In our inaugural blog post, Dr. Claire Katz introduces a series of reflections written by five of her undergraduate students. In their posts, these students reflect on their experiences bringing P4C into local pre-college classrooms. Drawing upon their insight as both teachers and students, the group we lovingly refer to as our Five Fearless Philosophers provide a useful look inside the curriculum, as well as our programs.
Introduction, by Dr. Claire Katz:
In the spring 2017 semester, I embarked on an adventure with five fearless undergraduate students. Introducing pre-college philosophy to several groups of students in one of our local K-12 public schools, we discovered riches we could never have anticipated finding. Established in the 1970s by Matthew Lipman and Ann-Margaret Sharp, the Philosophy for Children curriculum was a response to what Lipman perceived as an ineffective and anti-democratic educational system.[i] Lipman discovered that even at a place like Columbia University, where he had been a professor, his students were unable to discuss volatile topics like the Vietnam War without the discussions becoming hostile and emotionally charged. He concluded that the habits of mind that allowed for philosophical thinking and reasoning needed to be developed at an earlier age. Convinced that pre-college students would benefit from an immersive introduction to the practice of philosophy, Lipman wrote a children’s novel, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, which became the centerpiece of the Philosophy for Children curriculum. The program, based primarily on John Dewey’s philosophy of education incorporates Charles Peirce’s concept of the community of inquiry as the cornerstone of philosophical discussion. The community of inquiry provides a space where the participants learn to trust each other not only to express themselves but also to help each other with their thinking, with their decision-making, and with the formation of judgment.[ii] What follows in this post is an account of what we learned these past few months.
Before I dive into the details of my experience with teaching philosophy for children at Harmony Science Academy, I would like to give some background information about myself and how it may have affected my perspective towards this experience. For starters, I’m a senior with a major in sociology and a minor in philosophy. This puts me in a bizarre position insofar as I’m able to reflect on the lessons I taught at Harmony Science Academy on two levels: philosophical and sociological. This point also means I need to add a small disclaimer: there may be some mixing between these different epistemological fields as I recount my experience.
I also wish to become a teacher. So throughout the entirety of this experience, I felt extremely conscious of my actions towards the 7th and 8th graders since I felt my career in teaching may depend on this experience. With that out of the way, I hope this sociologist has something interesting to share to everyone reading.
When I signed up to teach philosophy for children to fill in some credit hours for my course schedule, I only had a faint idea about what I got myself into. Prior to signing up, I had taken a course on “Philosophy of Education” taught by Dr. Katz during Fall 2016, and in this course, we went over one lesson plan that dealt with the ethics in the story of Lisa by Matthew Lipman. Thus, I imagined we would be teaching the 7th and 8th graders about Lisa. However, my peers and I ended up going a completely different route in how we set up our lesson plans. The content we focused on in these lesson plans included: 1) the ship of Theseus, 2) the prisoner’s dilemma, 3) Plato’s story of the ring of Gyges, 4) social media as a “form” of the ring of Gyges, and 5) a reality scavenger hunt. Likewise, we made sure to end every lesson plan with a meta-discussion on the content the students discussed about for the lesson and how it ties back into philosophy.
Despite the lesson plans being different from what I expected, I’m glad that we did something different as it highlighted how flexible pre-college philosophy can be. Teaching Lisa would have felt more comfortable for me. I would have been more comfortable moderating this philosophical inquiry since I had had some prior exposure to its content. In the end, I think having a wider variety of lesson plans proved better not only me but also for my peers. This isn’t to say that using Lisa would have been a bad idea; but there was some concern that we weren’t necessarily prepared or well-equipped to mediate the discussion without it getting out of hand. If we had an opportunity to teach more lesson plans for the students, I would definitely like to have visited Lisa now that I’ve become more comfortable at setting up a community of inquiry between the students.
Looking back on the lesson plans we did with the 7th and 8th graders, it’s hard for me to single out a single favorite activity or lesson. The students offered such profound responses with each activity. If I could single out my least favorite activity or lesson, it would have to be the activity we did on the Ship of Theseus with the 8th graders. Reflecting on why, I think this was because this was our first lesson. I felt my own lack of experience in trying to facilitate and generate discussion among the students. In order to accommodate the large group of students, we held the discussion in their gymnasium. The gym had poor acoustics, which made it hard to hear what some students had to say at times. However, despite these issues, there were memorable moments to be taken from that lesson.
