“Māra,” by Moira Wairama

During the last week of term, I introduced many of my E.S.O.L. students to “Māra,” a poem published in Issue 52 of the New Zealand Junior Journal, a journal of writing geared towards students working in level 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. The full journals, with illustrations and audio recordings, are available here at no charge: http://literacyonline.tki.org.nz/Literacy-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Instructional-Series/Junior-Journal.

A pēpepe I met in the Auckland Domain


In a smooth blend of English and Māori, the speaker invites us into her māra (garden) to meet all of the insects she meets there. The (free) audio recording available on the educators’ resource site highlights the poem’s magical, musical quality, capturing students’ attention in a way that simply handing them the poem as a silent reading assignment could not.

Though the poem is a great example of how students can use imagery, rhyme, and meter in their poems, I find one of the most important things this poem does is highlight the bilingualism and biculturalism that is so important to New Zealand. While I am an American citizen teaching English to non-native speakers, I feel a responsiblity to honour and lift up Te Reo wherever feasible in my teaching as well, and to set a norm in my classroom that all languages are equally precious. Of course, though the poem incorporates both languages, I don’t know if it actually tells us anything particular about Māori culture, so I should be on the lookout for more poems that do this. Learning English is never about replacing what one has grown up with but about adding something new. This is a topic for a future post, but does anyone have suggestions of other poems appropriate for young children that incorporate multiple languages fluently? I’d love to start a solid collection. Thank you!

Most of the articles in the journal come with teacher guides, but the poem does not, so I’ve written up some activities and prepared a vocab sheet for pre-teaching the Māori words and some of the Tier 2 English words that non-native English speakers would need support with. I included some questions to prompt a discussion about the concept of being “special” and what it means to consider something or someone special. My sessions with these students are each quite short, so we don’t have the opportunity for full on CoI, but as always, I’d love to hear of your students’ responses – just hit “reply” below! Adjusting for your students’ needs, I would discuss the unfamiliar words first, so that they have context. Then listen to the poem, giving each student a copy of the poem (from the journal) to have in front of them. Then proceed with the discussion and writing activity.

The guide is available here: http://tinyurl.com/maraguide

After a few drafts, I publish the students’ poems on the wall and give them a chance to read their poetry to each other. It gives each student a chance to showcase their own work and be publicly proud, to review what they have done vs. just turning in an assignment and never seeing it again, to recognize their own work as publish-worthy art, and to learn from and about their peers. I’d love to hear your experiences, successes, and challenges of young students writing and sharing their work!

Integrity in Teaching

This is a response to the article “Integrity in Teaching: Recognizing the Fusion of the Moral and Intellectual,” by Deborah Ball and Suzanne M. Wilson (1996). Since the article discusses student-directed and inquiry-based learning, I thought it was an appropriate thing to share with readers of this Philosophy for Children blog. Happy reading and please join the discussion in the comments!


Teaching: “Knowledge endeavor” or “moral enterprise?” There is a tension in the academic community between those who say teaching is about transmitting content and those who approach teaching as primarily about engaging with students’ wellbeing. Ball and Wilson use two examples from their third grade classes to illustrate the point that these two ideas are inseparable.

Wilson begins by giving an account of a unit she spent discussing government with her third graders. A discussion of the history of how Lansing (their home city) became the capital of Michigan yields a number of misconceptions – some vocabulary confusions, some geographical, some about the nature of government. Instead of slamming down the discussion by correcting her third graders’ misconceptions right away, Wilson engages her students in further discourse, encourages them to respond to one another, and learns a great deal more about their thinking and understanding.

Wilson continues with an example of a fascinating third grade math lesson. She works hard to foster student-directed learning in her classroom, and encourages students to come to solutions and new knowledge through inquiry, active experimentation, and debate. During the episode she relates for this essay, her students are trying to figure out how to compare the sizes of different fractions. A portion of the class comes to the conclusion that five fifths is more than four fourths because there are more pieces. Wilson is befuddled but ends the lesson at a loss of what to do.  “Having worked hard to create a classroom culture in which mathematical ideas were established with evidence and argument,” she writes, “I found that many students were no longer so influenced by my views” (169-170). With five minutes left before recess, she asked students to journal about their thinking: “I was humbled to see that, even when I do choose to tell students something, there are no guarantees, and I remembered that this was one of the things that spurred me to make my classroom more centered on the children’s thinking in the first place” (171). While I grew up with and nearly always promote student-directed learning, one thing I noticed that makes Ball and Wilson’s techniques unique is that the content of their teaching is quite purposefully teacher-directed, but the process and method of the learning is student-led. This is a new model of shared responsibility for student learning.

