Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Glimpse Into the Future? The philosophical Schooling Experience

For nearly a week I have been trying to find the words that could possibly capture what I experienced. I came to the realization that I cannot accurately describe what I witnessed, but I must try. This is my attempt to share my perspective of Kailua High School’s second annual Future Surfrider Day.

This event brings the 8th graders from the local intermediate schools on campus to get a glimpse of what KHS has to offer. As the Philosopher in Residence, my job is to create an experience that will introduce philosophy’s role on campus (take a look at our mission statement. I wonder how many schools strive to meet that aim?).

Rather than having the students sit and listen to me tell them about philosophy, I ask 25-30 upperclassmen to facilitate philosophical inquiries with these soon to be freshmen. We want the 8th graders to leave campus having done philosophy with our students. This group of “seasoned” high school philosophers is a wide-ranging and eclectic mix of students, but they have all shown a keen ability and interest in engaging in philosophical inquiry in their classes.

Last year’s experience went well, but philosophical inquiry was so new to the 8th graders that many of them lacked the confidence to offer any meaningful questions or insights. It was just too scary to put their ideas “out there” to a bunch of strangers. As a result, the questions they contemplated predominately came from the high school students, which worked out fine, but was not necessarily what we were hoping for. That changed this year.

Sadly, one of the intermediate schools was unable to attend this year’s Future Surfrider Day, but the school that did make it, Waimānalo Elementary and Intermediate School (WEIS), came ready to “dig deep” with our students. In the past year philosophy, specifically philosophy for children Hawai‘i, has become part of their campus life and this difference was noticeable as soon as the students entered the room. They were not taken back by the circular seating arrangement, the “community ball” that is used for turn taking, or when prompted to share something they liked about philosophy. For example, some of the students said they liked philosophy because:
  •  it can sometimes be so deep that I don’t want to stop!
  •  everyone gets to have a turn to share their ideas and questions.
  •  we get to hear ideas from somebody else’s opinion.
  •  you get to bond with your class and teacher.
  •  I like the feeling of being a family and trust towards one another.
  •  you get to think about important things that you never understood.
  •  you could have a question but never find THE answer to it. 
After some brief introductions and a review of intellectual safety, the prompt to initiate inquiry asked the students to share a question that they have wondered about. This simple direction was all these intermediate school philosophers needed to get going. Rather than wasting time on superficial questions, these students wanted to jump into inquiries concerning meaningful topics. They asked:
  • Is everyone a relative even when we have different last names?
  • Is it better to be famous and sad or alone and happy?
  • Why do people wait until someone is gone to care?
  • Why do upperclassmen look down on lowerclassmen?
  • Why do we kill people?
  • Why do people care about what other people think?
  • Why do we need philosophy?
  • What happens after you die?
  • How on earth can you judge someone by their looks?
  • What is the point of living when you die?
  • Why do we insist on making life complicated?
  • Why is it important to continue your education?
  • How come something really bad has to happen to people to make them be nice or stop bullying?
  • Why do rich people believe that since they have a lot of money that they are better than other people? 
  • Why do we still have discrimination?
  • What is reality?
  • Should I trust the people I love the most?
  • Are people wiser when they are younger or older?
  • Why is there pain in the world?

The inquiries these questions prompted set the room buzzing. There was an overlay of questions, examples, and shared experiences coming from each group. It was a philosophical medley that was being played by students of various ages who had only met minutes earlier. It was clear the intermediate students saw themselves as philosophers and possessed the skills and confidence that had been missing a year before. Our high school philosophers also demonstrated their growth as philosophers. This opportunity provided a context to truly show they have become real facilitators in their years on campus. They made sure to create an intellectually safe environment, continually encouraged the younger students to participate and take ownership of their ideas, and provided ongoing questions and examples to really push the thinking to the “deep end” of the proverbial philosophical pool.

This, in itself, was a profound moment for our school complex, but I did not understand the true profundity of what was occurring until after our inquiries had ended. As the high school students reflected on their experience a few themes emerged. 1. philosophical inquiry is personally meaningful; 2. They were jealous that they did not have the same opportunities to engage in philosophy prior to high school; 3. Facilitating a philosophical inquiry is much harder than it appears; 4. Students see the benefits philosophy will ultimately have in the communities they live in. Needless to say, it is an exciting time to be working in this school complex.

I could go on and on, but I wanted to share an overview of the story because it says a lot about philosophy and the students, teachers, and administration at these public schools. Something special is brewing in the islands. I saw a glimpse of what a K-12 philosophical schooling experience may “look” like and it was powerful. I want more of it. The students want more of it. Actually, we need more of it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What moves us to act in defiance of our reason?

I was in a fourth grade class today and they were having an inquiry concerning some recent developments during recess. Apparently, the teacher took away every sort of ball that is typically used on the playground (soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, kickballs, etc). I recall something similar happening to me in elementary school and I remember it being the worst punishment ever! However, what was different from my experience is that the teacher did not tell them the reasons the athletic balls were no longer available to them. Rather, she asked them to provide the reasons.

Hands immediately shot to the ceiling and students began sharing their perspectives with their peers. The students (29 in all) patiently listened to each other and waited for the “community ball” to come their way so they could also offer reasons for their punishment or build off of the ideas of others. Their keen awareness of the situation exposed their inability to follow the rules of the playground, which is what ultimately caused them to lose these privileges; they were slide tackling each other while playing soccer, playing tackle football, punting the ball over the fence when they lost, arguing about the rules, picking on each other, and not sharing with their classmates. In short, the games were causing them to turn into animals.

