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?