Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Getting philosophy into classrooms

I'm often asked how the center got started and about ways to get into schools to do philosophy with young people. I decided to start the center when I was about to finish my Ph.D. in 1996. I had become interested in working with pre-college students, and a non-profit center seemed to me the best way to do this. Forming a non-profit allowed me to apply for grants and to solicit and accept tax-deductible donations. The center is still an independent non-profit, though in 1999 we became affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington.
The summer before I finished my dissertation, I did a two-week workshop with the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey. It was fabulous! Inspiring and wonderful training for bringing philosophy into K-12 classrooms.
When the center began, we assumed that we would spend a lot of our time facilitating workshops for teachers. We quickly realized, however, that teachers were already overburdened with growing requirements for what they had to teach, and that especially with the increase in standardized testing, most teachers were not interested in adding another area to what they were doing. (Moreover, in the United States most teachers are relatively unfamiliar with philosophy, as it is not a required secondary school subject and most people who study it choose to do so in college.)
Ultimately we decided that the better approach would be to develop what we call the “Philosophers in the Schools” program. Modeled after “Artists in the Schools” residency programs, our program places adults trained in doing philosophy with young people into K-12 classrooms around Washington State. As short as six weeks to as long as an entire school year, these weekly (and, sometimes, biweekly) sessions use literature, art, activities, and puzzles to talk with young people about the large, unsettled questions of philosophy.
There are many ways to develop this kind of program. If you are not a classroom teacher, the key is to develop a relationship with a teacher or teachers. If you don’t know any teachers, you might start by offering to volunteer in a local school, by tutoring or helping out in classrooms in other ways. This is a great way to get to know teachers and students.
Also, consider talking with teachers in whose classes you are interested in doing philosophy about their upcoming plans. Are there readings or subjects that are being taught in the classroom for which you could prepare related philosophy sessions? One of the most exciting ways to build philosophy programs in schools is to work with teachers to create interdisciplinary units.
For some more detailed ideas about how to start a pre-college philosophy program, see our website. Another good source for assistance is the American Philosophical Association Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy pamphlet: So, You Want to Teach Pre-College Philosophy?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust

Pen and ink
by Mollie Hunt
8th grade student
Winthrop, WA, 2008

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, learning about the horror of it as an elementary school child, experiencing recurrent childhood nightmares about the Nazis. For years I stayed away from the subject, avoiding books and films that dealt with it.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, though, I began thinking more and more about genocide generally and the Holocaust in particular, and what I could do as an educator to get involved in working to prevent further genocides. I started reading books about the Holocaust, watching films, and thinking about developing a philosophy class that looked at the Holocaust and the moral questions raised by it and other events of genocide.
I talked to the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other educational resources around the country. One of the best resources I found was Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization dedicated to helping teachers lead their students in critical examinations of history, with particular focus on genocide and mass violence. In 2005 I enrolled in their online seminar for teachers, "Holocaust and Human Behavior," and that eight-week class provided me with abundant ideas and resources for what I wanted to do. I highly recommend this online class!
At the time that I finished the Facing History course, I was doing general philosophy sessions in some middle and high school classes. The students were reading some Holocaust literature, including Elie Wiesel's Night and The Diary of Anne Frank. Although the students were reading this material and discussing it, there was no intensive Holocaust unit in place. The English teachers welcomed my offer to do a unit on "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust." That first year, we watched films and read various short pieces about the Holocaust, and discussed moral questions about individual responsibility and the nature of community, forgiveness and courage.
The unit has become an annual eight-week series of classes in the eighth grade that encompass philosophy, language arts and history, taught by me and the language arts and history teachers. It includes five films, discussion groups with parent volunteers helping the two teachers and me, multimedia projects, and visits to our school at the end of the unit by speakers who have experienced the Holocaust.
Through viewing films, working on projects and participating in ongoing discussion groups, we explore the following questions:
What is a community? What shapes its identity?
Is it morally permissible to resist authority in certain situations? Is it ever morally obligatory to resist?
Is indifference morally wrong?
What keeps people silent in the face of moral wrongs?
How does knowledge of past wrongs affect our moral responsibilities?
Do we have a moral obligation to help others?
What is courage?
What is forgiveness? Who has the power to forgive oppressors? Is forgiveness possible?