Thursday, December 19, 2013

Summer philosophy seminar for high school teachers

For the first time this summer, there will be a teaching and learning seminar for high school teachers at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) Conference. The seminar will be funded by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and AAPT. 

The AAPT Conference is a well-regarded biennial family-friendly event that brings together philosophy teachers around the world, emphasizing workshops that are practical and interactive and cover a wide range of subjects related to teaching. 

For a number of years the conference has included a highly popular teaching and learning seminar for graduate students, and the seminar for high school teachers will have a similar format. Seminar participants will explore issues and experiment with approaches aimed at developing and improving high school philosophy teaching. 

For more information and the application, see:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Wonder

Annaka Harris has written a picture book, I Wonder, that expresses the feelings of wonder and mystery that many children have when thinking about the world. Eva, walking with her mother, asks questions like: Where does gravity come from? How many grains of sand are in the world? What was here before the beginning of everything?

Eva's mother, rather than responding with answers, responds with questions or by saying things like, "I don't know," or "I wonder about that too." She tells Eva that "It's okay to say, I don't know. When we don't know something, we get to wonder about it."

The illustrations are lovely and the story can inspire conversations about all of the things children wonder about. I asked a group of third grade students this fall what they wondered about. Here are some of their responses:

What will my life be in the future?
How is money made?
Why am I tired?
What happens when you die?
Is magic real?
Why do we have to pay for things?
Why do people die?
Will the world be more dangerous when I'm older?
How is freedom created?
Why do I have buck teeth?
How is television made?
Why can't there be peace throughout the world?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Music and beauty

What makes something beautiful?

Each year one of the paper assignments I give to my undergraduate students is as follows:
     1. List 10 songs that you think are beautiful and 10 songs that you think are ugly.
     2. For each song, write two-three sentences about why you think it's beautiful or ugly.

After the students have handed in these papers, we devote a class session to a discussion of the issues raised by the assignment. Students from Nova High School join us, having also completed this assignment (which was originally created by a Nova High School teacher, Terrance McKittrick).

This year we had about 25 undergraduates and 15 high school students together for the "beautiful/ugly songs" session. We started in small groups, each composed of a couple of high school students and 2 or 3 undergraduates. The students talked about their choices and what made the songs they chose beautiful or ugly to them. We then came together for a larger discussion, which included students sharing some of their music. As we listened to the songs chosen, we talked about the relationships between emotion and music, beauty and ugliness, and memory and emotion, and about the difference between liking a piece of music and thinking it beautiful. Is beauty an objective aesthetic quality of certain music? Or is it purely a subjective reaction, based on the listener and his or her experiences?

Engaging in this exercise every year always reminds me how intimate our musical choices are. When students share their songs and talk about why they chose them, the discussion often illuminates aspects of the students that are very personal. Students often mention how meaningful this assignment is for them, and also how hard it is to do. They note that it forces them to wrestle with what exactly is a beautiful (or ugly) song for them, and what makes it so. I think that this simple activity works so well because, for many of us, the music we listen to really matters to us, and thinking about why this is so engages students deeply in an analysis of the nature of beauty and art.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Picture Books and Aesthetics

I write a lot about picture books and the role they can play in encouraging children to develop their philosophical thinking. I’ve been thinking about the special role of picture books for inspiring inquiry about aesthetics. Picture books are a unique mixture of literature and visual art, and generate the discovery of meaning through a combined visual and verbal experience. The whole of a picture book – not just its meaning or story, but its illustrations and book cover – provides fertile ground for thinking about aesthetic qualities and questions about art, beauty, ugliness, and elegance.

For example, in a conversation that lasted several class sessions, a group of second grade students and I discussed the picture book Fish On A Walk, about which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog. The book has no text other than a pair of adjectives for each page spread – “Happy-Sad,” Brave-Afraid,” etc. – along with very detailed and often odd illustrations that tell their own stories. The discussion we had included topics that ranged from wondering about whether the paired adjectives were really opposites, to noting how the illustrations left room for many interpretations (Is the rabbit gripping the clarinet scared or brave?), to exploring how the pictures were capable of telling stories. Were the pictures effective in creating meaning? What makes art an effective way to communicate?

