, and in particular, the principle that was used to make that choice.

We began with considering what principles should guide the decision. The students came up with the following:
1. The more of your life you have already lived, the more likely your life should be sacrificed
2. The more successful your life has been and is likely to continue to be, the less likely your life should be sacrificed
3. The more people with whom you have relationships and who depend on you, the less likely your life should be sacrificed

We then launched into trying to decide who would be sacrificed. 

I have done this exercise in many classrooms. For the first time, the conversation revolved not around the characters trying to save themselves, but offering to sacrifice themselves. The young girl who was playing the famous rock star character, for example, said, "I have accomplished all or most of what I'll ever accomplish in my life, and my drug problem means I might not live very long anyway, so I should sacrifice myself." When asked about the fans who would mourn, she said, "For them I'll become a legend. They will be sad at first but they'll also be glad I sacrificed my life for others, and they'll never forget me." 

Then the young girl whose character was the homeless person said, "No, I should jump off the boat. My life hasn't been a success, and I've lived a lot of it already. I'm the oldest person in the boat and I have no family." The rock star responded, "But you could still make something of your life." Quietly, the girl playing the homeless person said, "This is the most important thing I'll ever do."

We discussed this for a long time and most of the group agreed that the homeless person should be sacrificed. Finally, at the end of our time together, I told the group that a rescue helicopter was now coming, but only one individual can be saved.  Who should it be?

The group quickly agreed that it should be the 12-year-old, who had his whole life ahead. Unlike the baby, one student observed, the 12-year-old knew what was going on in the boat and so would not suffer the emotional pain of knowing he was likely to die.

The discussion was rich in insight, and afterward I reflected about whether the special challenges these children face provides them with an especially keen awareness of the complexity of moral problems, and particularly those related to life and death.

I'm feeling very privileged to have the opportunity to work with these students.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Freedom Summer

Written by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, Freedom Summer tells the story of a friendship between two boys in the early 1960s in Mississippi: Joe, who is white, and John Henry, who is African American. John Henry's mother works for Joe's family. The boys love to swim and they swim together in the creek, because the town pool is closed to John Henry. When the boys want ice pops, Joe goes into the store to buy them, because John Henry is not allowed into the store.
After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the town pool is required to be open to everyone, but when the boys arrive at the pool, the pool is being emptied and filled with asphalt by a group of African American workers, including John Henry's older brother. Shocked, the two boys watch until the men finish.
When the worker have left, John Henry says, "White folks don't want colored folks in their pool." Joe says, "I didn't want to swim in this old pool anyway. "I did," John Henry responds. "I wanted to swim in this pool. I want to do everything you can do." Joe doesn't know what to say. He thinks to himself, "I want to go to the Dairy Dip with John Henry, sit down and share root beer floats. . . . I want to see this town with John Henry's eyes." At the end of the story, the boys decide to walk together into the store to buy ice pops.
I read this book with two classes this week, one third grade and the other fourth. In both classes, students asked questions about why the white people in the town would want to fill the tar with pool rather than share it with African Americans, why African American workers were filling up the pool when white people were the ones who wanted to close the pool, and why the white people in the story thought they were superior to African Americans. In our discussions, the children talked about why certain differences among people, like skin color, lead to some groups being oppressed, how people's choices can be constrained, and how the history of slavery in this country makes racism difficult to eradicate.
Some other questions that are raised by the story:
Why is the book called Freedom Summer? Who is free in the story? Who is not?
Are Joe and John Henry friends?
Why does John Henry eat in the kitchen at Joe's house, while Joe and his family eat in the dining room?
Why isn't John Henry allowed in the store? Who decides?
Who controls the town pool? Why is it filled with asphalt after the law requires it to be open to everyone?
Do Joe and John Henry experience the filling of the pool in the same way?
Why don't "white folks want colored folks in their pool?" Why is the pool considered the white folks' pool?
Do people have a right to swim in the town pool?
What does Joe mean when he thinks that he "wants to see the town with John Henry's eyes?" Is this possible?
When the boys walk into the store at the end of the story, who is taking the greater risk? Why?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Shelter in Our Car

In A Shelter in Our Car, Monica Gunning depicts the experiences of eight-year-old Zettie and her mother, who have come to the United States after Zettie's father's death. They are temporarily homeless, due to the struggle Zettie's mother has been having to find reliable work. After they have spent some time in a shelter, which, Zettie comments, was noisy and crowded, Zettie's mother decides that it's better to use their car as a shelter.

The story begins with Zettie waking up in the car to sirens and flashing police lights. Zettie and her mother use the park's rest room to wash up in cold water in the morning, and they search for food and try to stay away from the police. Zettie endures being bullied at school by children who call her "Junk Car Zettie," and she thinks of her previous life in Jamaica with longing. Throughout the story, though, Zettie's relationship with her mother anchors her. Her mother is kind and affectionate, and they are doing their best to get through this difficult experience with love and dignity.

In the end, Zettie's mother has found work and is hopeful that they will be able to rent an apartment. Zettie thinks to herself, "[W]ith or without an apartment, I've got Mama and she's got me."

The story raises issues about homelessness, the nature of home, the difference between a shelter and a home, and whether love can shelter us from social injustice. Some questions to ask children when reading the story with them:

Why do Zettie and her mother live in their car?
Can a car be a home?
Do people need shelter? Why?
What are the most important things people need in life?
What does it mean to be homeless?
Why does Zettie want her mother to drop her off at the corner behind the school instead of in front of the school?
Why do some of Zettie's classmates call her "Junk Car Zettie?"
Does Zettie feel safe? What do we need to feel safe?
Can love be a kind of shelter?
What would a perfect home look like? Do perfect homes exist?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Being alive means dying

Today I read Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman with a group of 6-8 year olds at the school at Seattle Children's Hospital. In the story, Morris meets a cow and notes that the cow is a funny looking moose, insisting, despite the cow’s protests, that the cow must be a moose because she “has four legs and things on her head.” When Morris and the cow approach a deer for help, the deer insists that they are all deer, and when the three of them ask a horse to assist, the horse claims they are all horses. It is not until the animals see their joint reflections in the water that they conclude that they are not all the same

I asked the students if they thought the animals were confused. One of the children commented that they had been confused, but once they saw their own reflections they understood that the other animals were not the same as them. We talked about the differences between moose and cows, for example and whether a moose who looked like a cow would still be a moose. Then we wondered about what makes a moose a moose, and a cow a cow, which led us to thinking about what makes us human beings. 

"What if an alien being walked in the room and was trying to figure out what makes human beings different from, say, a water bottle or a box of tissues?" I asked.

"We could say that those things aren't alive," one student responded.

"Is everything that's alive a human being? How could the alien tell the difference between us and dogs?"

"Dogs don't talk." 

"But not everything that's alive talks."

"How do we know something is alive?"

"Things that are alive move," a student suggested.

"Not everything that's alive moves," another student responded. "Plants are alive and they don't move."

"What do you think makes something alive?" I asked.

"Things that are are going to die. Everything that's alive will die. That's how we know something is alive."

This took my breath away. We all then tried to think of things that are alive that don't die, and none of us could. If you are immortal, are you alive?