Welcome to Wondering Aloud -- a blog about introducing philosophy to pre-college students. I'm the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and I started this blog to create another way to communicate about doing philosophy with young people.

The blog includes posts about some of my philosophy classes with pre-college students, thoughts about doing philosophy with young people, and ideas for how to introduce philosophy in K-12 classrooms and with your own children! Also check out our website,
http://www.philosophyforchildren.org/, for more resources and ideas.

My hope is that this blog will help further the online community of those interested in pre-college philosophy, and will illustrate the vitality and joy of talking about philosophy with young people.

Jana -- September 2008

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 they're 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?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Taking Over Your Life

I taught my first philosophy session at the school at Seattle Children's Hospital this morning, which I will be doing every Tuesday. We started with Plato's Ring of Gyges, which led us into a conversation about whether possessing something like Gyges' ring could end up taking over your life. Frequently when I discuss this allegory with students, there are students who say that they would refuse to use the ring and/or would get rid of it as quickly as possible, out of fear that a ring like this could change them and their relationships in ways they couldn't foresee and that the ring might end up in a sense controlling them.

In the conversation this morning, we talked about the risk of the ring controlling you, and then explored the idea in general of something "taking over your life." One student noted that video games could "take over your life," and we talked about other things that are similar: cell phones, material goods, etc. The student then commented that in many ways illness could take over your life, by making it impossible for you to do the things that you were used to doing before you became sick. Then one of the students talked about the ways in which dialysis had "taken over his life," and he pointed out that there was both good and bad to this. Although he had missed much of high school because of his treatment, and it had been a difficult experience, it had also led him to appreciate health and ordinary life in ways he hadn't before. We then talked about other experiences that can "take over your life" in positive ways: falling in love, having a child, caring for someone who needs your help, writing a book. We noted that although all of these experiences involve relinquishing other things that matter to you - other relationships, activities, etc. - there also can be something positive about, at least for a time, investing all of your energy in one passion.

This was a really interesting take on the concept of something taking over your life that I hadn't really considered before. We wondered, then, how you decide whether what might take over your life is worth it. Well, "health is everything," one student noted. Are there other needs/experiences that fall into this category?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Freedom and Following the Rules


In a third grade classroom at John Muir Elementary this morning, I read Toni Morrison's The Big Box with the students. The story is about three children who are put into a "big box" after the adults in their lives conclude that they can't "handle their freedom." The box is full of toys and their parents visit weekly and bring additional toys and treats, but the children are not allowed out of the box.

After the story, the students wrote down in their philosophy journals the questions about which the story led them to wonder. We did a "turn and talk," during which the students shared their questions with one another. We then listed some of their questions on the board, which included:

Does playing around mean you can't handle your freedom?
Why do they have to go in the big box?
Why do the parents only visit on Wednesdays?
Why would their parents put them in the box?
Do the kids like being in the box?

The students voted to discuss the question, "Why do they have to go in the big box?" The student who asked that question said that he was wondering why breaking a few rules led the children to lose their freedom. The children talked about how making a choice to break rules was part of being free, and that if what you did wasn't hurting anyone else, it seemed wrong that this would cause you to lose your freedom. "How can you learn to handle your freedom," one student asked, "if you don't have freedom to try things out?"

Another student pointed out that the children in the story did lots of positive things, like taking care of themselves and their homes, but that they received little credit for this. "But," another student pointed out, "just because you follow some rules doesn't mean you can then decide not to follow others. You don't get credit for doing things you're just supposed to do." Other students commented that part of learning to handle freedom involves making some mistakes.

Then a student asked, "Why was the box such a nice place to be? If the parents wanted to punish the children for breaking the rules, why put them in a place with lots of toys and junk food?" This led to a discussion about whether you'd choose to stay in a confined space if you had all the toys you wanted and a couple of friends with which to share the experience. Most of the students said no, that they would not choose to be limited to being in one space without access to the outdoors and the ability to meet new people and visit new places, but others weren't so sure.

After our discussion, the students reflected in their journals in response to the following question: "Would you want to be in the big box?"