Children frequently pick up the smallest details of picture book illustrations, often overlooked by adults, and their careful examination of these illustrations may enhance children’s sensitivity to aesthetics. Looking at picture books is an opportunity to observe and discuss features like color, line, shape, and texture, traditionally the four elements of design. How do these different elements produce meaning? Distinguishing such qualities as the effect of the colors, the use of line, and the number of shapes can lead easily into discussions about how and why these elements affect the story’s meaning and our understanding of what’s being conveyed.

Some general questions you can ask children in a conversation about a picture book:

Are the pictures or the words more important in the book? Or do they both matter equally?
Do you like the pictures? Why or why not?
What about the pictures do you notice?
Would the story be different if it had no pictures? If so, how? [For picture books that have words: What about if it had no words?]
Do you think this book is art? Why or why not?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm a Frog!

I'm a Frog is another gem of a picture book by Mo Willems, published this year. It's one of a series of books about best friends Piggie and Elephant Gerald. Willems' books are clever and thoughtful, and frequently philosophically provocative.

In I'm a Frog, Piggie tells Gerald that she is a frog. Gerald perplexed, responds, "I was sure you were a pig. You look like a pig. And your name is Piggie."

"I was a pig. Now I am a frog," Piggie informs Gerald.

"When did you become a frog?" Gerald asks.

"About five minutes ago," Piggie replies.

Gerald is beside himself.

Gerald begins to worry that he too might become a frog. Piggie reassures him by explaining that she is just pretending. "What is that?" Gerald wants to know.

"Pretending is when you act like something you are not."

Gerald is fascinated by this news. "You can just do that?" he wonders.

Why is Gerald sure that Piggie can't be a frog? He says that Piggie looks like a pig and her name is Piggie. Is this good evidence for concluding that Piggie is a pig and not a frog? How do we know something is a pig (or a frog, or a person)?

What does it mean to "pretend?" If we think we are something, does that make us this thing? Is what counts what other people think we are? What's the difference between pretending and lying? Why do we pretend? Can we pretend to be anything we want?

Last year in a kindergarten class, when asked if there's anything we can't pretend to be, one student claimed, "You can't pretend to be yourself, because you are yourself."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Lorax

A plug for the philosophical suggestiveness of books by Dr. Suess! And for entering a philosophy session not knowing where it will lead.

Today I read the story The Lorax, published in 1971, with a second grade class. In the story, the Once-ler describes how he arrived in a town full of Truffula Trees, with their bright-colored tufts, and immediately had the idea of cutting them down to make "Thneeds." When he cuts the first one down, the Lorax appears, and announces that he speaks for the Truffula Trees. The Lorax is very upset about the Truffula Tree having been chopped down. "What is that thing you have made out of my Truffula tuft?" he asks.

The Once-ler explains that it's a Thneed, which is a "Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need," with multiple uses ("It's a shirt. It's a sock. It's a glove. It's a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that.")

"No one would buy that fool Thneed," responds the Lorax. But, of course, someone does. And the Once-ler begins cutting down Truffula Trees and making Thneeds at a fast clip, enlisting his family members to join him in his new enterprise. He even invents a "Super-Axe-Hacker," able to "whack off four Truffula Trees in one smacker."

The Lorax appears periodically to let the Once-ler know that various creatures are having to leave the town because they lived off Truffula Fruits, or couldn't stand the smog, or could no longer drink the water that had been smeared by the "Gluppity-Glupp" and "Schloppity-Schlopp" created by the machinery of the Once-ler's Thneed business. "Business is business!" responds the Once-ler.

Finally, the last Truffula Tree has been cut down and the Lorax leaves, along with all of the Once-ler's family. The Once-ler is left alone with his empty factory and one Truffula Seed, the last one.

The story obviously raises many questions about environmental ethics, and it has inspired several interesting conversations I've had with children in the last couple of years. In one fourth grade class last year, the children asked who was responsible for the mess created by the production of Thneeds. The Once-ler? His family? The people who bought Thneeds? We had a long conversation about whether when we buy something, we are responsible for making sure that it wasn't created in a way we would oppose. Is that feasible? If we don't know about the harm something we purchase has caused, are we still in any way responsible?

