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?"