Friday, October 3, 2014

Thinking About Thinking


Sorry for the long delay in returning to this blog after the summer. I am working on a book and trying to find time for everything! But I'm committed to continuing to write the blog and appreciate the messages from many of you letting me know that you enjoy reading the posts.

A new school year and, as usual, I am so inspired by the children with whom I'm doing philosophy. Currently in two classrooms (2nd and 3rd grades) at one school and two classrooms (4th and 5th grades) at another. This week I began class with what I thought was going to be a warm-up exercise (created by my colleague David Shapiro), and in each class it turned into a 40-50 minute session about thinking. Another example of being flexible about your lesson plan!

The exercise starts with a simple question, "Are you thinking?" Most or all of the students acknowledge that they are. "How do you know you're thinking?" Some of the responses in the 3rd grade class: "I can hear words in my head." "I am listening to you and so I'm thinking." "I am always thinking, as long as I'm alive." This led us to a conversation about whether you can stop thinking, and whether there are different kinds of thinking. One student suggested, "You think all the time. But there's thinking that you know you're doing, like a math problem, and then there's thinking that you don't know you're doing, like when you dream."We then talked about thinking thoughts you like to have, and whether you can control your thoughts. We tried to all think of the same thing at the same time, and observed that this is very hard to do! One student noted that even if we all say we're thinking about, say, a peanut, we all might actually be having different thoughts that we call thinking about a peanut.

"Are there things you can't think about?" One student replied, "You can't think that you're not thinking." Other students pointed out that the minute you express what you're not thinking about, you're thinking about it. We talked about the distinction between having a thought and expressing a thought. Another student commented that we can't think about the things we don't know or haven't experience, and we spent a long time puzzling over whether you can think about someone else's experience. Are you thinking about their experiences, or can you just think about someone else having your experiences? When someone tells you about their experiences, do you think about the experiences or just about what someone told you?

We spent a long time talking about whether there are different kinds of thinking. Several students observed that there are times when you're so involved in something, like listening to or playing music, that you're not thinking. "But isn't that a kind of thinking?" another student asked. We talked about whether everything your mind does involves thinking. One student said, "Sometimes my mind just goes dark, and for at least a moment I'm not thinking." "But," another student commented, "aren't you just thinking of a dark space?"

At the end the students wrote in their philosophy journals in response to the question, "Do you think that we think all the time?  Why or why not?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When Lions Roar

Can we control our feelings? Our perceptions? Does how we feel affect what happens in the world?

When Lions Roar, a simple picture book by Robie Harris, depicts how scary the world can feel when "lions roar," "thunder booms," "big dogs bark," "mommies holler," and so on. The child in the story responds, "I sit right down, shut my eyes tight. 'Go away,' I say. 'Scary! Go away.'"

Then, the story goes on, it's quiet again, with the wind still and the sun out. "The scary is gone."

What makes some things scary? Are there different levels of scariness? If something is scary, does that mean we are scared of it? Can we control whether something scares us? Is it possible for our actions to get rid of something that we find scary?

Especially (but certainly not only) for young children, it can be empowering to talk about what makes something scary and the many different ways we can react to what feels scary to us. Is what is scary in the thing or in us?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap!


Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap! is an Appalachian folktale, brought to life in a great read-aloud picture book by Tom Birdseye with illustrations by Andrew Glass. The story's main character, Pug, is a young boy "with such a poor memory some say he'd forget his own name."

One day Pug's mother, who believes in him despite constant evidence of his forgetfulness, sends him out to the store for some soap.


But Pug quickly forgets why he is going where he is going.

After a series of misunderstandings with various members of the community, all of which are brought on by Pug inadvertently offending each person, resulting in a series of mishaps, Pug brings the soap home to his mother. Apparently transformed by the challenges of the day, from then on Pug "never forgot a thing his mama told him . . . not ever again . . . for the rest of his life."

Why do we remember what we remember? Is remembering a choice? Do we choose to forget what we don't remember? Can you forget your own name? If you forget all your memories, are you still you? What makes someone "forgetful?" Is it possible never to forget a thing we are told?