This afternoon the question the second grade students wanted to explore was, "How could the Once-ler make a "Super-Axe-Hacker" when he only had one axe?" The conversation led to a discussion about whether it's possible to have an entirely new idea and, if it is possible, how that happens. Where do ideas come from? One child noted that imagination and thinking are what leads to new things being created, and another said that nothing is created without reference to something else. Agreeing with this, another child suggested that the Once-ler might have been thinking that he needed something to cut more than one Truffula Tree at a time, and been looking at a pair of scissors, which can cut many pieces of paper at once, and that inspired him to come up with the idea for the Super-Axe-Hacker.

We started to talk about the nature of imagination, and one child claimed that children have more imagination than adults. All of the children seemed to agree. "I think that children don't know as many things about the world," one child said, "and so our minds are more free to imagine things."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Good News, Bad News

Jeff Mack's book Good News Bad News portrays the different ways people can see the same situation. Using just four words - good news, bad news - Mack describes Rabbit and Mouse going on a picnic. Good news: they're going on a picnic. Bad news: it starts to rain. Good news: Rabbit has an umbrella.

The bad news is, the wind is blowing apples off the tree onto Mouse's head. But the good news is, there are apples to eat.

Is there more than one way to see something? Does who we are influence how and what we see? Does every situation have both positive and negative aspects? Should we always try to see the other side? How do we know something is "good news" or "bad news?"

My colleague David Shapiro created a game, "Good News, Bad News" that is a great reasoning exercise to play with students in 5th grade and up, and would be fun to play after reading this book aloud:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I know a lot of things

Ann and Paul Rand's picture book, I know a lot of things, captures a young child's exuberance about the things he or she knows - such as "when I look in a mirror what I see is me." Graphic designer Paul Rand's illustrations enhance the inquisitive feel - looking at us from the mirror, for example, are simply two eyes starting out from an otherwise blank pink circle.

The book ends with: "as I grow I know I'll know much more."

Do we know more as we grow? What does it mean to know something? How do we know what we know? Do we know that when we look in a mirror, what we see is ourselves?

You can ask children, "Do you think you know more every day? Are there things you once knew that you don't know anymore? Can you know something once and then not know it?"

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Children Make Terrible Pets

Children Make Terrible Pets, Peter Brown's picture book about a young bear, Lucy, who one day notices a small boy hiding in the bushes and watching her. Lucy thinks the boy is adorable, calling him "Squeaker" because he "makes funny sounds." She asks her mother, who reluctantly acquiesces, if she can keep Squeaker as a pet.

Lucy and Squeaker become inseparable and have lots of fun together, but Lucy finds that Squeaker is a difficult pet: he's impossible to potty train, ruins the furniture, etc. Then one day Squeaker disappears, and Lucy follows his scent to Squeaker's house, where he is having a meal with his family. Lucy realizes that Squeaker belongs there, and she says goodbye, realizing that, as she tells her mother, "Children really do make terrible pets."

"They really are the worst," Lucy's mother agrees.

The book is funny and fun to read, and it also raises some interesting questions. What makes something or someone a "good pet?" Is a "good pet" the result of the pet or the owner? Is the way we understand other living beings entirely colored by our own experiences and perspectives? Do we seem strange to others who don't speak our language or share our customs? What do we really understand about each other?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Sense of Wonder

Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder portrays her experiences exploring the coast of Maine with her nephew. She notes, "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. With photos and text, the book examines that ways that spending time in nature can nurture children's sense of wonder. Carson claims that, "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder . . . he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."

Plato refers to wonder as the origin of philosophy (Theaetetus 155d3). It involves a sense of the mysteries that pervade the human condition and a desire to question and reflect about the deeper meaning of ordinary concepts and experiences. All of us grow up with an awareness of the mysteriousness of our mortal lives and the questions raised by our existence: the meaning of being alive, the complexity of identity, the nature of friendship and love, how to live good lives, and whether we can know anything at all. 

This kind of philosophical wondering begins in childhood. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, maintained that “all human beings by nature reach out for understanding.” If we look back, many adults can remember that it was in childhood that we began (and, for too many of us, soon stopped) wondering about philosophical questions. During those early years, children are wide open to the philosophical mysteries that pervade human life, often lying awake at night thinking about such issues as whether God exists, why the world has the colors it does, the nature of time, whether dreams are real, why we die, and what the meaning of life consists in. 

Almost as soon as they can formulate them, most children start asking what we call “big questions.” Brimming with curiosity about aspects of the world that most adults take for granted, children demonstrate a natural capacity to explore the most basic elements of life and society. 

