Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Rainbow Fish

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister is a picture book that parents seem either to love or to hate. It is the story of a fish, described as "the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean," with rainbow-colored, iridescent scales. The other fish call him "Rainbow Fish," and invite him to play with them, but he remains uninterested and aloof. A small blue fish follows him one day, asking for one of his scales, and is rebuffed. The rainbow fish ends up ostracized by all the other fish, and his scales begin to mean less to him with "no one to admire them." Taking the advice of an octopus whose suggestions he seeks, the rainbow fish gives all his scales away, one by one, until he is left with only one. Surrounded by many fish, each with one iridescent scale, the rainbow fish now no longer looked different, and he "at last felt at home among the other fish."

The story raises questions about being different versus one of the crowd, identity and self-worth, selfishness and generosity, the nature of beauty, and the meaning of friendship. Some people read it as promoting the message that we all should be the same, others as advocating for recognition of the value of inner beauty and generosity. To my mind, the story can be read as endorsing several contradictory ideas, which makes it quite philosophically interesting. I have found that it's very appealing to children, and easily sparks conversations about independence and conformity, being unique versus fitting in, and what friendship requires.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Mem Fox's picture book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is the story of a young boy, Wilfrid Gordon, whose "house was next door to an old people's home and [who] knew all the people who lived there." His favorite person at the home is Miss Nancy, and Wilfrid Gordon's father tells him that, at 96, she has lost her memory.

Wilfrid Gordon sets out to understand what memory is and asks several of the people in the home about it. He then collects some of his things that bring back his own memories and gives them to Miss Nancy, who begins then to recollect some of her own memories.

The story is a lovely one, with appealing, colorful illustrations, and it raises such issues as: What is memory? Are we still ourselves if we lose our memories? Can you lose a memory and then find it again? Can we rely on our memories to give us accurate accounts of the past? What is the role of relationships in memory?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What is most important in life?

On Thursday I read a chapter of E.B. White's Stuart Littlewith the 4th grade students at John Muir Elementary. The chapter describes Stuart's one-day experience acting as a substitute teacher. One of the first things Stuart asks his students is whether they know what's important. The students in the story give various responses, including "a shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy."

After the reading, I asked the John Muir students to write down five things in their lives that they thought were the most important. We put about 30 of them up on the board, and many of the students' choices seemed to me close to what most people would say, pointing to what we think of as fundamental aspects of life - family, friends, food, health. Their responses also included things like playing video games, seasons, dance, sports, reading, etc. I then asked them what would remain on the list if they knew they only had a month left to live. The students thought seriously about this question and we pared the list down to much fewer items, including family, friends, food, medicine, and dance.

We then talked about what made these things important. The students mentioned having fun, being happy, and receiving comfort as the basis for what is important to them. One student then said that she would spend a lot of time planning her funeral and writing out invitations to the people in her life, because it would matter to her to spend her time doing something that felt productive. Another student commented that she would spend her last days reflecting about her life, thinking about the mistakes she'd made and the positive things she'd done, and kind of making sense of her life for herself. A third student agreed, remarking that he would take these reflections and put them in a journal and put them outside his door for his family to find, lock the door "and then die in a way that would feel peaceful." Several students agreed with this and talked about how important it would be to them to say goodbye to the people they loved and to have their lives feel as if they'd had some purpose. We discussed whether what is important to you changes as you age and get closer to death, and whether death is in some respects the defining feature of life.

I thought about this conversation after it ended. Many of the reflections offered by the children were the kinds of things people often assume ten-year-old children aren't thinking about and/or capable of contemplating. There was a thoughtfulness and seriousness to our conversation that reminded me of how vibrant philosophical thinking can be in children and how important it is to nurture that part of them.