Monday, November 21, 2016

Randall's Wall

Randall's Wall by Carol Fenner is a book for upper elementary school students about a young boy who lives inside an invisible wall, which protects him from the cruelty of his classmates. The wall also helps him from focusing on his abusive father and frail mother, and his house that lacks running water for bathing or doing laundry. The wall allows him to spend his time drawing and dreaming about a different kind of life. Then he makes a friend and things begin to change.

This moving and powerful story raises many ethical questions about the differences that divide people from one another and the assumptions we make about one another, the nature of empathy and its role in ethical behavior, social inequalities and education, and the walls we all carry around inside of us.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Elections and Normality

On Wednesday morning after Tuesday's election, I led my weekly philosophy session with a group of 5th grade students at John Muir Elementary School. The students are primarily immigrants and children of color. I knew that they would want to talk about the presidential election, and so I brought the book, The Araboolies of Liberty Street, which raises issues of justice, freedom, and community.

On Liberty street, all the houses are white and look the same. General Pinch and his wife, who live there, spent their days spying on all of their neighbors. They want their street to be quiet and for everything on it to look the same, and they hate fun of any kind. Whenever the kids play outside, the general immediately threatens to call the army. Then the Araboolies, a large extended family, move in next door to the Pinches. The General yells at the Araboolies and threatens to call in the army, but they don’t speak English so they don’t understand the general’s words. The Araboolies paint their house differently and behave in unconventional ways, and they pend a lot of their time having fun. In response, the general orders the army to attack the house on Liberty Street that looks different from all the others and to "get rid of the weirdos" that live there. But the neighborhood children paint all of the houses except the Pinches' house to look like the house of the Araboolies, so that the army only attacks the home of the Pinches and takes them away.

The question the students framed and wanted to discuss was, "What does normal mean? What would be more normal, a Trump or a Clinton Presidency?"

The ensuing conversation first focused on trying to determine what "being normal" involved. Is it being the same? One student suggested that because everyone is different in some ways from everyone else, there is no such thing as "normal." Another student responded that you could be different and normal at the same time -- for example, he said, you could be unique person and at the same time be "normal" in that you were 10 years old and in fifth grade. And he added that although every president is different, every person running for the office wants to be the president, and that's normal.

"But I don't think there is such a thing as a normal presidency," volunteered another student. "Every president is different. Whenever there's an election, it takes time to get used to the new president."

"But then that president feels normal to us," responded another child. "When Obama first became president, it wasn't normal to have a black president, but now it is."

"We think Trump isn't going to be a normal president," ventured a student, "because he has made so many mistakes and insulted so many people. But people want to be president to make the country better. So maybe once he is the president we will get used to him and maybe he will do some things to make the country better. So maybe Trump as president will end up being normal, even if it doesn't feel normal at the beginning."

The openness and trust in our system of government exhibited by the children is, I think, a very hopeful sign!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Looking Like Me

In our second session at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, we read the story Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers. In the story, a boy looks in the mirror and then talks with family, friends, and people he knows, in an effort to try to describe himself.

After we read the story, the students completed a form we created entitled "Who I Am," which has 10 different shapes to fill in 10 different aspects of themselves. Then we asked the students to decide, if they had to describe themselves using only three of these aspects, which three are the most important.

This led us into a conversation about what is essential to our identities and how we decide. Some of the questions the students asked included:
Do you have to do something a lot in order for it to qualify as part of your identity?
Do you have to like something in order for it to quality as part of your identity?
What about those parts of ourselves that we don't like very much?
Which parts of our identities do we choose? Which parts are chosen for us?
Are there infinite characteristics that make us who we are?

An exercise I have also used to help foster this discussion is to ask students the following (adapted from an activity developed by my colleague David Shapiro) -- we discuss each part before going on to the next part:
Write down something you know about yourself
Write down something you don't know about yourself
Write down something that pretty much everyone who knows you knows about you
Write down something that hardly anyone who knows you knows about you
Write down something people should know about you

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Do We Go to School?

I had an interesting discussion earlier this month with a group of 5th grade students from Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, about why we go to school.

Thurgood Marshall is an interesting and unusual school. It has a General Education program, which serves neighborhood students who are almost entirely students of color with about 70% qualifying for free and reduced price lunches, and is also one of the Seattle's hosts of the "Highly Capable Cohort (HCC)," which serves students who are mostly white and Asian, largely from middle to upper income families. These two programs have in the past been completely separate, and the school has for the past couple of years been working on ways to ensure that all the children have access to a rigorous and enriching education. Connecting the community and giving the students experiences working together is one of the school's goals.

As part of that, four of us from the Center for Philosophy for Children are leading philosophy discussions all year for all fifth grade students, approximately 125 children, in groups that are a mix of students from the General Education and HCC programs, with a focus on social justice and race issues. In my first session with the group I am leading, in a warm-up activity I asked the students to think a big thought.

"What is the meaning of life?" said one child.

"Why do we go to school?" said another.

"Why is that a big thought?" I asked.

"Because there are so many possible answers," he responded.

"And because we spend so much of our lives in school," added another student.

"So why do we go to school?" I asked.