We can help children (and ourselves!) keep alive this sense of wonder by being willing to consider with them the seemingly endless questions raised by our experiences and the world. Instead of always trying to answer their questions, we can listen for questions that invite deeper inquiry and engage with children in mutual exploration.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Plato Was Wrong!

The Center's Education Director, David Shapiro, has written a wonderful book - Plato Was Wrong! Footnotes on Doing Philosophy With Young People - that compiles activities and games he's created over the years to inspire philosophical inquiry with young people. These activities can be used as a starter in a philosophy session or as the basis for the entire discussion.

For example, Keep the Question Going, an activity I often use, gets get students listening to each other, while keeping in mind the importance of questions in philosophical inquiry.  It requires students to listen to each other and respond in a manner that constructs a coherent sentence – in this case a question.

How it works:
1.     Make sure students can more or less all see each other. A circle is ideal but, even if students are sitting in rows, it’s helpful if they can all turn so that they can keep an eye on their classmates as the exercise proceeds.
2.     The goal of the exercise if for students to see how long they can keep a question going, one word after another, each word added by a subsequent student.  When a student thinks that the question has ended, he or she claps his or her hands, indicating that a new question is to begin. So, for instance, suppose the first student begins with the word, How, the next says does, the next life, the next begin.  At this point, that last student might clap his or her hands to indicate the question is finished.  Or, if not, the following student would have to keep the question going, perhaps by adding the word on, to which a subsequent student might say Earth, and then clap.
One guideline to keep in mind, and communicate to students, is that it’s not permitted to just add the word and to the end of what the previous student has said. Students should be discouraged from creating never-ending chains or nonsense questions such as ‘How did life begin on Earth and Mars and Pluto and Saturn and ...?”
It’s important to emphasize that students should listen to each other and refrain from shouting out suggestions to their fellow students.  Also, what we’re really trying to do is formulate interesting and provocative questions that we might like to explore together. You could make a record of the questions produced and use them for question analysis genuine enquiry.
A facilitator might also run the activity with the goal of formulating two or three questions that the class agrees to explore in more detail.  Then, the exercise isn’t so much about the length of the question, but the quality of it.
In any case, at the conclusion of the exercise or at some other convenient time, it can be an option to lead a reflective discussion about what has just happened.  You might ask what makes a given question more intriguing or more ‘philosophical’ than another.  This isn’t a required part of this exercise, especially if the exercise is being used as an energizer at the start of a class; it has, though, on occasion led to some pretty interesting discussions, especially as students raise questions about the nature of questioning.
You might also say, for example, say: ‘Can we make this question better by adding words, taking them away or changing them? Once the usefulness of the process is established, students may be more inclined see their own questions as works in progress that could be improved.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Exciting Initiatives for 2013-14!

How can summer be over already?

The compensation is all of the exciting projects going on this fall!

In the Northwest:
The first philosopher-in-residence program in Seattle begins at John Muir Elementary School this month -

The first Washington State High School Ethics Bowl will be held at the University of Washington on Saturday February 1 -

The Center website has been revitalized, and includes over 80 lesson plans for using children's literature to inspire philosophy discussions, games and activities, and more!

And nationally:
PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) has announced three awards for K-12 philosophy teachers!

PLATO is also sponsoring a high school essay contest -

A new pre-college philosophy initiative, modeled after the UW Center for Philosophy for Children, is launching at the University of Chicago this fall -

The K-12 philosophy movement is growing!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Children's rights

The book For Every Child, published in 2001 in association with Unicef, with text by Caroline Castle and a forward by Archbiship Desmond Tutu, lists some of the rights enumerated in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, in accessible language and with magnificent illustrations by 14 different artists. For example, the rights listed include the following: all children should be allowed to live and grow, to have a name and land to call their own, to play and rest, and to say what they are thinking and feeling.

This is a great resource for exploring children's rights with young people. You can couple this book with the following exercise, which I've adapted from a game created by my colleague David Shapiro.

In session 1 of this lesson plan, first explain what a right is. Can the students give some examples? Then distribute index cards, each of which has a right written on it. Some are serious - right to life, right to health care, right to sleep, right to a home, right to have children, right to food and water, right to think for yourself, right to vote, right to be friends with people you choose, right to attend school, etc. - and some are more frivolous - right to watch television, right to not have people sit on your head, the right to eat candy, the right to stay up as late as you want, etc. 

