Monday, January 24, 2011


The young adult novel Frindle by Andrew Clements is the story of a clever fifth grade student, Nick Allen, who decides to invent a new word, and the consequences of what he does and the way he does it. It is a wonderful, engaging novel that captivated all three of my sons in elementary school. The story touches on many philosophical issues, including the nature of language, the meaning of words, the social and political justifications for educating young people, and the nature of creativity. It's a perfect story to read aloud to your children or to a class, or to read along with your reader child(ren), and discuss along the way. An illustrative passage, in which Nick's teacher is speaking to him:

" 'Who says dog means dog? You do, Nicholas. You and me and everyone else in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country. We all agree. . . . But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that's what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book.' And she pointed at the giant dictionary."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Big Orange Splot

The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater is a picture book that tells the story of Mr. Plumbean, who lives on a street where the houses are all the same, painted red with olive-colored roofs and windows with green trim. He and his neighbors all like this, characterizing their street as a "neat street."

One day, a seagull drops a can of bright orange paint on Mr. Plumbean's house, leaving a big orange splot on the house. Everyone on the street sympathizes with Mr. Plumbean, who will have to paint his house again, and that's what Mr. Plumbean plans to do. But, instead, he looks at the house for a long time. Finally, in response to his neighbors' urging, Mr. Plumbean takes out some paint and paints his house. But instead of using the house's original colors, he paints it a rainbow of colors. Over the next couple of days, he adds to his house a clock tower, palm trees, a hammock and an alligator.

Horrified, one by one the neighbors stop in to see Mr. Plumbean to talk with him about their dissatisfaction with what he's done to his home and remind him that all the houses have to be the same for their street to continue to be a "neat street." And, one by one, after each neighbor visits with Mr. Plumbean, sitting under the palm trees, drinking lemonade and talking, each neighbor repaints his or her own house to "fit his dreams."

This is a wonderful story for inspiring conversations about conformity and independence and our obligations to our communities. I talked about this story this fall with my fourth grade students from John Muir Elementary. We had a lively discussion about whether Mr. Plumbean was right to paint his house in a way different from his neighbors, when part of the community agreement was that they would keep their houses looking the same. The students were really curious about what it was that made Mr. Plumbean's decision to paint his house to "fit his dreams" so compelling to his neighbors, so that after spending time with him they all changed their minds about how their street should appear. And what if the neighbors had continued to want all the houses to look the same? The students were strongly supportive of Mr. Plumbean's right to have his house look the way he wanted it to look, even if it offended his neighbors. What if, though, he painted words expressing his hate for an ethnic group? Would that be okay? At what point does his right to make an independent choice give way to his obligations to his neighbors?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ugly Duckling

The classic nineteenth century fairy tale The Ugly Duckling tells the story of a duckling who, when hatched along with his brothers and sisters, is ridiculed and ostracized because they perceive him as ugly. He wanders alone through the fall and winter, and suffers from fear, loneliness, and sadness. In the spring he flies away from the marsh and meets up with a group of swans, and realizes that he too has become a beautiful swan.

The story is familiar to most students and nicely raises philosophical questions about identity and the nature of the self, the meaning of beauty and ugliness, perception, and the experience of solitude. You can read the story with your child or students and ask them questions like whether the "ugly duckling" really was ugly and, if so, what made him ugly? Did he then stop being ugly at the end of the story? What does ugly mean? Would the "ugly duckling" still be ugly if someone thought he was beautiful? How do we decide what is beautiful and what is not? Did the duckling change over the course of the story? Was he still the same duckling? Do our identities change over time? Etc.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Philosophy Talk Show on Pre-College Philosophy

You can now listen to the Philosophy Talk radio show on pre-college philosophy, taped at the University of Washington in November: