Thursday, October 18, 2018

Children and Wonder

In the book I'm currently writing, I have been working on a chapter about children's particular strengths. Our society generally has such a deficit view of childhood, but children also exhibit abilities that adults often strive to recapture. To point out a few examples, children tend to have a strong sense of wonder, vibrant imaginative capacities, a heightened awareness of the world around us, and an ease with vulnerability. As adults, we work to cultivate these childlike qualities, to keep alive our wondering, questioning selves, nurture our imaginative capacities, pay more focused attention in our daily lives, and to be more open to genuine encounters with others. Yet we don’t seem to recognize that children are sources of wisdom for revitalizing these aspects of ourselves.

Children exhibit a capacious capacity for wonder, viewing the world through new eyes and appreciating the mysteries at the heart of life. A strong sense of wonder leads to a willingness to be surprised, to approach the world with a sense of astonishment. This is sometimes referred to as “beginner’s mind,” where we see what is around us with a fresh perspective. Watch a four-year-old in a spring garden, looking with wide eyes at flowers growing out of the ground.  Or listen to the "why?" questions of a five year old, seeking to understand the world around her.

Search “childlike wonder” online and you will find thousands of pages devoted to helping adults “regain their childlike wonder.” Few of these pages, however, suggest that adults should seek the help of children. Yet children often are experts in viewing what is around them, even the simplest things, with wonder.

When wonder is articulated, it is often through questions, and children’s questions demonstrate a keen awareness of life’s preciousness and fragility. When I recently asked groups of nine and ten year old students what they thought were life’s most important questions, their responses included:

Why are we alive?
Who made God?
Is there a universe beyond the universe?
What happens when we die?
Could the world ever end?
What will happen to the world in 20 years?
What makes someone love you?
What is the right thing to do?
Will I be what I want to be when I grow up?
Do my friends like me?
What is space made of?
What is the meaning of life?
Do I matter?
Will people remember me?

I will be writing posts here much less frequently this academic year, as I am trying to get this book written!

Friday, June 22, 2018

What is dessert?

Last week I led two end-of-the-year philosophy sessions. One of the activities I like to do as a last session for the year is a prompt that encourages students to think about what is required for something to count as a dessert. It's fun, and also is a reminder that philosophical questions can be found in the most ordinary activities.

I typically bring in some sweet treats (cupcakes, cookies, etc.) and distribute them to the students. Then I ask them, "Is this dessert?"

In both classes last week, some of the students said the cookies were dessert, because they were sweet. Other students claimed that the cookies were not dessert, because they were not eaten after a meal. Sweets not eaten after a meal, several students asserted, were "treats," not dessert.

What makes a dessert a dessert?

Some students think that it is the kind of food that matters -- only certain foods count as dessert, because dessert requires sugar, most say. Other students argue that any food can be a dessert, as long as it is a treat at the end of a meal. In one class, I asked the students to imagine that they invited me for dinner and asked me to bring dessert, and I brought brussels sprouts because I like them and they are a treat for me. What would they think?

This led to a conversation about the difference between what we might like as a dessert and what is commonly understood by the term 'dessert.' We agreed that usually when people ask you to bring dessert, they are asking for something sweet. But does that mean that all desserts have to be sweet? Or eaten at a certain time?

In one of the classes, we went around the room and students stated their favorite desserts or desserts they liked. At the end, I asked whether the students thought that desserts were important.

One student claimed that dessert is like "coffee for kids," because "it packs us with energy, but after a while it makes us tired." Another student stated that, "It's not good for your teeth, or your health, so it's not important. It's not really needed in the world."

Several students disagreed. "It is important," said one student. "You need food to taste good, so dessert is important. It's important to have good tasting food."

"It makes me happy because it tastes good," offered another student.

"I think it can be like a way for people to escape, like a drug. It could lead to obesity and heart attacks. If it makes you happy and you go on eating, then it will stop making you happy."

"I don't think dessert makes you happy. It's a filler for other interesting things. It makes you happy but you could do something else to make you happy."

"Sweets don't make you happy because the happiness is already inside you. Happy is a neutral state, how you are if you aren't sad or angry. You can't make yourself happy, you just are happy, or not."

"I disagree. I think that part of the reason dessert does make you happy is because we don't always eat it. If we had it all the time, we wouldn't look forward to it. The specialness of it is what makes us happy."

Finding perplexity in the everyday is one of the things I hope students take away from their involvement in philosophy classes.

This will be my last post for the school year. Back in the fall!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Silence and Philosophy

The traditional model for philosophy sessions in schools involves verbal communication, typically in the form of large group conversations, often in a circle. While this method of leading philosophy sessions has much to offer, not every student is immediately comfortable with this approach. The larger the class size, for example, the more challenging this model can be for many students, especially at the inception of a philosophy program.

Alternatives to large group discussions can inspire more students to engage in philosophical inquiry. Philosophy discussion can start with small group work or turn and talk” exchanges (in which pairs of students share their reactions to a prompt with each other). The use of silent discussions” is a structure in which students communicate solely in writing, which gives students who are less comfortable with the give-and-take of a fast-moving verbal philosophical discussion access to a philosophical exchange that proceeds more slowly and deliberately. Bringing in art, music, movement, and games can help reach a wide variety of learners.

What constitutes participation in a philosophy session? Should we expand our understanding of what counts as participation? Are there avenues for students to participate silently? Can active listening count as participation? How do we view the silence of students?

When a student is silent, there are likely to be multiple reasons for that silence – personal, social and cultural. Given this, rather than making assumptions for why a particular student is not participating verbally in discussions, the facilitator can approach silence as an inevitable aspect of philosophy sessions, and ensure that the range of options for participation demonstrates attentiveness to the multiplicity of student communication styles.

Three approaches in particular can be useful for responding to silence. 

First, the group can understand silence as a powerful aspect of a philosophical discussion. When the facilitator allows silence to linger, this makes space for students who are not the first to jump in to fill that space with speech and allows for the development of a collective comfort with silence as part of inquiry. 

Second, the nature of silence can be a subject for philosophical investigation with students. Ask students about how and when participation can occur through silence, inquire about the meaning of silence, and analyze the differences between choosing silence and being silenced. 

Finally, silence, involving listening and reflection, can be understood as one form of participation in the classroom experience. When silence is accepted as a form of participation, space opens up for more students to engage with philosophical topics. A student in one of my classes commented, This is the first class I’ve ever been in where I didn’t feel uncomfortable about being quiet most of the time and where I really wanted to speak when I did.”

When students who need more time for reflection before speaking have a choice whether to participate verbally, this allows them to take that time. This does not mean, however, that we allow students to disengage from what is happening or that we accept student invisibility. Silence as a form of participation must be coupled with related strategies that encourage and support a wide range of participation styles, including various small group practices. 

Another effective strategy is to employ writing as a regular part of philosophy sessions, particularly in third grade and up, while utilizing art in earlier grades. The use, for example, of philosophy journals as places for students to record their questions and reflect about texts and class discussions is an effective way to take into account varying student communication styles. Writing provides a comfortable means of expression for students less comfortable with speaking in large groups, with the classroom’s dominant language, and/or with the pace of fast-moving philosophical discussions. The quiet space that journal writing creates also gives students time to grow comfortable with the give-and-take of a philosophy discussion. From time to time, the philosophy teacher can collect the journals and respond in writing to students directly, providing another means of developing trust and furthering philosophical conversation with individual students.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Blind Painter

The "Blind Painter" activity, created by my colleague David Shapiro, is a creative and engaging exercise that always inspires a lively conversation and is a great tool for building community. The activity focuses on two key skills, both important for doing philosophy  clear communication and active listening. 

When we do philosophy, it’s very important that we learn to express ourselves with clarity, to say what we mean in a way that others can understand us. It’s also vital that we listen actively: we need to ask questions when we don’t understand, to rephrase and restate what others say, and to try to really listen to what others have to say in order to advance mutual understanding.

To start the activity, pair students up, and then have them arrange their chairs back-to-back so that one of the members of the pair faces the board and the other faces away. The student who faces away from the board needs to have a surface to draw on (usually a notebook), a blank piece of paper, and something to draw with. A crayon or marker is ideal since students will eventually display what they draw to their classmates, so something bright and easy to see from across a classroom works best.

The explanation of the exercise goes something like this: “This exercise is called ‘Blind Painter.’ It helps us to communicate more clearly and to be better, more active listeners. The way it works is that the one of you facing away from the board is a painter, but you are blind to everything except what you are painting. The good news is you have a set of eyes to help you, your partner. I am going to draw a picture on the board and you, the painter, are to try to recreate it. However, you can’t look at what I’m drawing; only your “eyes” can do that. Students who are the “eyes” will have to describe to your partners, the painters, what I’m drawing. You need to keep in mind two rules: first, the “eyes” cannot look at the painter's paper, and second, the painter cannot look at what I am drawing. Consequently, you both will have to use those two skills I mentioned — communicating clearly and active listening — in order to successfully complete your drawing.”

Note that students should feel comfortable engaging in a discussion with each other, but that they should do so in a kind of “stage whisper” since, with some many students talking simultaneously, the room can get pretty loud.

Commence drawing a picture on the board. Do so slowly, one or two lines at a time, so that the pairs of students can keep up. Monitor the process to make sure you don’t too far ahead of the students. Any picture is fine, but something simple works best, for example, a simple little scene with a house and a mountain and a tree.

When the drawing is completed, make a box around the whole picture to indicate that it’s finished. Invite the painters to take a look at what been drawn and for the pairs to see how close the painter's drawing is to the original. Ask all the painters to come to the front of the room and display their drawings. Then facilitate a question-and-answer session about what worked and what didn’t and how, perhaps, painters and “eyes” could do a better job of communicating and listening.

Typically, painters commend their “eyes” for giving precise instructions, especially for describing what to draw in terms of recognizable shapes, like triangles, squares, and easily identifiable objects like clouds and letters. The most common complaint is that their “eyes” gave confusing information in regards to the placement — right, left, up, or down — of items in the drawing. Brainstorm together about how to build upon what worked and improve upon what didn’t for the next go-round.

At the conclusion of this discussion, students get back into their pairs, with the former “eyes” now playing the role of painter and vice-versa. This time around, it’s interesting to draw a much less easy-to-follow drawing. (Usually, we draw a cartoon head, something like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson. Unlike the first drawing, this one doesn’t have easily identifiable objects like trees and houses. Typically, therefore, students have a far more difficult time of recreating the drawing.)

At the conclusion of this drawing, again invite the painters to compare their works to the one on the board. Ask them to come to the front of the room and again display what they’ve done. (Without fail, the drawings are more interesting this time around, even though they tend not to look very much like what was drawn on the board.)

At this point, lead a discussion about why this time around was so much trickier and what could have been done to make it easier for the painters to match the drawing on the board. (Sometimes, a discussion about the nature of art emerges here. Students often want to talk about whether the pieces in the second round — which admittedly look little like what was drawn on the board — aren’t, in fact, more interesting works of art than those in the first round.) Often students want to talk about whether or not a painter has “failed” if his or her artwork doesn’t match what the original picture. 

Occasionally, some students get very exercised about their drawing (or their partner’s) not looking like what the teacher has drawn. From time to time, this can lead to a rich discussion of whether or not it was fair that the second time was so much harder. A teacher might put this up for grabs as a topic to inquire about: is it fair that some people face harder challenges than others? If so, why? If not, why not? What if facing those challenges leads to superior outcomes (like more artistic drawings?) Would you rather be an expert at something simple or a novice at something complex?

The main thing that comes out of the discussion, though, is the value of communicating effectively. Students really do come to see how what they say can be interpreted and/or misinterpreted by someone else. And the connection to  philosophical discussion can therefore be made pretty easily.

