“What will my next family be like?”

The other day, one of my students was stuck on a poem she was writing about herself and her family, and I suggested she include some of her Wonderings. Hardly missing a beat, she said she wonders what her next family will be like. For a moment, I was perplexed. She had just written and told me about how happy she was with her family! Why was she writing something about leaving her family? Then it clicked – “Oh! Do you mean like in a next life?” Yes. Of course. This child’s writing reminded me or helped me realise that not only does community of inquiry change our beliefs, our prior beliefs influence what we’re even able to wonder about in the first place. She wrote a beautiful, unique poem with ideas it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to include, because I don’t have the schema for reincarnation that she does. I’m up in the middle of the night now wondering about what else I might wonder about if my prior beliefs were different. #lovinglearningfrommykids 

Advertisements

Question collecting muses

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire

So I’ve let this blog idle for a while because I haven’t felt like I had anything worthwhile to say. And then I realise that is precisely what keeps people from becoming better writers. It’s been odd, having a couple of months out of university all together for the first time. After four years of undergrad and a graduate school program back to back, it starts to become part of your identity. My years at uni* have been an amazing experience that I was quite privileged to have, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. However I am still learning how to write for myself, without following an assignment and someone else’s expectations.

These are my requirements for blogging:

  • for once, not focused solely or even primarily on product/productivity (in contrast to grades and consumer culture)
  • meaningful/impactful in some small way
  • sustainable and flexible over at least a year of travel, and connected, if loosely, to the globetrotting + education life
  • outlet for creativity and social justice news discussion
  • actually fun 🙂 (for both writer and reader)

Contemplating this, I realised that what I really want to do is question collecting. I collect questions in my education and travels the way other people collect plastic souvenirs. In CoI, we ask questions and are asked questions, and we learn how not to always need to find an answer. Because more often than not, there isn’t a single answer and there may be no way to answer the question in a concrete way. This is something that I’ve found frustrates a lot of children – and adults – in CoI when they’ve been taught that “progress,” particularly in school, means settling on a definite answer to the original question by the end of the day. What if we could re-imagine questions in a new way? Not blanks to fill in but open doors or portals or what have you, intrinsically valuable in their own right. Answers are plentiful, sometimes reassuring but often limiting and even destructive. They are static, closed doors, endings. They can be labels and put people and ideas in boxes. Questions are invitations, possibilities, dynamic, creation. I do tend to find that the more impactful the question, the less likely it is to have one closed answer. Still, the temptation to resolve questions, to tie loose ends, seems always to still be there. What if we could collect questions and play with them and explicitly not look for answers? What would that free us up to wonder and discover?

So in this spirit, I’ll aim to post a new question or two a week here, and I challenge my readers and myself to comment and engage without beginning “I think … [answering my question here].” No rules, really – if answers happen to present themselves in the course of conversation, no worries, but here that is not the intention and not the mark of success. This means that at the end of a discussion, the lack of an answer to the original question is not a mark of failure, but an opportunity to assess what we’ve learned.

Whether this is an idea that resonates with you or you have no idea what I’m talking about, I encourage you to check out one of my favourite web comics, “A Day at the Park,” by Kostas Kiriakakis, a very sweet illustration of the merits of question collecting. Click here or copy+paste: http://kiriakakis.net/comics/mused/a-day-at-the-park

*Uni = university. In New Zealand (and the UK), “college” is the equivalent of American middle school. So if I say I just finished college a year ago, people are a bit confused 🙂 Setting up a Kiwi <–> American phrase page is going to be a little pet project of mine over my year of teaching here. Plan to add a few new words/phrases each week at this page. Please feel free to suggest things 🙂

“Beso the Donkey”

Beso the Donkey,” Richard Jarrette, printed in the book of the same name (see Resource List)

Beso the Donkeybeso-the-donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
was love.

Copyright 2010 Richard Jarrette. Reprinted with the permission of the poet. 

Background on Philosophical Issues

Animal Ethics (click to read more)

This brilliant collection of poems is written from the point of view of a speaker who observes a donkey named Beso living penned into a pasture over a long (unspecified) period of time, apparently ending with Beso’s passing away. The speaker gets to know Beso well as an individual and comes to care for and respect him deeply.

