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?"