The other point that is worth mentioning is that sometimes our best efforts to communicate effectively fail because we don’t really have the complete picture of what we’re trying to share with each other. This is illustrated pretty well by the second round of the exercise. Because what is being illustrated doesn’t really become obvious until the artist is finished — that is, it doesn’t really look like the head of Fred Flintstone until the last few marks are made — it’s hard for us to communicate what we’re seeing. Had a set of “eyes,” though, for instance, waited until the drawing was done and then told his or her painter to draw a cartoon head of Fred Flintstone, the drawing might have come out much closer to what was put on the board. Students tend to understand appreciate this point and are able to see the connection to the study of philosophy quite easily. But just in case, it’s worthwhile making that point explicitly: philosophy is like this  sometimes it doesn’t make sense until we get to the very end. We have to be willing to ‘live in the question’ and allow the whole picture to emerge. Then, when we’re all finished, we can look back at what we’ve done and understand what it all meant.
Again, having done philosophy even just a couple of times, students will recognize this dynamic and appreciate how familiar it is to the practice of philosophical inquiry.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Being Alone and Being Lonely

I decided to write about another of Arnold Lobels' Frog and Toad stories today. Along with being joyful and charming, Lobel's work is, in my estimation, among the most deeply philosophical of any children's book author. 

In "Alone," a story in Days With Frog and ToadToad shows up at Frog's house to find a note on Frog's front door that reads, “Dear Toad, I am not at home. I went out. I want to be alone.” Toad starts to worry that Frog is sad and needs cheering up, and then begins to question whether Frog's desire to be alone means that Frog no longer wants to be his friend. When he finds Frog, Frog tells Toad that in fact he is very happy and just wanted to be alone to think about how fine everything is, including having Toad for a friend.

The story raises questions about the relationship between loneliness and being alone. Are we always lonely when we're alone? Does being lonely require being alone? What does it mean to be lonely? Is loneliness an emotion? What is the relationship between loneliness and sadness? Does friendship benefit from friends wanting time alone?  Can loneliness actually be worse when we are with other people than when we are alone?

I talked with a group of fourth grade students recently about this story. Several commented that sometimes they do just want to be alone, but they were not sure that their friends always understand this.

"I think sometimes people like being alone to think about their friends. Maybe Frog just wanted to think about how good a friend Toad is."

"I think that you don't always want to be with your friends, and sometimes you want to think about like, how you and your friend met, and you want to be alone to think about those things. I can understand how Frog felt."

One student observed that though we think it's kind of funny that Toad reacts so strongly to Frog wanting time alone, that actually when a friend tells us that he or she wants to be alone, it "might make you feel a little bad, like you did something wrong." And other students noted that you can have a variety of motivations for saying you want to be alone -- that "sometimes you really do just want to be alone," but other times "you say you want to be alone, but you really want someone to check in with you because maybe you're feeling sad."

"The difference between being alone and being lonely is the difference between being alone because you want to be alone, you're trying to be alone, and being alone because you don't have someone to talk to and you are looking for someone to talk to."

"But sometimes you can be lonely and not want to talk to anyone else at all."

"If you want to be alone, you want to be alone, to have time to yourself. If you're lonely,  you have no option to ask someone to play with you. There's no one, really. There's people, but you feel like no one really cares about you or want to play with you."

"Being lonely can be being in a situation where everyone else seems to know each other and you feel on the outside."

"Sometimes I feel when there's people around me, I don't want to be with them, because I feel sad. I think that you're often sad when you're lonely." 

"You can feel lonely and scared too, without actually feeling sad. Like you just got scared by something and you don't really want to be around anyone, but you're not sad, you're just scared and trying to calm down."

"Or you can be lonely and mad. Like you got in a fight with a friend and you feel really lonely and angry, but not really sad."

"Sometimes I feel lonely and not sad, maybe just confused and a little awkward. Like when you are with people who aren't getting along. Or you don't really know the people you're with."

"I think you can be lonely without feeling another emotion. Say you were in a different place and everyone was speaking a different language. So you feel lonely, but just that, not really another emotion."

"Normally if you're lonely it's for a reason. Your friends are mad at you, you don't know anyone, or some other situation that causes you to feel lonely."

"Sometimes when I'm lonely I just feel not involved in things."

"I think lonely is a short-term feeling. Usually it lasts for a little while. Unless you are too scared to fix it, like when you have a fight with your friend, and you figure it out."