In this poem, the speaker notes that Beso, like any animal who is in captivity, is confined without any autonomy over his own life. Is this an acceptable way to treat another sentient being? Why or why not?

It seems Beso’s basic necessities of life (see “Rights“) are taken care of: He has “rock to eat, dust to drink,” and at some point is graced with “a sliver of apple.” However, he also endures “the merciless sun.” If you believe he is being wronged, is it only because of the questionable nature of his treatment? If we assume that he does have enough food, water, and shelter to be healthy, then is his human captors’ behaviour justified? Or is there something inherently wrong about keeping Beso locked up? As a nonhuman, self-aware being, is he entitled to a set of inalienable rights, a certain level of welfare, or neither? Why or why not?

Epistemology (click to read more)

This particular poem also deals with the issues of how we can know anything about “other minds,” trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and anthropomorphising – ascribing “human qualities” to nonhuman beings. There are some basic ways that we generally assume, by observation, that other humans have similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences to our own. When I hurt myself, I flinch or cry out. Therefore, when I observe the same behaviour in those around me, I assume they are experiencing similar pain. Can we make this same assumption when we see nonhuman beings exhibit the same behaviours that we do? Descartes thought that the screams a cat or dog makes when physically harmed were just automatic responses, and justified gruesome “experiments” like nailing cats to wooden boards. Throughout the history of the United States (and continuing today), animals raised for food and scientific experimentation have not been covered under standard animal protection laws; the law allows us to grind up chicks alive and toss living birds in boiling water without any repercussions. (This is considered “standard practice” in the egg and chicken meat industries.) The Cartesian idea of nonhuman animals as automata is often used to justify these practices.

Today, contemporary scientists have proven that all vertebrates have very similar nervous systems, which suggests that nonhumans feel physical pain in much the same way as humans do. Data and empirical evidence also shows us that most nonhuman animals likely dream and form memories and friendships in similar ways. But from a philosophical perspective, we always come back to the same question: How we can really tell what another being is experiencing if we cannot experience the same thing ourselves?

Sample Questions for Discussion on “Beso the Donkey”

Animal Ethics

“Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.”

  • [questions for preliminary discussion] Why is Beso in the pasture? How long do you think he’s been there? Do you think he can get out if he wants to?
  • Why would someone want to keep Beso in one place?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping someone in one place?
    • Would it make a difference if the pasture was bigger?
    • Would it make a difference if there was another donkey living with Beso?
  • Have you ever had a timeout? Is this similar or different to what has happened to Beso? In what ways?

“You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.”

  • If Beso has enough food and water to be healthy, is there anything wrong with keeping him locked up?
  • [preliminary question] How many people here live with companion animals (a.k.a. “pets”)? OR Has anyone here been to a zoo?
  • Do companion animals live with us because they want to or because we want them to?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping a companion animal in your house and not letting him or her leave? Why or why not?tiger in a zoo
  • Do you think that animals in zoos seem happy? Why or why not? How about the animals who live with us? Why or why not?
  • Do nonhuman animals need us? Do we need them? Why or why not and in what ways?

Epistemology

“He appears stoic in the rain …”

  • [preliminary question] What does “stoic” mean?
  • Do nonhuman animals have the same feelings people do? How can we tell?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is thinking? Why or why not?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is feeling? Why or why not?

Animal Ethics Extension Activities

Epistemology Extension Activities

Some question starters I’ve found helpful

Here are some phrases to get you started if you are interested in a particular subject but having trouble coming up with juicy questions to ask. For instance, if we just finished reading Harold and the Purple Crayon, and I wanted to get metaphysical, I might ask “Is it possible to create a new world using just words and pictures?” Of course, any question is then naturally followed up with why/why nothow, or how can we tell? Remember, in order to be a philosophical question, it has to be something that you can’t find the answer to in a book or an encyclopedia. Have fun!"What is reality?" "Is truth relative?"

Metaphysical (about reality)

  • “What is … ?”
  • “What is the difference between _____ and _____?”
  • “Is it possible that/to … ?”
  • “Is there anything bigger/smaller than _____?”
  • “How does ____ work?”
  • “When/where does _____ begin/end?”

