Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Shelter in Our Car

In A Shelter in Our Car, Monica Gunning depicts the experiences of eight-year-old Zettie and her mother, who have come to the United States after Zettie's father's death. They are temporarily homeless, due to the struggle Zettie's mother has been having to find reliable work. After they have spent some time in a shelter, which, Zettie comments, was noisy and crowded, Zettie's mother decides that it's better to use their car as a shelter.

The story begins with Zettie waking up in the car to sirens and flashing police lights. Zettie and her mother use the park's rest room to wash up in cold water in the morning, and they search for food and try to stay away from the police. Zettie endures being bullied at school by children who call her "Junk Car Zettie," and she thinks of her previous life in Jamaica with longing. Throughout the story, though, Zettie's relationship with her mother anchors her. Her mother is kind and affectionate, and they are doing their best to get through this difficult experience with love and dignity.

In the end, Zettie's mother has found work and is hopeful that they will be able to rent an apartment. Zettie thinks to herself, "[W]ith or without an apartment, I've got Mama and she's got me."

The story raises issues about homelessness, the nature of home, the difference between a shelter and a home, and whether love can shelter us from social injustice. Some questions to ask children when reading the story with them:

Why do Zettie and her mother live in their car?
Can a car be a home?
Do people need shelter? Why?
What are the most important things people need in life?
What does it mean to be homeless?
Why does Zettie want her mother to drop her off at the corner behind the school instead of in front of the school?
Why do some of Zettie's classmates call her "Junk Car Zettie?"
Does Zettie feel safe? What do we need to feel safe?
Can love be a kind of shelter?
What would a perfect home look like? Do perfect homes exist?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Being alive means dying

Today I read Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman with a group of 6-8 year olds at the school at Seattle Children's Hospital. In the story, Morris meets a cow and notes that the cow is a funny looking moose, insisting, despite the cow’s protests, that the cow must be a moose because she “has four legs and things on her head.” When Morris and the cow approach a deer for help, the deer insists that they are all deer, and when the three of them ask a horse to assist, the horse claims they are all horses. It is not until the animals see their joint reflections in the water that they conclude that they are not all the same

I asked the students if they thought the animals were confused. One of the children commented that they had been confused, but once they saw their own reflections they understood that the other animals were not the same as them. We talked about the differences between moose and cows, for example and whether a moose who looked like a cow would still be a moose. Then we wondered about what makes a moose a moose, and a cow a cow, which led us to thinking about what makes us human beings. 

"What if an alien being walked in the room and was trying to figure out what makes human beings different from, say, a water bottle or a box of tissues?" I asked.

"We could say that those things aren't alive," one student responded.

"Is everything that's alive a human being? How could the alien tell the difference between us and dogs?"

"Dogs don't talk." 

"But not everything that's alive talks."

"How do we know something is alive?"

"Things that are alive move," a student suggested.

"Not everything that's alive moves," another student responded. "Plants are alive and they don't move."

"What do you think makes something alive?" I asked.

"Things that are are going to die. Everything that's alive will die. That's how we know something is alive."

This took my breath away. We all then tried to think of things that are alive that don't die, and none of us could. If you are immortal, are you alive?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Taking Over Your Life

I taught my first philosophy session at the school at Seattle Children's Hospital this morning, which I will be doing every Tuesday. We started with Plato's Ring of Gyges, which led us into a conversation about whether possessing something like Gyges' ring could end up taking over your life. Frequently when I discuss this allegory with students, there are students who say that they would refuse to use the ring and/or would get rid of it as quickly as possible, out of fear that a ring like this could change them and their relationships in ways they couldn't foresee and that the ring might end up in a sense controlling them.

In the conversation this morning, we talked about the risk of the ring controlling you, and then explored the idea in general of something "taking over your life." One student noted that video games could "take over your life," and we talked about other things that are similar: cell phones, material goods, etc. The student then commented that in many ways illness could take over your life, by making it impossible for you to do the things that you were used to doing before you became sick. Then one of the students talked about the ways in which dialysis had "taken over his life," and he pointed out that there was both good and bad to this. Although he had missed much of high school because of his treatment, and it had been a difficult experience, it had also led him to appreciate health and ordinary life in ways he hadn't before. We then talked about other experiences that can "take over your life" in positive ways: falling in love, having a child, caring for someone who needs your help, writing a book. We noted that although all of these experiences involve relinquishing other things that matter to you - other relationships, activities, etc. - there also can be something positive about, at least for a time, investing all of your energy in one passion.