"Lonely is when you're with other people, but you don't feel like they know you're there."

Monday, April 9, 2018

Children's Perspectives on Childhood

Last month I had a conversation with a group of fifth grade students about the differences between children and adults, including whether they would prefer to be children or adults. We began with the students discussing what they saw as the main differences between being a child and being an adult.

The children contended that children, on the one hand, have less worries, more free time, fewer responsibilities, and less choice about how to spend their time. Adults, on the other hand, have greater responsibilities and obligations to take care of other people, but more freedom and choice. The conversation then led to an examination of the differences between adults and children in making decisions.

One student noted that "parents protect you from bad decisions."

"Some parents," responded another student. "Some adults make bad decisions, like drinking and smoking, and don't treat their kids well."

"But many adults do make good decisions. They have more knowledge in some things and so are better able to make good decisions."

"But really the ones with the most knowledge are babies. They see that they have the potential to do anything."

"But if you're a baby or a child, you don't have to take care of yourself. Adults do that for you."

"And some parents want their children to do better than them, so they help them to make good decisions."

"Babies are the future you. The future generation. So it's natural for adults to want to help babies and children."

“Not always. My father isn’t interested in helping me. I can see that he loves my brother way more than he cares about me.”

“Some adults don’t want to help children, because they are more focused on themselves.”

"But when you're an adult, you get to decide how to spend your time and make choices about lots of things. Kids sometimes can't even decide the smallest things, like what to eat."

"If you don't have the freedom to make your own decisions as a child, how will you learn to make good decisions as an adult?"

"But sometimes you're asked to make decisions that you shouldn't have to make. Like my parents asked me to choose if I wanted to be with my dad or my mom when they got divorced."

"I think that adults can be more likely to make bad decisions, because they have access to things kids can't get. And some adults don't want to help children make good decisions, because they are more focused on themselves."

"I think that children sometimes can make better decisions than adults. They're more likely not to be influenced by their friends. Adults care so much about what other people think. Children are more themselves."

"We are talking about children and adults, but what is a child? When do you become an adult?"

"At 18."

"I don't know. I mean, you are always someone's child, right? And if you're a parent, you are always going to love your child and think of them as your child, no matter how old they are."

"I think that childhood never stops."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

I mean, we are always in childhood. We become who we are in childhood. When you're an adult, you're just an older child."

"I agree. We are always the same people we were when we were born. Baby to death, still the same person."

"When you think about it, childhood and adulthood are just ideas people thought of and then they put boundaries around these names to create something that isn't actually real. There really is no such thing as 'being a child' or 'being an adult.' They're just labels. We're all people."

"I agree. We are always growing and changing. Why do we think there's such a big difference between children and adults?"

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Gardening and Some Philosophical Questions

"The Garden" in Frog and Toad Together is another of Arnold Lobel's delightful stories about the friends Frog and Toad, and one that is perfect for the early spring, which we're experiencing in Seattle this month, with the cherry trees in full blossom.

When Toad sees Frog’s beautiful garden, Toad decides that he too would like to have a garden. Frog tells Toad that a garden is hard work, and gives Toad some flower seeds to plant. After Toad plants the seeds, he tells them to start growing, and when they do not do so immediately, he shouts to the ground that the seeds should start growing—but this still doesn’t work. 

Frog suggests that Toad is frightening the seeds with all the shouting, and tells Frog to leave the seeds alone for a few days. That night Toad observes that the seeds have still not begun to grow, and he worries that they are afraid of the dark. Toad begins experimenting with reading stories and poems to the seeds and playing music for them. Still, the seeds do not grow. Eventually, Toad falls asleep, and when he wakes up he sees that the seeds have started to grow. He is very happy that his "seeds have stopped being afraid to grow." Toad then reports to Frog that Frog was right, growing a garden is “very hard work.”

