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.