This was a really interesting take on the concept of something taking over your life that I hadn't really considered before. We wondered, then, how you decide whether what might take over your life is worth it. Well, "health is everything," one student noted. Are there other needs/experiences that fall into this category?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Freedom and Following the Rules

In a third grade classroom at John Muir Elementary this morning, I read Toni Morrison's The Big Box with the students. The story is about three children who are put into a "big box" after the adults in their lives conclude that they can't "handle their freedom." The box is full of toys and their parents visit weekly and bring additional toys and treats, but the children are not allowed out of the box.

After the story, the students wrote down in their philosophy journals the questions about which the story led them to wonder. We did a "turn and talk," during which the students shared their questions with one another. We then listed some of their questions on the board, which included:

Does playing around mean you can't handle your freedom?
Why do they have to go in the big box?
Why do the parents only visit on Wednesdays?
Why would their parents put them in the box?
Do the kids like being in the box?

The students voted to discuss the question, "Why do they have to go in the big box?" The student who asked that question said that he was wondering why breaking a few rules led the children to lose their freedom. The children talked about how making a choice to break rules was part of being free, and that if what you did wasn't hurting anyone else, it seemed wrong that this would cause you to lose your freedom. "How can you learn to handle your freedom," one student asked, "if you don't have freedom to try things out?"

Another student pointed out that the children in the story did lots of positive things, like taking care of themselves and their homes, but that they received little credit for this. "But," another student pointed out, "just because you follow some rules doesn't mean you can then decide not to follow others. You don't get credit for doing things you're just supposed to do." Other students commented that part of learning to handle freedom involves making some mistakes.

Then a student asked, "Why was the box such a nice place to be? If the parents wanted to punish the children for breaking the rules, why put them in a place with lots of toys and junk food?" This led to a discussion about whether you'd choose to stay in a confined space if you had all the toys you wanted and a couple of friends with which to share the experience. Most of the students said no, that they would not choose to be limited to being in one space without access to the outdoors and the ability to meet new people and visit new places, but others weren't so sure.

After our discussion, the students reflected in their journals in response to the following question: "Would you want to be in the big box?"

Friday, October 3, 2014

Thinking About Thinking

Sorry for the long delay in returning to this blog after the summer. I am working on a book and trying to find time for everything! But I'm committed to continuing to write the blog and appreciate the messages from many of you letting me know that you enjoy reading the posts.

A new school year and, as usual, I am so inspired by the children with whom I'm doing philosophy. Currently in two classrooms (2nd and 3rd grades) at one school and two classrooms (4th and 5th grades) at another. This week I began class with what I thought was going to be a warm-up exercise (created by my colleague David Shapiro), and in each class it turned into a 40-50 minute session about thinking. Another example of being flexible about your lesson plan!

The exercise starts with a simple question, "Are you thinking?" Most or all of the students acknowledge that they are. "How do you know you're thinking?" Some of the responses in the 3rd grade class: "I can hear words in my head." "I am listening to you and so I'm thinking." "I am always thinking, as long as I'm alive." This led us to a conversation about whether you can stop thinking, and whether there are different kinds of thinking. One student suggested, "You think all the time. But there's thinking that you know you're doing, like a math problem, and then there's thinking that you don't know you're doing, like when you dream."We then talked about thinking thoughts you like to have, and whether you can control your thoughts. We tried to all think of the same thing at the same time, and observed that this is very hard to do! One student noted that even if we all say we're thinking about, say, a peanut, we all might actually be having different thoughts that we call thinking about a peanut.

"Are there things you can't think about?" One student replied, "You can't think that you're not thinking." Other students pointed out that the minute you express what you're not thinking about, you're thinking about it. We talked about the distinction between having a thought and expressing a thought. Another student commented that we can't think about the things we don't know or haven't experience, and we spent a long time puzzling over whether you can think about someone else's experience. Are you thinking about their experiences, or can you just think about someone else having your experiences? When someone tells you about their experiences, do you think about the experiences or just about what someone told you?

We spent a long time talking about whether there are different kinds of thinking. Several students observed that there are times when you're so involved in something, like listening to or playing music, that you're not thinking. "But isn't that a kind of thinking?" another student asked. We talked about whether everything your mind does involves thinking. One student said, "Sometimes my mind just goes dark, and for at least a moment I'm not thinking." "But," another student commented, "aren't you just thinking of a dark space?"