Ask the students to draw the right on the card they've been given – but they shouldn't let anyone else know what it is. Then break up into small groups (3-4 students), and the students then share their pictures and try to guess each other’s rights. 

In session 2 of this lesson plan, break the students up into the same small groups as class #1. Each group decides which two of the rights on the index cards distributed to the group in the previous session are the most important, and then chooses a member of the group to report back to the whole class. When the class comes together, all the rights chosen are listed on the board.

Then read For Every Child to or with the class. The class then creates its own list of children's rights. First, examine all of the rights that have been written on the board. Are there any that the students now think shouldn’t be there? What other rights should be included? Are there rights that belong to adults that shouldn't belong to children? Rights that belong to children that shouldn't belong to adults?

This will be my last blog post for the summer, as I am again devoting the summer to working on a writing project. I'll be back in September!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What is a dessert?

For my last class of the year in elementary schools, I often bring in food and drinks and we have a "Philosophy Cafe," eating and drinking and talking about ideas. This week in the final session with fifth grade students at Whittier Elementary School in Seattle, I brought in cookies and lemonade and we had a spirited conversation about what makes something a dessert, based on an idea developed by Jesse Walsh (who runs a philosophy club at St. Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven).

Were the cookies we were eating a dessert? Many students argued that they were not, because dessert is a concept that refers to the time the food is eaten (at the end of lunch or dinner). Other students claimed that dessert is not defined by the time the food is eaten, but by the kind of food it is. If you have broccoli at the end of a meal, for example, it's not dessert. Dessert has to contain some kind of sweetness, many students suggested. We talked about whether dessert had to have both kinds of characteristics, some sweetness and be eaten at a certain time. Students pointed out, however, that it's not ridiculous to say "I'm having dessert for dinner," or "I'm having a dessert snack," and so dessert doesn't always get eaten at the end of a meal. One student proposed that we distinguish between "treats," which include but are not limited to sweet foods and can be had at any time, and "desserts," which have to be sweet foods (or drinks, perhaps, a couple of students interjected) and eaten after meals. We drew a Venn diagram to try to see where these two concepts intersected and where they did not.

Students always enjoy this session, and there is usually a lot of laughter. It's also a serious exercise, though, in defining what turns out to be a slippery concept. At the end of the conversation, I remarked that this is just what philosophers do, try to tease out the puzzling aspects of the most ordinary parts of our lives. One of the things I hope students get out of doing philosophy all year is an understanding that our assumptions about even the simplest things can always be questioned.

Friday, June 7, 2013


In this picture book by former British Children's Laureate Quentin Blake, after a very windy night Angela finds a baby bird who has fallen from his nest. She takes him home and cares for him, feeding him, bundling him in warm blankets so he doesn't catch cold, and naming him Augustus. She buys a stroller to protect him and feeds him the best food she can buys. Eventually Angela buys a garden shed for for Augustus to live in, as he has grown so large.

One morning, after another windstorm, Angela comes outdoors to find that the shed has been blown flat. Augustus, now an enormous bird of prey, flies away, but continues to visit Angela from time to time, bringing her gifts like dead mice.

Is what Angela does for Augustus the right thing to do? Is it natural for a bird to be wrapped in blankets and living in a shed? What does it mean for something to be "natural?" Can taking care of someone violate their rights? How? When we try to protect someone, do we keep them from being free? Is Augustus free when Angela is taking care of him? Is he free when he leaves the shed? Is Augustus entitled to be free? Is everyone? What is freedom?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Everyone Sees Things So Differently

"It doesn't frustrate me that we don't have the answers to these questions. I like hearing what other people think about them, because there are so many different ways people think about things. That's what's great about philosophy, you realize that everyone sees things so differently."
Fourth grade student at Whittier Elementary School, Seattle

When I consider why it's important that we encourage children to explore the philosophical dimension of the world, one of the things that I think matters most is that this practice helps children appreciate that the world contains many perspectives. This supports children's abilities to evaluate critically their own views and reasoning, because taking seriously points of view other than your own leads to examining your own thinking in a new light. Moreover, the experience of grasping that there are questions for which there are not settled answers, that can be approached from a variety of angles, leads to an understanding that not all questions lead to easy answers and that there are numerous ways - all unique and valuable - to see the same thing. 