This led to a long conversation that took up the entire hour we had together. One student suggested that we go to school to learn, but several students pointed out that we "are learning all the time," in and out of school. Another student remarked that there is a difference between learning and education, and that we go to school to be educated. We puzzled for awhile about what it meant to be educated, and several students contended that this was a more formal process than learning and that education, unlike learning, required teachers and certain requirements.

"Is getting an education important?" one student asked.

Several students said that getting an education helps you to decide what you want to do in life. One student argued that education would be better if you could focus on what you wanted to learn and what you needed to do what you thought you wanted to do in life, and another student responded that part of the job of school was to help you figure out what you wanted to do by introducing you to things about which you might not otherwise be aware.

A student then said that education wasn't the only reason to go to school. "There are social reasons too," she stated. "If you homeschool, you don't have to deal with kids you don't know and maybe don't like that much, but in school, you have to learn how to deal with all kinds of people."

"And on the bus," put in another child. "There are all kinds of annoying kids and you just have to learn to put up with them."

Then another student interjected, "What exactly makes a school, as school, anyway?"

We thought about that. One student suggested that a school was a place with lots of different people moving around, but I responded that this is also true of a train station. Other students suggested that school has to have teachers, but we also acknowledged that you can have teachers outside of school.

We ended the session by noting that we had begun by thinking about why we go to school, and eventually began reflecting about the very concept of school itself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What Do You Do With An Idea?

What Do You Do With An Idea? Written by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom, this charming picture book explores the nature of ideas and their role in our lives.

The story begins with a young boy, who has an idea. "Where did it come from?" he wonders. "Why is it here?" The idea at first seems "kind of small and fragile " like a small golden egg in the boy's colorless world. But it follows him everywhere. He can't get rid of it. The boy is afraid that his idea will not be liked by others, so he protects his idea and hides it. And people do make fun of his idea, and he "almost" listens to them.

But he realizes that he understands his idea better than anyone else, and he decides to nurture it. The idea grows and one day it "spread its wings  took flight, and burst into the sky."What do you do with an idea? The final line of the story is, "You change the world." 

This is a wonderful story to inspire discussions in classrooms or at home with your children. Some questions you might ask include:

Why was the boy embarrassed about his idea?
Why did it take the boy so long to share his idea?
Can ideas follow us around?
Where do ideas come from?
Do ideas add to our lives?
Can you imagine a world without ideas?

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Other Side

Jacqueline Woodson's picture book The Other Side begins as follows: "That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger." The story is narrated by Clover, who lives in a house on the side of the fence that separates the black townspeople from the whites in the town. Clover's mother tells her not to climb over the fence, because it isn't safe.

That summer Annie, a white girl Clover's age, begins sitting on the fence each day, by herself. When Clover and her friends are jumping rope, Annie asks if she can join, but one of Clover's friends, Sandra, says she can't. Clover recalls, "That summer everyone and everything on the other side of the fence seemed far away. When I asked my mama why, she said, 'Because that's the way things have always been.'"

Clover finds herself always looking for Annie sitting on the fence. One day she comes close to the fence and Annie asks her name, and they begin talking. Annie notes that the fence was made for sitting on. Clover responds that her mother had told her not to go on the other side, and Annie says that her mother says the same thing, but that she hadn't said anything about sitting on it, and the two girls begin sitting together on the fence. Clover's mother observes this, but doesn't tell Clover to stop sitting there, and one morning she notes, "I see you made a new friend." 

Eventually Annie and Clover ask Clover's friends if they can join them jumping rope, and Sandra replies, "I don't care." So Annie and Clover join the group of young black girls playing. When tired, they all sit on the fence together. 

The book ends with Annie saying, "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down," and Clover responding, "Yeah, someday."

The story's text and illustrations are ideal for raising questions about race and racial identity and about the ways in which small acts can lead to social change. The questions the story raises include:

Why did the fence stretch through the town?
Why wasn't it safe for Clover to climb over to the other side of the fence?
Why was it safe for Annie to climb over to Clover's side of the fence?
Why did Annie want to sit on the fence?
Were Clover and Annie friends?
Does race define a person? Is it an important part of our identity?
Why did Sandra say no when Annie wanted to join the jump rope game, but agreed to let Annie join them later that summer when she was with Clover?
What does the fence represent?
Are there many kinds of fences?

Monday, September 19, 2016

A New School Year

The school year is off to a busy start for the UW Center for Philosophy for Children! We will be hosting an event for parents on October 6 and are excited about the growth of our work with parents and family members to encourage and support children's philosophical thinking!

We are also planning regular philosophy sessions in, at this point, 10 different schools this fall. An example is John Muir Elementary School, where we have been building a strong philosophy program for six years. In 2013 at the school, the Center started the first Philosopher-in-Residence project in the Seattle School District. 

John Muir is a culturally diverse K-5 school in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, and many students there are among those least likely to have access to academic enrichment programs. We have been working closely with teachers and staff to bring philosophy into most of the school’s classrooms, and philosophy has been introduced into every grade level at the school. Center staff have facilitated several regular philosophy professional learning communities for teachers and staff at the school, and many John Muir teachers have attended at least one of the Center’s workshops.

“There are no barriers in our minds — we can think of anything." 
Third grade student, John Muir Elementary School

Some of our John Muir philosophy students are featured in this video about the Center's work:

I will be posting regularly again this fall!