The writers go on to discuss the potential challenges to their inquiry-based methods of teaching. More traditional modes of teaching might yield the correct answers more often, but their experience has shown that students can often give the “correct answer” without actually having the underlying understanding. For instance, it is common for students taught mathematics traditionally to understand the correct answer in one situation but not another – e.g. representing six pieces coming together to represent one whole using manipulatives, but still insisting that a sixth plus a sixth equals a twelfth when using just numbers alone without the manipulatives (presumably adding across the top and adding across the bottom). Instead of providing examples (e.g. same size pizzas getting cut into different numbers of pieces), Wilson chose to encourage students to come up with their own examples. These examples did not provide the correct answer right away, but they demonstrated students’ thinking in a way that working with only teacher-provided examples would not.

We also must consider that many subjects will arise in the conversation that the teacher did not intend to bring up. Some may engender discomfort, and some students will be more or less uncomfortable depending on their experiences. When some of her students made derogatory remarks about welfare, and Ball had no lived experience with the subject, luckily some of her students were able to advocate for themselves. But what about the students who remained silent? When discussing serious and sensitive topics, is there a point at which the teacher has a responsibility to step in and steer the discussion? And if so, at what point and how is this to be done without squashing student creativity and self-advocacy?

A central theme of this essay is how to approach every topic with intellectual honesty. Bruner (1960) claims that any subject can be taught honestly in some way to any student at any developmental level. Being intellectually honest means both taking the subject matter very seriously and taking each student and their individual thinking seriously. What does this mean when a student’s entire framework of understanding is at odds with conventional wisdom? Even once Wilson’s students understood that a cookie was the same size no matter how many pieces you split it into way, five fifths was considered more because you could share the whole thing with more friends. In a poetic way, one could argue they have a point. But according to the conventions of mathematics, they are wrong. How does an educator honour the poetic truth in the student’s understanding of a situation while explaining the mathematical flaw?

Ball notes how happy she was to see four young girls in her classroom, three who were students of colour, debating mathematical proofs – a domain too long dominated by white men. However, she worries that in her quest to respect her students’ critical thinking and learning process, she let her students leave third grade without the skills to defend themselves against the erroneous notion that women have lagging mathematical skills. Providing our students with only one or two conventional perspectives on a mathematical idea or historical event robs them of the nonstandard but valuable insight that they can achieve for themselves: “History would be something others do, not them” (186). However, as educators we have the responsibility to “represent the subject matter in ways that are honest and true” (178). If we leave our students believing that five fifths is more than four fourths or worse, have we failed them? Worse, if we teach social studies and do not ensure that our students see people like themselves represented in government positions and historical turning points, do we leave our students believing that they do not have the opportunity to be moral agents in the shaping of their world?

Mercer & Littleton Ch. 5: “Learning to Think Together and Alone”

Mercer & Littleton Ch. 5: “Learning to Think Together and Alone”

This chapter discusses three types of classroom talk identified by the Spoken Language and New Technology study in the early 1990s, in which researchers observed over fifty hours of English primary school class discussions.

In disputational talk, individuals arrive at their own decisions independently and argue with each other. Contradictions without reasons are common. In cumulative talk discussions, participants are uncritical and responsive but not very constructive. Finally, exploratory talk is characterized by critical thinking and constructive debate. Participants challenge each other thoughtfully and allow their thinking to change based on other participants’ opinions.

In exploratory talk, write Mercer and Littleton, “knowledge is made more publicly accountable” (59). Disputational talk lacks knowledge construction or much mutual respect. Cumulative talk is more respectful, but avoids confrontation to the point that knowledge construction falls by the wayside in favour of “constant repetition and confirmation” (Mercer & Littleton 62).

What this breakdown appears to imply for educators is that if we wish to see and support meaningful knowledge building and intellectual growth in our learning communities, we must cultivate an environment in which serious, thoughtful discourse is the expectation. We must teach children how to think critically and to respectfully challenge the beliefs and assumptions of others and of themselves. We must teach children that knowledge is not a black and white or stagnant thing, but is constantly growing and fluid. Our children need to feel safe and secure enough in themselves and their community to take risks and try out new ideas without fear of ridicule. 

