Monday, November 28, 2011

Fourth Graders and the Story Double Trouble

I had an interesting experience recently with the fourth grade students I'm teaching this year at John Muir Elementary.  I read them the story "Double Trouble" by Philip Cam. A kind of retelling of the "Ship of Theseus," the story is about a robot whose parts have been replaced, one after another, until he no longer has any of his original parts, and a new robot has been built using all of the old parts.  Which one is the "real" Algernon (the robot's name)?

I have used this story for years and it has virtually always inspired a discussion about the standard questions of personal identity and persistence over time.  (I wrote about such a conversation last year in this post.)  In this session, however, the students took the discussion in an entirely different direction.  They voted to start with one of their questions about whether in this story robots were only owned by rich people or whether everyone had robots.  This led to the question about whether robots were things, and a couple of students asserted that robots (or at least the ones in the story) were people.  How do we know what makes someone a person?  The students suggested that having names, or being able to talk and move independently, were possible criteria.  Then several students noted that while the robots seemed to have feelings, they were probably programmed to have them, and that this is what made them different from people.

Several of my undergraduate students were present that day, and one commented, "Sometimes I feel things I would like to choose not to feel, but I feel them anyway. Is it possible that I'm programmed?"

One of the most interesting features of the conversation that ensued in that fourth grade classroom was how closely it resembled a similar conversation I had with college students not too long ago.  The students went from being sure they were not programmed to speculating about the possibility that, as one child put it, "there are beings out there somewhere who are a lot bigger than us and they are totally controlling what we do."

"That could be," another student responded. "But at the same time, I feel like what goes on inside me is really me, that it can't be controlled by anyone else. Maybe someone could be controlling what I do, but I don't think they could be controlling what I feel."

The discussion went on for over an hour and at the end we talked about how complex these questions were, and how sometimes in philosophy the questions seemed even more puzzling after talking about them than they had originally.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lorax

This morning I talked about Dr. Suess' The Lorax with a class of fourth grade students at John Stanford International School in Seattle. They have been having discussions about environmental issues, and we had a lovely conversation about the destruction of the truffula trees and the loss of Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans and Humming-Fish in the story.

We began by talking about the Once-ler and his decision to chop down truffula trees and build a business of selling thneeds made from truffula tree tufts. Was he responsible for the environmental destruction that ensued as a result of his decisions? Does the fact that he ultimately regrets his actions make him a better person? We talked about the other members of the Once-ler family who worked in the business, and about all the people who bought thneeds. Were they all responsible for the destruction of the truffula trees and surrounding habitat? When we purchase something, are we obligated to ask how it was made? Were the thneeds "useful?" What is the balance between creating things that make human life easier or more enjoyable, and caring for the environment in which we live? What is our responsibility to the environment and to other species affected by human decisions?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Harold and the Purple Crayon

What can we know about the nature of reality? A wonderful story for motivating conversations about this question is Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. First published in 1955, the story begins with Harold deciding, “after thinking it over for some time,” to take a walk in the moonlight. No moon is out, so Harold takes his purple crayon and draws one, and then he draws something to walk on.  Harold goes on to draw a forest in which he wanders, a dragon that ends up frightening him, an ocean in which he almost drowns and a boat which saves him, a beach, a lunch to eat, etc.

This story was a favorite of my children when they were younger, and I have read it with children in classrooms from first grade through middle school. It raises such questions as: Is Harold pretending? Is what he draws real? How can what he draws scare him? Is the moon we see more real than Harold’s moon – and, if so, why? Is Harold dreaming? Can we create our own reality?