How do we know if we what do affects anyone or anything else?
If B occurs after A, does this mean that A caused B? Why or why not? 
Toad says that Frog’s garden is beautiful. What makes a garden beautiful or not beautiful?
Is nature beautiful in the same way that for example, music and art are beautiful?
Frog tells Toad that the seeds are “afraid to grow” after Toad yells at the seeds. What might Frog mean by this?
Is Toad more invested in his garden after all his work, even if his work didn't cause the seeds to grow? Do things matter more to us if we've worked hard for them than if they just come to us? Why or why not?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Being a Friend

Last week I was in a fourth grade classroom and we read the story The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, a picture book I've written about previously in this blog. We started our discussion with a question asked by one of the students about why Brian thought he was invisible. This students wondered whether Brian should have tried harder to make friends.

"You can't expect other people always to ask you to play. Sometimes you have to speak up. Like in the kickball game, why didn't Brian ask to play?" asked a student.

"Maybe he is really shy, and that's why he feels invisible."

"I think he feels invisible because no one talks to him and he is always alone."

"I don't understand why the other kids don't talk to him. I mean, everybody is the same, so why don't they like him?"

"Is everybody the same?" I asked. "Don't we see different things in different people, and have preferences for certain people rather than others?"

"Yes," a student responded. "Some kids are more our friends than other kids. We want to be with some people more."

"I think it's about giving people a chance," suggested another student. "When I first came to the school, Kelsey and Ellen invited me into their group, and that made me feel really good, and they are now my best friends."

"I had something different happen to me. I was friends with three people, and I got them together, and now they never play with me. When I ask to play with them, they say they already have their game and maybe next time. But they never say yes."

"Should people be required to say yes?" I asked. "In one school, there was a rule, 'You can't say you can't play.' So if a kid asked to play, you had to say yes. Do you think that's a good rule?"

There was a chorus of "No!"

"Why not?" I asked.

"You have the right to choose who you want to play with and who you want to be friends with."

"Sometimes you just want to be with one other person to talk about something, and you don't want other people to join."

"And sometimes a group can be too big. If there are too many people who want to play, I just stop playing because it is too much for me. I like to be just with one or two other people."

"I think if you have too many friends you really don't have any friends. You can't be friends with everyone. That's not real friendship."

"What is real friendship? I asked.

"Someone is your friend if you have a lot in common with them and you spend a lot of time together."

"Do you have to spend a lot of time with someone for that person to be your friend?" I asked.

"I don't think so," replied a different student. "My best friend lives far away and I only get to see her once or twice a year."

"What makes her your best friend, if it's not seeing each other a lot?" I asked.

"We have a lot in common and we like to share things with each other, like our thoughts and feelings."

"I have a friend who lives far away too. I don't get to see him very often, but we have been friends our whole lives."

"So can having a history together be part of friendship?" I asked.

"Definitely. My sister's best friend lives in China and she only gets to see her in the summer. But they have lots of things they like to do together and lots of memories together."

 "I think that being a friend means that we don't always have to have our own way. Like if I want to play something and she doesn't, we try to find something else we both want to do. Or sometimes we will do something we're don't really want to do because the other person wants to."

"I know what you mean. I have this one friend, and she always wants to control everything. We have to play whatever she wants."

"Does that make you wonder about whether she is a good friend?" I asked.

"Yes. I mean, I like being with her, sometimes, but I get tired of her always having to have her own way."

"I think that wanting to do what your friend wants to do is part of being a friend. It makes you want to be around someone if you know they care about what you want."

"I think that really friendship isn't about having things in common or playing together. I think it's about trust. I trust my friends not to tell other people things I tell them. And if I ask a friend to take care of something for me, I know he will. Trust matters the most."

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Listening (or Not Listening) to Children

From an editorial in the Wall Street Journal yesterday entitled "Our Childish Gun Debate," by William McGurn:
Quick show of hands for those with children: How many of you look to your teens for political wisdom, whether it’s the daughter obsessing over her Snapchat streaks or the son who would spend his day eating Doritos and binge-gaming “Grand Theft Auto” if you let him?
Writing about the recent mass shootings at a Florida high school and the call for more gun regulations in its aftermath, led primarily by high school student survivors,  McGurn claims that the current public debate is being governed by two principles, "the important thing is to do something," and "we ought to look to high schoolers for the answer," and contends that what we really need is an honest debate about the issues that isn't founded on an emotional response to a tragedy.