In pursuit of an “educationally effective” (Mercer & Littleton 69) means of communication and thought among students, the authors of this piece have collaborated with other English researchers and teachers to develop the Thinking Together approach, designed to support the fundamentals of exploratory talk. The teacher is a “guide and a model” (69) for collaborative and metacognitive learning made up of about ten lessons (75). While many of the activities are student-directed, this approach combines group work with teacher-led activities to facilitate plenary sessions among the whole class. This allows the teacher to model and set clear expectations for what meaningful and productive groudewey word cloudp talk looks like. 

My whole life, I have sought out the most student-directed forms of education. As a teacher/facilitator, I work as hard to step out of the way of my students’ learning. I believe it is my responsibility to give them the resources for intellectual debate and knowledge sharing, and to give them the opportunity to explore their surroundings. Pragmatist John Dewey, one of my main educational role models, saw the classroom as a microcosm of society, where democracy and learning by experimentation should be practiced. However, Mercer & Littleton are helping me realize that as an educator, there may be a lot more incumbent upon me than merely creating the environment for active learning. There is also (or should be!) actual knowledge in my own head that it is my responsibility to somehow communicate to my students. This is an uncomfortable concept to me, because it feels teacher-centric, but I am in this Master’s program to learn new ways of doing things! What I can take right away from Mercer & Littleton is that modeling is a necessary piece of education. We can still have learning by experience as Dewey envisioned it prefaced by or interspersed with teacher-modeling of effective group talk and critical reasoning… yes?? Comments/discussion please!

Mercer, N., & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the development of children’s thinking: A sociocultural approach. London: Routledge.

Reading Note: Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: Ch. 4: How Dialogue with a Teacher Helps Children Learn

In Neil Mercer and Karen Littleton’s Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociological Approach, they observe that overuse of one-sided questioning has led many to discourage teachers from asking questions in the classroom at all. However, their discussion reveals that research shows teachers must balance their questions of students in a thoughtful manner. Too much questioning, particularly closed questions (questions to which there is one known answer that the teacher possesses and the student must figure out) leads to stifled creativity and form answers. On the other hand, if teachers avoid questioning entirely, we miss out on essential learning opportunities, reinforcement, and (most importantly in my book) constructive dialogue. Closed questions are often a useful way of quickly assessing students’ factual understanding while simultaneously reinforcing their knowledge. Open questions at the very least help a teacher gauge student engagement, thinking, and understanding; at their best they will do that as well as stimulate further critical thinking about the topic at hand. Mercer and Littleton use the example, “Why did you decide to have just three characters in your play?” Why questions in particular give students the opportunity to practice the skill of giving reasons for their beliefs and decisions, help the teacher understand the students’ thinking, and strengthen students’ metacognitive abilities in a practical setting.

Nystrand and colleagues published an “event history analysis” in the study of classroom dialogue. They were particularly interested in the student-centred contributions to dialogue, in contrast with the monologic teacher-directed talk that often prevails. Nystrand et. al. identified some strategies to support students’ active roles in classroom dialogue: Actively soliciting students’ independent ideas, responding to and incorporating students’ ideas in later remarks by the teacher, prioritizing open questions over closed questions, and refraining from the sort of one-sided “good job” praise that reinforces the idea that the student’s goal should be to satisfy the teacher.

From the research of Robin Alexander (2000) on teacher-student interactions around the world (who also drew on the research of the Russian scholar Bakhtin (1981)), Mercer and Littleton discuss strategies to implement stronger dialogue teaching:

Dialogic teaching is that in which both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which children’s thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward (Mercer 41).

The four major implications that Mercer and Littleton ask us to take away as educators are that we must a) give students opportunities and encouragement to question and defend their points of view, b) engage in discussion with students to build understanding of content (versus relying on rote memorization), c) genuinely take students’ input into account when designing further curricula, and d) use active dialogue to create “a cumulative, continuing, contextual frame” (42) in which students actively engage with new learning material. 