For example, at one point we broke into small groups to discuss if the Ship of Theseus was the same ship or a different one. One of the students in my group named Ariel offered this observation: “Well, what about with people and plastic surgery? Aren’t people the same person even if they get plastic surgery?” Up to that point, I worried how I would get students to reach this level of discussion without having to prod them with question after question. To see Ariel have this response blew my mind, helping calm my worries for future discussions with my small discussion groups. Near the end of the lesson, one student raised the question of transgendered people when the discussion turned to people what it would mean for a person to be the same person even if they appeared to change completely. We didn’t have time to discuss this topic further, but it fascinates me how adolescents are capable of thinking about these types of controversial topics without having to worry about getting berated by their peers for bringing up the topic.
To continue this example further, when I began discussing the reality scavenger hunt lesson with the 8th graders on our final lesson plan, several students offered responses that are key themes in sociology. For the question of “Something that babies think is not real but is,” I had a student named Mickey say “Sexism.” Throughout the entire activity, one student named Quinn gave answers like “Society” or “Community” regarding the reality behind their nature as social structures created by people. I was struck by how capable these students were to reflect on contemporary issues in our own society.
Of course, I also can’t forget about my experience with the 7th graders. We were able to facilitate two discussions with them. Usually, we did the lesson first with the 8th grade and the repeated the same lesson with the 7th grade. Teaching the 7th grade students helped me see how teaching is a constantly evolving process that’s based on the students I’m teaching as well as my prior experiences with the subject matter. Based on what I learned from my experience with teaching the Ship of Theseus to the 8th graders, I made several changes to how I conducted my small group discussions with the 7th graders. For example, I would ask for their names and memorize them prior to our discussion since I didn’t like having to ask for a student’s name constantly like I did with the 8th graders originally. Doing this, I was able to create an atmosphere where the students knew that I care about them and what they have to say, which I felt my first discussion group lacked.
The 7th graders also gave me insight into the struggles of teaching to children coming from various backgrounds. When my peers and I held our lesson about the Ship of Theseus with the 7th graders in the cafeteria, we had to arrange how they were sitting to get them closer to each other so they could hear each other. However, we had two students who didn’t budge from their seats, likely due to some kind of emotional or tragic event happening recently for them. As fate would have it, one of these students became a part of my small discussion group. While the teacher said I didn’t need to get them to participate in the discussion as they will just listen in on our discussion, I felt extremely critical towards myself despite the helplessness of the situation. I still had a wonderful discussion about the ship of Theseus, but a part of me wishes I could have done more for the troubled student. Luckily, when we came in for the next lesson plan, both students participated willingly and seemed open to discussing philosophy.
Overall, I’m feel content and satisfied with how the teaching of philosophy to the students at Harmony Science Academy went. To help end this on a good note, the reaction I got from a 7th grader on their final lesson plan fills me with hope for my future in teaching. I believe her name was Alicia, and while I never got to have her in any of my small discussion groups, I could see her excitement when the lesson finished. For that lesson we had, we were discussing about the implications of social media in how the Plato’s ring of Gyges applies to how we display ourselves online. I noticed Alicia would get anxious at times, where she looked like she had something to really say at times. Finally, when she got called on, she brought up how people can “Facebook stalk” an individual by looking at all the posts they have on their profile. When the 7th graders began heading back to their class, Alicia came up to me to say how much she liked our philosophy lessons, which filled me with great joy to hear since she appeared to be one of the more quiet students in the big group discussions.
Hopefully when I become a teacher, I will be able to implement some of the ideas I’ve learned from teaching philosophy for children. Even if I don’t become a teacher in the near future, this experience has given me many wonderful opportunities to develop as not only as a teacher, but also as a philosopher.
Recently, I had a discussion with my parents about what we were doing at Harmony Academy. In my discussion with them, I went over the Ship of Theseus. After I told them the entirety of the story, my dad said it was the same ship because it had the same crew. However, my mom said it was a completely different ship because the parts are different. Despite being used outside the context of teaching children, I believe having the ability to facilitate a philosophical inquiry is an important life skill to have, especially in situations where disputes can easily get out of hand.
Stay tuned for further reflections from the Fearless Five.