At the end the students wrote in their philosophy journals in response to the question, "Do you think that we think all the time?  Why or why not?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When Lions Roar

Can we control our feelings? Our perceptions? Does how we feel affect what happens in the world?

When Lions Roar, a simple picture book by Robie Harris, depicts how scary the world can feel when "lions roar," "thunder booms," "big dogs bark," "mommies holler," and so on. The child in the story responds, "I sit right down, shut my eyes tight. 'Go away,' I say. 'Scary! Go away.'"

Then, the story goes on, it's quiet again, with the wind still and the sun out. "The scary is gone."

What makes some things scary? Are there different levels of scariness? If something is scary, does that mean we are scared of it? Can we control whether something scares us? Is it possible for our actions to get rid of something that we find scary?

Especially (but certainly not only) for young children, it can be empowering to talk about what makes something scary and the many different ways we can react to what feels scary to us. Is what is scary in the thing or in us?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap!

Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap! is an Appalachian folktale, brought to life in a great read-aloud picture book by Tom Birdseye with illustrations by Andrew Glass. The story's main character, Pug, is a young boy "with such a poor memory some say he'd forget his own name."

One day Pug's mother, who believes in him despite constant evidence of his forgetfulness, sends him out to the store for some soap.

But Pug quickly forgets why he is going where he is going.

After a series of misunderstandings with various members of the community, all of which are brought on by Pug inadvertently offending each person, resulting in a series of mishaps, Pug brings the soap home to his mother. Apparently transformed by the challenges of the day, from then on Pug "never forgot a thing his mama told him . . . not ever again . . . for the rest of his life."

Why do we remember what we remember? Is remembering a choice? Do we choose to forget what we don't remember? Can you forget your own name? If you forget all your memories, are you still you? What makes someone "forgetful?" Is it possible never to forget a thing we are told?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Leo Lionni's Pezzettino is the story of the small Pezzettino (which means "little piece" in Italian), who is a small orange square surrounded by other beings who are all made up of many different-colored squares. Pezzettino observes that everyone around him is "big and [does] daring and wonderful things." He concludes that he must be a little piece of someone else, and he sets out to discover whose little piece he is. He talks with many other creatures, asking if he is their little piece, and all of them respond that they couldn't be themselves if they had a piece missing.

Eventually, Pezzettino ends up on an island of pebbles. Tumbling down the rocks and breaking into pieces, he realizes that he too is made up of little pieces. Pezzettino makes sure he has all the pieces of himself back together, and then hurries home and joyfully announces to his friends, "I am myself!"

What makes an individual that person? Are we the sum of our parts? If you lose a piece of yourself, are you still you? What is the relationship between our bodies and who we are?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Fourth Grade Students on Plato

I had an interesting conversation about Plato's Ring of Gyges story with the fourth grade class I've been teaching at John Muir Elementary School. As is my usual practice, I read the students the story and we began talking about what they would do if they had a ring that allowed them to become invisible, and whether the character Glaucon is right when he contends that people act morally only because they are afraid of the consequences if they don't.

We talked about many issues, including whether people might choose to do good things with the ring that they could not easily do otherwise (for instance, the students suggested, helping people who would be embarrassed to know you were helping them, or helping solve crimes). The students commented that sometimes we do good things without wanting recognition (like giving money anonymously to charity). Several reflected that they wouldn't do bad things, even if they couldn't get caught, because they would feel badly inside. "It just isn't the kind of person I want to be," one student said, "and even if no one else knew what I had done, I would know."

The students also discussed whether the ring would end up isolating you from other people because you wouldn't be able to let people know you had it. Some students concluded that they would not want the ring, because they would be afraid it would change them and their lives in ways they wouldn't choose.

We then got into a conversation about whether being invisible would really protect you completely from the potential consequences of your actions. One student proposed what I thought was a particularly interesting idea. He noted that being invisible keeps you from being seen, but does not keep you from being perceived in other ways (he noted, for example, that you could brush up against someone and they would feel your presence, or someone might hear you), and so there is some chance that you could be caught engaging in bad acts, even if you're invisible at the time. What if, he asked, instead of making you invisible, the ring of Gyges made you imperceptible? Not only couldn't you be seen, he explained, but you couldn't be touched or heard and you would lack any perceptible scent. But, he reflected as he was thinking this idea through, would you then still exist? If you aren't able to be perceived, he questioned, then are you still a person?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Let's Do Nothing!