In many models of Philosophy for Children, the teacher/facilitator offers a stimulus designed to provoke some sort of controversy – e.g. a story or a game – and comes prepared with a set of possible questions. As the discussion progresses, the facilitator uses these pre-prepared questions to guide discussion. In other models, the students are encouraged to come up with the questions themselves. I have tried both, and though the former tends to be easier to begin, the latter has more often yielded discussions that truly surprised me and changed my thinking (and, I hope, the thinking of my students). Mercer & Littleton’s discussion reminds me that dialogue is an essential aspect of any learning experience, and that dialogues among students alone and dialogue between students and the teacher are just as essential. One difficulty I am experiencing currently as a student is that when I respond to readings, I find myself rehashing the same ideas, goals, and values that I have been fine-tuning for years. Even though I think I am reading or hearing something new, I am filtering it all through the same patterns of thinking as before. Real learning, for students and teachers, begins when we can break through those patterns to integrate truly new ideas. As an authority figure in the classroom, if I dominate the discussion, I run the risk of squelching students’ novel ideas, Of course, if I step back and refuse to contribute to the discussion at all, I run the risk of robbing my primary school students of the chance to learn from my experiences while learning from each other’s, and I rob myself of the learning I can receive from them, too. My challenge to myself is to find a way to strike this balance in the classroom and to learn how to sense when my students need more or less input from me.

Mercer, N., & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the development of children’s thinking: A sociocultural approach. London: Routledge. 

Students and Time Management

One of the great things about student teaching in a Master’s program is having a lovely cohort of student teacher peers to learn with and from. My classmate Camilla just posted A Mini-Research on Study Strategies for one of our classes on supporting struggling learners. Here is my response.


Thanks for this engaging post! You cite a lot of research saying that teaching self-monitoring strategies is key, and we have spent a lot of time in our program discussing how to support students’ metacognition. I am curious what you think about encouraging or requiring students to use planners? I always used a written calendar (and then Google Calendar) in late middle and early high school to structure my assignments/homework schedule and also to keep track of my daily appointments etc. However, I know a lot of students of all ages who really struggle with keeping a calendar consistently, and I know I personally would have benefitted from more support around structuring my study time as part of my daily life.

I once tutored a bright middle schooler whose main struggle was organizational skills and homework management. I strongly encouraged him to keep a planner, but the only times he would write down his assignments and his plan of when to work on them was when I was physically with him. This meant that he had a half-week of really organized homework time with assignments broken down into manageable parts, and a half-week of unscheduled work. I expected that he would discover how much easier it was to do his work and studying when he had a plan and thus start doing it himself, but he did not. However, he did manage to complete everything on time, and he was comfortable enough with his homework completion by the end of the semester that he felt he no longer needed tutoring. Do you think calendars are necessary for everyone, or that maybe there are different types of organizational tools that work better for different people? I always wonder – was the calendar just redundant for him, or could he have done more efficient work if he’d been willing to keep it up (and been encouraged by family to do so)? And if he didn’t need it in middle school, is calendar-keeping a skill he’ll find he actually really does need in high school or college? Should we be teaching young kids to how to organize their time when they still have quite manageable schedules in preparation for when their schedules get horribly hectic (which is coming earlier and earlier, these days!) Or should we offer these supports as they are needed/asked for, trusting each student to come to their own method of time management?

Should Toddlers be Held Responsible for their Actions?

After graduating with my philosophy degree in May, I have just begun a Master of Arts in Teaching Program and hope to continue to use this space to maintain a blog reflecting on the education process and my own growth as an educator. I’m adding a new Category to differentiate from the main primary ed. discussion starters and activity suggestions that make up the rest of the site. Starting today with a reflection on one of my program’s first course readings, Chapter Five of The Cultural Nature of Human Development by Barbara Rogoff. As always, I welcome comments below each post to encourage critical reflection and debate!


One main idea from this text that struck me was Rogoff’s (2003) observations of how different cultures interpret infant and toddler awareness, autonomy, privilege, and responsibility. Rogoff first discusses the Guatemalan Mayan community of San Pedro, in which she writes that “infants and toddlers are accorded a unique social status” (p. 163). In this community, infants and toddlers are not seen as having an awareness of the morality of their actions, and are not thought to be capable of intentionally harming someone else. Thus, they are not seen as responsible for their actions. Contrast this with the U.S. perspective that children must be taught at younger and younger ages – even pre-lingual – to respect their family members and friends, and even to follow a complex set of rules and societal norms. Whereas the typical American two-year-old who grabs a toy from his older sibling would be scolded and most likely at least mildly punished, the Mayan child would not suffer consequences for his behaviour – in fact, the older child is expected to yield to the younger, even if the younger child becomes violent. Since the toddlers are not considered responsible for their actions, conventional “behaviour modification” techniques of European American cultures are irrelevant.