Philosophy teaches us to take any view seriously - even when it seems outlandish - if there are good reasons offered for it. Especially in this time in human history, where greater and greater presumed certainty about knowledge, identity and moral beliefs lead people to extreme acts of violence and oppression, it's imperative that our children recognize that there are many legitimate ways to see the world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Two New PLATO Initiatives!

I've written before about PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), a national organization that advocates and supports introducing philosophy to K-12 students. Two exciting new projects: a high school essay contest - see here - and annual awards for elementary, middle and high school teachers - see here. Lots of progress in the movement to bring philosophy into children's lives!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Just Pretend

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, by Geoffrey Hayes, is an early-reader graphic novel about two siblings and the efforts of the younger child, Penny, to join her brother in "playing pretend." Constructing pretend worlds is part of many children's childhoods - I remember when my children wouldn't answer me unless I addressed them as "Darth Vader" or whomever they were pretending to be. And, of course, younger siblings efforts to get their older brothers and sisters to include and accept them is also part of many children's experiences.

The story raises questions about why we create pretend worlds, the lines between pretending and getting lost in fantasies, the differences between playing alone and playing with others, how siblings understand one another, and how our relationships with other people change us.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Frog in Love

Frog in Love by Max Velthuijs is the story of Frog, who has felt strange all week, and is trying to figure out what is wrong. He feels like crying and laughing at the same time, and that "there's something going thump-thump" inside him. When he tells Hare about how he is feeling, Hare tells him that he is in love.

Frog is very excited to learn that he is in love, and tells Piglet, who asks him, "Who are you in love with?" Frog hadn't thought about that question, but quickly he responds that he is in love with a "pretty, nice, lovely white duck." Piglet tells Frog that a frog can't be in love with a duck, but Frog ignores him. Frog begins anonymously leaving gifts for Duck, but he can't bring himself to speak to her. He decides to impress her by breaking the world high jump record, but it is when he falls and injures himself that Duck comes into his life.

How do you know what you are feeling inside? Can you feel like "crying and laughing at the same time?" If so, how can that be? Can you love someone you don't know? Do two people have to be alike to love each other? Do we love people because of their accomplishments? What makes us love another person?

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Arnold Lobel is probably my favorite children's book author, and a master at generating philosophically suggestive narratives. The Frog and Toad books, in particular, are full of stories that raise many puzzles about life and experience.

One of my favorites is the story "Shivers," in Days With Frog and Toad. Frog tells Toad a ghost story and Toad interrupts several times to ask things like, "Are you making this up?" and "Is this a true story?"At the end of Frog's story, Frog and Toad are scared and are "having the shivers," which, Lobel writes, "was a good, warm feeling."

Can being scared be a "good, warm feeling?" Why do people like scary stories and films? Is it fun to be scared? When we feel scared, say,  listening to a story or watching a film, are we really scared? (We don't call the police or scream for help.) Are we just enjoying the idea of being scared? What is it we experience when we read scary books or watch horror movies?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Pair of Red Clogs

A Pair of Red Clogs is Masako Matsuno's first book for children, written in 1960. A grandmother, looking for a box to send a new pair of clogs to her granddaughter, finds an old pair of cracked red wooden clogs in her storeroom.

The grandmother remembers how excited she was when, as a child the age her granddaughter is now, her mother bought her a brand new pair of red clogs. Soon after, the clogs had a crack in them as a result of a game she played. She wanted a new pair and decided to make the old pair so dirty that her mother would want to buy her another pair. As she shuffled the clogs through the mud, she began thinking about how this was really telling a lie.

The story examines the little girl's feelings of shame and regret at having tried to trick her mother. Should she tell her mother she had done so? Is lying wrong? Is it always wrong? Why did she keep the shoes for so many years? Did what she did change her relationship with her family? Can we still trust someone if they have once lied to us?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Asking Questions

I have written in many places about the centrality of questions to the work we do, and the importance generally of children learning to ask good questions and trusting that their questions are valuable.

Almost all very young children are alive with questions; they seem to naturally apprehend that this is the way to investigate and understand the world. At some point, however, most children absorb the message that questions are often not particularly welcome. They learn that having a question means that there is something they should have already grasped but have not. Asking questions publicly broadcasts what they don't know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. And so they go silent. Walk into a sixth grade classroom, and it’s obvious that students pose questions with a tentativeness absent in kindergarten.