The depth of their insights surprised the teacher and me because many of their perspectives were not apparent to the adults in the room. The students quickly identified a laundry list of their inappropriate actions, but it occurred to me that this reflective awareness was not translating into informing their recess actions. I asked the students, “if we know that we should not be doing these things and treating each other this way on the playground, then what are the reasons we are still doing it?” Again, their hands pointed to the sky and what followed were a number of reasons to explain (and, in some instances, justify) their actions:
·      They choose not to do the right thing in order to get attention, even if it is negative attention.
·      Competition brings out the worst in them.
·      They get too caught up in the games they are playing.
·      “We don’t always think about our actions.”
·      When someone cheats, it causes a chain reaction of bad actions.

At this point, there were only a few minutes left of class, so we were not able to hear all of their ideas (they also began exploring the purpose of recess). If we had more time, this inquiry would have undoubtedly moved into looking beyond the playground and examining why we do things that we know are not right or that we know are bad for us?

This is why the activity of doing philosophy is so powerful; it provides people, especially children, with the tools, the confidence, and opportunities to dive into the examination of their own experiences. That being said, what are the reasons we continue to do things that we know are not “right”? What moves us to act in defiance of our reason?

I am not sure if my explanations will be as honest as these fourth graders, but I do know I am inspired anytime I am around a room full of thinkers, even if recess is the pressing philosophical dilemma of the day. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

End of Term Update: Where Have We Gone?

As Hawaii’s public schools finish the last few days of the first term, I thought it would be the right time to pause and reflect on the philosophical activities students and teachers are engaging in during the school day. I have spent the better part of the past three school years as Kailua High School’s Philosopher in Residence, which means I traded in my own classroom and high school English courses to work alongside nearly 40 teachers who aim to implement (or experiment with) philosophical inquiry into the courses that they teach. I have participated with teachers and students in inquiries from pretty much every subject area on campus (Social Studies, Language Arts, Math, Foreign Languages, Special Education, Art, Health, ROTC, and the Sciences).

I find the willingness of these teachers and students to be revolutionary, which is the reason I wanted to devote this post to simply reflect and share many of the students' questions that have been (and in many cases are still being) explored in Hawaii’s public schools. I see it to be a progress report of sorts.

This term students have created and engaged in meaningful philosophical inquiries concerning the following questions (this list is by no means exhaustive or thematically organized. The intention is to provide a “greatest hits” of the term).

   Where do our thoughts go after we die? Especially if we do not write them down.
   What makes something a “fact”? Is this different than “hard data”?
   What does it mean to “accept” somebody?
   Why would we be willing to destroy nature if we appreciate its beauty?
   What makes a hypothetical example not a “real” example?
   Is it true that in order to see things clearer, you need to go through a bad experience?
   If the definition of immaturity is the inability to think on one’s own, according to Kant, and if no idea is ever original, are we forever immature?
   What makes something art? Is the artist the same thing as the art?
   Is it possible to truly see “things as they are” without interpretation?
   Can we ever say that we “are” somebody? Aren't we always in the process of “becoming”?
   What if your “chosen” path is not your “intended” path?
   What are the reasons some things look better in your head than on paper?
   Can I assume as technology and people's needs of consumption keep increasing, no matter what we do, the environment will continue to decrease?
   What are the reasons enough is never enough? Is satisfaction just an illusion?
   What are the reasons we let fear triumph over all other feelings?
   Can I assume younger drug users get the idea that drugs are “ok” or “fun” from celebrities or media?
   Who deserves a chance to live?
   If there is conflict, then will humans seek peace? Likewise, if there is peace, will humans seek conflict?
   Is there an importance or necessity to waiting? Do humans innately understand this importance?
   In order to be a terrorist, is it necessary to physically harm someone?
   Is there always a value to a variable that makes a statement true?

The questions by themselves are inspiring, but they do not paint the whole picture. The ensuing inquiries are what truly detail the importance of the activity of philosophy. My intention this term is to blog more often and use this space to share the questions and philosophical thoughts of Hawaii’s students in hopes of engaging a larger audience in meaningful philosophical inquiry. As I stated in my first post, I am not entirely sure how to accomplish this objective, but I do know we are all hungry for what the activity of philosophy has to offer. I cannot imagine what our world would look like if the schooling experience provided children the opportunity and skills needed to sit and rigorously inquire into and discuss meaningful topics, such as the ones listed above, with their peers.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why am I here?

I must say, philosophy has been really good to me. I “discovered” philosophy as an undergraduate at John Carroll University and it immediately brought back the sense of wonderment and purpose that had been missing in my schooling experience since second grade. From third grade on we never sat in a circle or shared our ideas with our peers, and we were rarely given a chance to ask the questions that mattered to us. Wonder was essentially removed from the classroom and, as a result, school became far less meaningful. It was something that was done to us, rather than something we actively engaged in. Philosophy made me realize it does not have to be that way. It was this enlightenment that prompted me to become a teacher and it continues to inspire my work in bringing the activity of philosophy into the public school experience. 

The purpose of this blog is to spread my work with philosophy to a wider audience. My posts will offer a “field report” of the philosophy for children Hawai‘i movement (p4chawaii.org), provide space to extend (and reflect upon) the philosophical inquiries students are having in classrooms, include ideas on how to bring philosophy into the k-12 classroom, and engage others in living an examined life. My good friend Josh Stumpenhorst (http://stumpteacher.blogspot.com) inspired me start this blog and while I am not entirely sure what this experiment will look like, I do know I am excited to become a more active member of the online educational community.