This interpretation of infant social status challenges my previously learned ideas about how young people learn consideration for others, gleaned from prior readings and from my own years of experience in educational and family contexts. The heavy emphasis on rules and punishment that some U.S. and European cultures embrace today seems extreme and ineffective to me. However, the Mayan practice that Rogoff describes as removing any awareness for toddlers of the consequences of their actions seems to be the other (just as negative) extreme. Is this not just as likely to create a chaotic home and learning environment? I wonder how we could cultivate a balance between the two: Letting children explore their surroundings without fear of irrelevant or violent punishment, while showing toddlers that we do have enough confidence in them to treat them as real, accountable members of the community. Children can learn very early on that their actions matter and have strong influence on their friends and family members. It can be empowering to know that they have the choice to impact their loved ones in a positive rather than negative way, and that even when they make mistakes, it is okay, and there is something they can do about it to make things better.

Rogoff observes that in Mayan culture, “allowing toddlers not to follow the rules is based on the idea that their will should be given respect like that of any other person” (165) [my emphasis]. This interpretation actually puzzles me, because in the Western cultural context I come from, “respect like that of any other person” includes perceived responsibility for one’s actions. This seems to go back to the “unique social status” accorded to infants and toddlers that Rogoff describes at the beginning of this section. It is almost as if infants are treated as more special and have a higher status by virtue of their perceived lower ability to understand and learn moral cues.

In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough discusses a study published in 2011 that followed over a thousand young New Zealanders over three decades, beginning with interviewees as young as three years old. The study “showed, in new detail, clear connections between childhood self-control and adult outcomes” (Tough 197). My own brief experience with New Zealand Year Ones (mostly five-year-olds) supported my intuitions coming from unschooling and free schooling in the USA: children can be given space to grow while still held responsible for the consequences of their actions. True, these examples come from children slightly older than Rogoff’s subjects, but the building blocks for such a relationship with children must be laid from the beginning. Giving clear boundaries and education about the consequences of one’s actions seems to support children’s growth into autonomous, conscientious members of society.

Some questions this text raises for me:

  1. How do my/our own family backgrounds influence my/our expectations of young children and my/our expectations of ourselves?
  2. How might we as educators utilize a blend of wisdoms/experience from the variety of cultural backgrounds our students come from to create a safer, more secure, and more effective learning environment?
  3. How do we cultivate a mindset among very young children of treating each other with respect etc. because of actually caring for each other, rather than for fear of punishment/disappointment from authority figures?

Rogoff, B. (2003). Developmental transitions in individuals’ roles in their communities. (pp.150­193). The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University.

“Clouds on the Sea”

“Clouds on the Sea,” Ruth Dallas (New Zealand), This Same Sky, p. 177 (see Resource List)

I walk among men with tall bones,this same sky
With shoes of leather, and pink faces,
I meet no man holding a begging bowl,
All have their dwelling places.

In my country
Every child is taught to read or write,
Every child has shoes and a warm coat,
Every child must eat his dinner,
No one must grow any thinner,
It is considered remarkable and not nice
To meet bed bugs and lice.
Oh we live like the rich
With music at the touch of a switch,
Light in the middle of the night,
Water in the house as from a spring,
Hot, if you wish, or cold, anything
For the comfort of the flesh,
In my country. Fragment
Of new skin at the edge of the world’s ulcer.

For the question
That troubled you as you watched the reapers
And a poor woman following,
Gleaning ears on the ground,
Why should I have grain and this woman none?
No satisfactory answer has ever been found.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Dallas gives us a striking tongue-in-cheek account, in somewhat sarcastic rhyming verse, of a speaker realizing the significance of her living in a culture in which abject poverty is very rare. All of the privilege that she notes, which is most often taken for granted, gives us a chilling reminder of the majority of the world, in which circumstances are otherwise. Living in a place in which affluence is the norm, it is easy for many of us to forget that the majority of humans cannot just assume their basic needs will be met each day. At the end of the final stanza, the “you” is confronted with a women who has very little, and demands of the world why she should have plenty and this other woman has nothing.

We know that there is enough food on earth to feed the world’s human population many times over. So why are there still so many people starving? If we have access to more than we need, are we obligated to give some of our own food and resources to help other people? If so, how much? For those of us living in affluent nations, these are questions we often shy away from confronting. They can seem to big for one person to solve.

On Giving

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