McGurn has a point about the need for an honest and reasoned debate, but what strikes me about his editorial is the ease with which he rejects teenagers as potential contributors to an important public discussion  not because of what they are saying, but because they are teenagers. Not all (or, in my experience, most) teenagers are "obsessed over Snapchat streaks" or "would spend the day eating Doritos and binge-gaming." And even if they were, should these activities bar them from contributing  thoughtfully to trying to solve a significant social problem? If an adult spends most of his or her time obsessing about fashion, or football, or Facebook posts, does that adult forfeit the right to be heard on serious public issues? Of course not. Yet we are comfortable discounting young people's voices solely on the basis of their ages, and denigrating the ways they spend their time and the things that matter to them, in ways we would not treat adults.

One of the great unexamined assumptions in contemporary life is the view that children and youth, because of their "developmental stages," are less worthy of being considered full members of the human community. We readily define young people only by their ages, as if being a fourteen year old, for instance, tells you everything that is important about a particular child. This is very much an example of the "danger of a single story" that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in a 2009 TED Talk, in which she describes the stereotypes that take hold when complex human beings are reduced to a "single story" (for example, "She is an immigrant," "He is from Africa," etc.), as if that one narrative takes full account of what you need to know about another person.

Children and teenagers are more than their ages. I have been inspired by the young people in Florida and around the country who have reacted to this latest school massacre with passion, courage, and determination. This is not to say that everything they assert should be accepted uncritically. Far from it. To take someone seriously means to engage in a genuine way with what they are claimng, not to accept it without analysis. But that is a very different approach than dismissing what the students are saying just because it is them who are saying it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How Should Our City Be Designed?

A recent article described the ways in which many cities are not child-friendly, examining some of the possibilities for designing cities around urban children and their needs and desires. It led me to think about ways to engage children in thinking about their environments and imagining the elements of what would be in their views an ideal city. 

One approach would start with children considering their neighborhoods, which are smaller and more approachable spaces than trying to think about an entire city. Ask the children to draw pictures of their neighborhoods, making the drawings as detailed as possible. Then, for 3rd or 4th grade students and older, ask them to look at their completed drawings and make two lists, one list the things they most like about their neighborhoods and the other the things they like least. 

Have the students share, in groups or as one large group, their drawings and thoughts, and, for the older students, their lists.

Next, ask the students to draw pictures of what their neighborhoods would look like if they could design them. Again, ask them to make these drawings as detailed as possible. Then have them share these drawings and engage in a discussion about the most important things an ideal neighborhood would include. Some questions you might ask include:
  • What makes a neighborhood a good neighborhood?
  • What public features would you want your neighborhood to have (for example, accessible bus routes, subways, parks, recreations centers, play spaces, museums, sidewalks, open spaces)? 
  • What types of homes and businesses would you want there to be? 
  • How would you prefer to get around your neighborhood and city? Would you like to be able to walk, skateboard, bike,  take public transportation, or be driven around? 
  • What is the  most important thing a good neighborhood should have?
If desired, this activity could then move into a larger scale project involving designing a child-friendly city, and perhaps to some local advocacy around these issues.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Seen and Not Heard

I am working on a new book, Seen and Not Heard, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield next year. The book considers the ways in which children, with a particular focus on children ages 5-12, are often not listened to, not take seriously, because of their status as children, and how life might be different if this were no longer the case. 

It seems to me that in the United States today, one of the last surviving almost universally acceptable prejudices is ageism — negative assumptions made about younger and older people based on their ages. Felt in a wide range of life situations, ageism manifests in, among other things, discriminatory practices, lack of or diminished autonomy, derogatory attitudes, and violence and neglect. One consequence of ageism is that what people of particular ages have to say is often ignored, patronized, or denigrated. 

This is a fact of life for most children.

Our attitudes toward children are, in fact, quite characteristic of judgments that have historically been made about many groups of people labeled as "inferior" in some way; not too long ago, for example, women were generally considered intellectually deficient and incapable of analyzing difficult and complex issues  and, therefore, not worthy of being heard. Sometimes when I hear an adult comment in a condescending way about a thoughtful remark made by a child — "Oh, that's so cute!" — I imagine how I would feel if that was the predominant response to speech by adult women.