However, the ability to construct good questions is indispensable for navigating one’s way through contemporary life. Developing confidence and skill in questioning allows children to evaluate critically the constant flood of information that bombards them, gather what they need to make good decisions, and convey what gaps remain in their understanding of particular topics or situations. The more accomplished a child becomes at framing good questions, the more able he or she will be to think clearly and competently for herself.

Engaging children in conversations in which their questions are central, and encouraging them to articulate what led to their questions, is vital for helping children develop the ability to formulate and pose clear and articulate questions. Often a considerable part of a philosophy session with children will be spent listing the children's questions and then choosing which question(s) to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. Indeed, when I first began doing philosophy in pre-college classrooms, I was often impatient about the time it took to get all the students’ questions on the board and decide what to discuss.

I've come to understand, however, that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end just as valuable as the time spent actually talking about them. For one thing, learning to articulate questions in a clear way, so that your question accurately describes whatever it is that’s puzzling you, is an important skill that can only be developed with experience. Moreover, devoting time to listing and analyzing the students’ questions lets the students know that asking questions is itself a valuable practice, quite apart from the discussion of them (let alone answering them).

An organization about which I've recently become aware, The Right Question Institute, notes that asking questions is an essential skill for all learning, and its website has many resources for helping students construct good questions. My colleague, Amy Reed-Sandoval, has written about using the organization's "Question Formulation Technique" in a philosophy session with children:

So much of primary and secondary education emphasizes knowing the answers, as if we had utter clarity about the meaning of most aspects of life. But, as philosopher Matthew Lipman once noted, it is when our knowledge of the world is revealed to be “ambiguous, equivocal, and mysterious,” that students are most inspired to think about the world. Questions are the keys to articulating that ambiguity and mystery. Philosophy can illuminate for children how vital questions are to examining the world in which we live and our place in it, and help them to cultivate their inclinations to question.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Waterloo & Trafalgar

Olivier Tallec's 2012 wordless picture book, Waterloo & Trafalgar, portrays two men, one in blue and one in orange, who are separated by walls and watch each other suspiciously behind their telescopes throughout the seasons, embroiled in conflict. Not until they have a common cause do they stop fighting. At the end of the book, we see that the two warring men both live inside an enclosed area,  situated within a beautiful blue and orange park that neither of them appears to see.

The amusing and colorful line drawings tell a multi-layered story, raising such questions as: Why do people engage in conflict? What is the point of war? Is compromise always possible? What does it take to trust another person? Another country? What do we really know about each other, and about the world?

Friday, March 8, 2013

The 60-Second Philosopher

Andrew Pessin's The 60-Second Philosopher is a series of 60 very short chapters (each two pages) that provide ideas for thinking about a wide range of philosophical topics (time, color, various ethical questions, knowledge, free will, etc.). The first chapter, "The Philosopher Within You," begins:
There's the legend of the fish who swam around asking every sea creature he'd meet, "Where is this great ocean I keep hearing about?" A pretty small legend, true—but one with a pretty big message.
We are very much like that fish.
The book is a wonderful resources for getting children and adults to reflect about all of the questions raised by everyday experiences.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Otter and Odder

Otter and Odder, by James Howe, was introduced to me recently by one of my undergraduate students. The story is about Otter who, looking for food, falls in love with the fish he is about to eat. Told by his community that this is not "the way of the otter," and characterized as "odd and getting odder," Otter asks himself, "What is right? What is wrong? What is natural? What is the way of the otter?"

Can a fish love an otter, when the way of the otter is to eat fish?

The story inspires thinking about social norms and the forces that impact the way we understand the world, changing moral and social values, the meaning of community, what it means for something to be "natural," the nature of love, and the relationship between individual desires and the demands of the community.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Angel for Solomon Singer

Cynthia Rylant's story An Angel for Solomon Singer is the story of Solomon Singer, who lives in a hotel for men in New York City, and doesn't like it. His room has no balcony or fireplace, and he cannot have a cat or dog, or even paint his walls a color of his choosing.

"It is important to love where you live, and Solomon Singer loved where he lived not at all, and it was this that drove him out into the street each night." He wanders the streets, and eventually ends up in a restaurant, where a friendly waiter takes his order and suggests he return again.

