Monday, February 9, 2015

The Written Philosophical Inquiry

This past Thursday I took a visitor from Austria, Janine, with me to do some philosophy in a tenth grade language arts class. Unlike many of the classes I visit where philosophy is primarily conducted as a verbal exercise, these tenth graders were having at “silent philosophical inquiry.” I utilized this activity many times in my years as a tenth and twelfth grade language arts teacher, but Jake’s innovation on the activity was really interesting. 

Rather than having each student raise a “question that is good for philosophy” on the top of their sheet of paper, which would equate to 32 different questions, Jake broke the class into seven small groups of 4-5 students each. Then in these groups, students wrote their questions on a single sheet of paper and then they voted on the question they most wanted to think about with their peers. This is a modification of Thomas Jackson’s (2001) “Plain Vanilla” activity, so instead of discussing the question that was chosen, each student wrote the selected question on the top of their loose-leaf paper and got busy letting their thoughts flow on the paper. Janine and I sat with a group of five students, two males and three females, that selected to have their silent inquiry concerning " What are the reasons people would rather daydream about being someone else than be themselves?" (I am not sure what the exact story was for the stimulus, but I do know that it came out of the Springboard curriculum, which gives me great hope for more teachers to follow Jake's lead on being innovative while still using a "prescribed" curriculum in the classroom). As the students feverishly responded to the question, it took Janine and I a bit to get moving. I had a hard time answering the question at first, but I fed off of the students enthusiasm and constructed my own response. After a few minutes of writing, the students were instructed to pass their papers to the person on the right. I got Fernando's paper and it was clear these 15 year olds meant business. His answer was detailed, full of thoughtful examples, as well as several insightful questions. How did this guy write all this in three minutes! 

The students were instructed to treat the activity like a verbal discussion, so instead of simply answering the question again in the same manner as they just did, their peers' initial response (and not the question) served as the stimulus for the inquiry.  The students were to reply to the previous response (and later responses) by posing new questions/wonderings, making connections, and providing examples or counter examples to support or test ideas. In essence, the written inquiry should resemble a dialogue of sorts, except the written remarks have lines darting back and forth to ideas and new questions, which makes it look a lot more like the back of a bathroom stall door. Each "round" the students got a bit more time so they could respond to all the comments and, surprisingly, as the responses added up, each one was a bit longer than the remarks that proceeded it. However, what was really amazing was that all seven of us sitting in that small circle initially responded in very different ways to the same initial question. One student originally believed it was easier to be someone else than yourself. Another was trying to figure out at what point do you know who you are and if it was possible to be sure of that. Another student took it as a commentary on our values as a capitalist country, while another believed we can only know our true selves by comparing ourselves to those around us (and the other ones are slipping my mind right now). 

What I find to be most intriguing is that the students did not stick to their initial ideas for the remainder of the activity; they responded to their peers' ideas with fresh insights and new examples that corresponded to the manner in which the inquiry was unfolding on the paper. Like Paul Reps' "A Cup of Tea," the students were able to "empty their cups" prior to engaging in each response. Somehow they were able to view the same question differently each time they read a new response. This is worth noting largely because this is a difficult skill to develop, especially when it comes to putting our thoughts into writing (even more so when it concerns philosophically rich topics). 

At the end, all of our hands were hurting, but we had engaged in several extremely intense and meaningful inquiries with each other and not one word had been spoken in nearly 40 minutes. During the post activity reflection the students remarked on how much they liked the activity because everybody had an opportunity to share their ideas and they were able to see things from many different perspectives, which they said was pretty challenging. However, from my perspective, it seems to come natural to them and that has a lot to do with all the great work the faculty at KHS has done to make philosophy a living aspect of the school culture.