Let's Do Nothing by Toby Fucile illustrates the perplexity of the concept of nothing. The book tells the story of two boys who, after concluding that they have "done it all," decide to do nothing.

The trouble is that doing nothing is not easy. If you blink, you're not doing nothing. If you open your eyes, you're not doing nothing, but if you close them, you're not doing nothing. Finally the boys conclude, "There is no way to do nothing."

What do we mean when we say we are doing nothing? What would it mean to do nothing? Is it impossible to do nothing if you're alive?What exactly is nothing?  Can "nothing" exist?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Hole

In The Hole by Øyvind Torseter, a man is moving into a new home, and he notices a hole in the apartment. The hole seems to move around, appearing in a wall, on the floor, in a door, etc. 

The man makes a phone call, saying, "I've found a hole . . . in my apartment . . . it keeps moving . . . take it with me . . . to you?" Attempting to capture the hole in a box, he heads out the door with the box and takes it to a lab for tests. 

The book has a die-cut hole that runs through the entire book, and in every page the hole is part of the story.

Are holes part of the world? Are they physical objects? What are they made of? If they're made of nothing, how do we perceive them? What makes something a hole? Does it have a shape? Do holes really exist? If you fill a hole, is it no longer a hole?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Black Dog

Levi Pinfold's Black Dog tells the story of a black dog that arrives outside a family's home one morning. The father in the family wakes up first and calls the police, reporting that, “There’s a black dog the size of a tiger outside my house!” The police officer tells him not to go outside. The mother wakes up next, and yells to her husband that, “There’s a black dog the size of an elephant outside!” One by one, the other family members wake up and cower at the sight of the huge black dog.

Finally, the youngest member of the family, called Small (“for short”) wakes up and sees that her whole family is hiding from the black dog. “You are such sillies,” she says, and opens the front door to confront the black dog.

Small then starts running, telling the black dog that if he's going to eat her, he has to catch her first. The dog follows her, appearing to shrink along the way. By the end of the chase, the dog, no longer looking very big, follows Small into the house. The family members all notice that the dog "was neither as huge nor as scary as they had feared," and they comment about how brave Small had been to face up to the dog. 

"There was nothing to be scared of, you know," replied Small.

The story is philosophically interesting in a variety of ways, involving questions about ethics, metaphysics and epistemology, among others. Was Small brave to confront the dog? Did she see him differently than the rest of her family saw him? Why did Small believe that there was nothing to be scared of? Does bravery mean not being afraid? What makes us afraid? What is the connection between bravery and fear? Can the way we see things change them? Can it change us?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Am the Dog

Daniel Manus Pinkwater's I Am the Dog tells the story of Jacob, a boy, and his dog Max. One day they decide to change places. Jacob eats from a bowl on the floor while Max eats at the table with the family. Jacob runs around the yard while Max goes to school. Max does homework while Jacob snoozes on the floor. The next day, Jacob returns to being a boy and Max to being a dog. "That's how things are supposed to be." But, Jacob notes, they both learned that "being a dog is better."

What makes a boy a boy? A dog a dog? Can a person change places with a dog? Is it better to be a dog than a human being? Do dogs eat off the floor and run around the yard because that is their nature? Can this be changed? Does it seem strange for a human to eat off the floor and run around the yard, and, if so, why?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Favorite Daughter

Allen Say's picture book The Favorite Daughter is dedicated to his daughter. It's the story of Yuriko, who is half Japanese. She is upset when other children make fun of her name and tease her about a photo of her wearing a kimono because she has blond hair. Her art teacher mispronounces her name, calling her "Eureka." Yuriko decides she wants to change her name to Michelle, but after she and her father visit a Japanese restaurant and the Japanese Garden at Golden Gate Park, Yuriko begins to appreciate her uniqueness.

The lovely watercolor and pen and ink illustrations and the emotional expressiveness of Say writing about his daughter enhance the appeal of this book to children, and the story raises a range of interesting philosophical questions. What is the significance of a name? How do our names identify and define us? What makes up our cultural identity? Can it change? What does it mean to be part of a community? Can we be unique individuals and belong to a group at the same time?