Solomon returns night after night. Eventually he finds that when he wanders the streets, on his way to the restaurant, they feel warm and beautiful, and that in the restaurant he feels he is home.

What is home? What makes a place a home? Do we need a home? Why or why not? Is being home about a place outside of us, or about something inside us? Can we be at home anywhere? Do homes change? Can a home become no longer a home? Does home mean the same thing to all people?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

The nature of sadness. Michael Rosen's Sad Book describes how sadness feels and tries to understand it. "Sometimes sad is very big. It's everywhere. All over me." Michael Rosen's son, Eddie, died, and that, he tells us, is what makes him most sad.

"Sometimes I'm sad and I don't know why. It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up." Rosen asks these questions: Where is sad? When is sad? Who is sad?

How do we respond to sadness? The book examines whether memories can make us feel less sad. And does it help to know that sadness affects everyone?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Benjamin's Dreadful Dream

Dreaming is a source of fascination for most children, and the topic can lead to examinations of questions about knowledge, and the relationship between reality and experience. Benjamin's Dreadful Dream is Alan Baker's picture book about the hamster Benjamin, who one night decides to get up and have a snack when he can’t sleep. Quickly, all kinds of weird adventures begin to happen to him. Then he finds himself back in his own bed. 

“Was it all a dreadful dream?” he wonders.

The book inspires such questions as: Were Benjamin’s adventures a dream? How do you know if you are dreaming? What is a dream? Why do we dream? What is the difference between dreaming and being awake? What is the relationship between dreaming and our experiences when we are not dreaming? Are dreams real? 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Does everything have a right to live?

In a fourth grade class at Whittier Elementary School yesterday, we read chapter 3 of Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills, and the children asked the question, "Does everything have a right to live?" Most of the children responded initially that they thought that everything did have a right to life.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

"If everything has a right to life," I asked, "does that mean that if I swat and kill a mosquito because it's about to bite me, I'm doing something that's morally wrong?"

"Well maybe," one child replied. "I mean, if you get bit by a mosquito it's not going to kill you, and so it seems unfair that a mosquito should die so that you won't get bit."

"But if you were in a country where mosquito bites could kill you it would be different," another child noted. "Like it you could catch malaria or something."

"And mosquitos need to bite humans to live," observed a third child. "If you have to do something to survive, it seems like there should be less negative consequences than if you just want to hurt someone else for fun."

"I think everything has a right to life, but every right to life is not equal," suggested another student.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I think that everything starts off with a right to life. All creatures that are alive have a right to life. But not all of these rights are equal. It depends on how important you are to the whole environment. People think human beings are the most important, but we might not be."

"I agree," replied a student. "If all the humans died, it probably would cause greater harm to the environment than if all the mosquitos were gone. But that doesn't mean that nothing is more valuable than people."

"We think that people are the most important," put in another student, "but that's just because we're people."

"I agree," said a student. "You always see things from your own perspective. I mean, mosquitos probably think they're the most important beings on the planet. Imagine living on a planet where we were tiny and there were these giant mosquitos that were constantly swatting at us whenever we got near them. We wouldn't think that just because we were smaller and less powerful, that the giant mosquitos had more of a right to life than we did."

"What you think about which creatures are the most important," responded a student, "really depends on your attachments. We think people, and dogs and cats and other pets, are more important than mosquitos, but that's just because we have relationships with them. If someone had a mosquito for a pet, they would probably see it differently."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Harry and Hopper

Harry and Hopper is the story of Harry's relationship with his dog, Hopper. Harry taught Hopper "how to sit, how to stay, how to catch a ball, how to fetch the lease, how to wrestle." Hopper helps Harry with his homework and Harry helps Hopper run his weekly bath. They are inseparable. Then one day Harry comes home from school and his father tells him that Hopper was killed in an accident. Harry is inconsolable. Then Hopper begins returning, night after night, in less and less solid form, until Harry says goodbye to Hopper for good.

This story is a gentle and powerful one for opening up issues with children about death generally, the loss of a pet in particular, and the mystery of living and dying and what death means. Beautifully and thoughtfully illustrated - for example, when Harry's father tells Harry that Hopper is dead, we just see their backs, a recognition that this a profoundly personal and painful interaction between the two of them - the book is comforting and unsparing at the same time. I'm going to try it with my second grade students later this month.