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?