Over the past 20-plus years, I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time listening to elementary school age children. To their thoughts and questions on a wide range of topics, including justice and fairness, art and beauty, goodness, identity, happiness, the environment, friendship, and life and death. It is constantly surprising to me that many adults don't see children as capable of taking on serious and complex topics, when in my experience they are so reliably eager to do so and so capable at it. One of the strengths children bring to the examination of the kinds of big questions they like to explore is a willingness to look straightforwardly at their own experiences and express candidly what they see, and to think imaginatively and openly about possible new ways to understand the world in which we live.

How might society be altered if adults recognized children as people capable of seeing clearly and contributing valuable insights about challenging issues? I believe that listening to children’s perspectives on issues such as justice, ethics, childhood, and death have the potential to both enrich children’s lives and enlarge our societal thinking about many important topics. If we really heard children, if we accorded them the respect due to people trying to think clearly and well about serious problems, in what ways might that change our world?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


"Books! And cleverness! There are more important things - friendship and bravery . . .”
Hermione, age 11
From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Learning to make friends and figuring out what friendship involves is a significant part of the work of children, and once they enter school they spend more and more of their waking experience with their friends, in a way most adults no longer do. Frequently children mention having friends as essential to happiness. From school age through young adulthood, young people are often focused on making and keeping friends, and their friendships often influence their lives in deep and complex ways. As a result, many children spend time thinking about what makes someone a good friend and the importance of having friends.

A nice activity for stimulating reflection and discussion about friendship appears in the textbook I co-authored, Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in SchoolsThe following description is adapted from the activity, which was created by Kelsey Satchel Kaul and Heather Van Wallendael when they were undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 


Begin by giving each student one index card and asking the students to draw, without using representations of people (including stick figures, faces, and the like), a creative representation of a good friendship. Have the students then discuss their drawings in small groups, with students explaining why their drawings represent good friendships.

Bring the students back together and ask them to consider the following question as a large group: “What makes a friendship a good friendship?” Have the students contribute answers to this question based on their drawings, and then ask them if they would add anything else to the list.

After this general list is established, move to more specific questions on the nature of a good friendship:

  • Be sure to give the students about 10 seconds to think of their answers in silence before asking for hands.
  • Be prepared to acknowledge that several traits on the board are related. It might be helpful to use different colored markers to connect different traits as related to one another. For example, students might identify “trust” as the underlying reason for “feels safe to be around.”
  • If students disagree, be sure to ask them to respond specifically to one another, giving reasons in support of their positions.

Question 1: Which of the qualities on the board might be the most important to a good friendship? Why? 
This question can lead to a discussion about what is necessary for a good friendship and what is sufficient for a good friendship.

Question 2: Which quality on the board might be the most detrimental if it were absent? Why?
This question focuses on what is sufficient for a good friendship.

Question 3: If you could have a friend that had all of the listed traits except for one, which trait would you leave out?
This question gets at the least important trait. It may be argued that the traits that seem least important may not be necessary (and certainly not sufficient) traits for a good friendship.

The three questions above should foster a full discussion, but if you have more time (or want to extend the discussion into another class period), you might also take up the following questions:

A. Can non-human animals be friends to us? Can they be friends to each other? 
Refer to the phrase "a dog is man's best friend." What does the phrase really mean? In what ways can dogs or other animals make for better or worse friends than people?
Ask the students to related their answers back to the qualities on the board.

B. Are there different kinds of friends?
This question can focus on the differences between friends who are, for example, family, family friends, social media friends, school friends, neighbors, etc. Answers will vary.
Are there qualities on the list that are more important for different kinds of friends than for others? For example, perhaps "having fun" is more important for school friends, while "commitment to working through problems"might be more important for sibling friends.

Concluding Activity

  • Ask the students to review the list of qualities on the board and write about one that they believe is a strength for them and one that is a weakness for them, and why. Let them know that this writing will not be shared with other students.
  • Ask the students to write about which quality on the board they think is most important, and why.