Epistemological (about knowledge)

  • “How do we know that …. ?”
  • “Can we know that … ?”
  • “How can we tell if ….?”
  • “What would we know if we knew that ___ ?”
  • “Can everyone know … ?”
  • “How could we learn more about __ ?”

Ethical (about morality, right and wrong)

  • “Is it okay to … ?”
  • “Is _______ ever right?” Or, “Is _____ ever wrong?”
  • “Is _______ always right?” Or, “Is _____ always wrong?”
  • “What are our obligations to _____ ?”
  • “What is the best …?”
  • “What is the best way to …. ?”
  • “Should we … ?” or “Why should we … ?”
  • “Why is ___ a problem?”

Aesthetic (about beauty and taste)

  • “What is the most beautiful ___ ?”
  • “How can we tell if ___ is beautiful?”
  • “Is there a difference between beauty and __ ?”

Epistemology Activities

“Everybody Knows That…”

Writing a poem riffing on the line “everybody knows that …” filling in the end of the sentence over and over with things that you may or may not take for granted to be true. Come back to the circle to share your poems and discuss why you chose the things you did. How do we know these things? Does everyone agree that each piece of “knowledge” is not debatable? Are there any disagreements? Why?

Slanted Truth

  1. Read “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson (1263). You can find a discussion guide for this epistemologically interesting poem on my Epistemology Poems page.
  2. Following the Community of Inquiry, or to introduce the discussion, have a go at writing your own truth told “slant!” Have each child pick a topic to write a poem about, but don’t explicitly tell us what the subject is. For example, if the poem is about the dog I grew up with, I would write the poem without once using the word “dog.” If the poem is about a dream I had, I would convey the ideas or the scene without using the word “dream.”
  3. Come back to the circle, and make sure that everyone gets a chance to share their poem. Some questions to consider as a group:
  • Did everyone immediately know what the poem was about? How so, or why not?
  • Can we usually/ever know exactly what the poet was thinking about when the poet composed the poem? How or why not? Should we? Why or why not?
  • Is it better to know something right away or better to have to think about it for a while? Why?
  • Can one poem tell everything there is to know about a thing or being? Why or why not? Should we try? Why or why not?

Metaphysics Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

“Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem, translated by Edward Field

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

From the first line of the poem, we are challenged to think about the nature of time in an unconventional way. What does it mean for something to happen “in the very earliest time?” Could something have come before that?

Furthermore, in “Magic Words,” the speaker asserts that a very, very long time ago, the world worked differently than it seems to today. Human and non-human animals could change their form at will, which makes us wonder what the essential and accidental properties of humans and non-human animals are. The speaker also explains that words had the power to change the physical world. Of course, many of us might say that words still possess strong powers! A whole discussion might be had on whether it is our words themselves that hold the power to change the world, or whether words serve only as inspiration for actions that humans must take.

“The Birth of a Stone,” Kwang-kyu Kim (South Korea), translated by Brother Anthony – printed in This Same Sky, p. 111

This poem raises the age old questions about what may or may not exist beyond our own awareness. “I wonder if there are stones/that no one has visited?” the speaker wonders. This brings to mind the classic problem of the tree falling alone in the forest. Over the first two stanzas, the speaker muses about what this ancient stone could have endured over millions or billions of years, outside the realm of human experience. At the end, the speaker concludes with a bold claim, that the stone in fact came into existence as soon as it was observed – “was only born/the moment I first saw it.”

This poem may also raise the epistemic questions around the “tree falls in a forest” conundrum: If see/hear a tree fall but no one else does, how do I know it really happened? Should anyone else believe me that it really happened? Why or why not?

“What is it that upsets the volcanoes?,” by Pablo Neruda (Chile), translated by William O’Daly, This Same Sky, p. 129

This short poem, comprised of four couplets with one line standing on its own in the middle, asks five unconventional questions about the nature of the natural world. Some of its questions also may dip into psychology. It begins, “What is it that upsets the volcanoes/that spit fire, cold, and rage?” Can a natural phenomenon that lacks a brain and nervous system be “upset?” What does it mean to be “upset?” Is it always an emotion? The volcano is described as spitting “cold,” but we know that lava is scalding. Can something be “hot” and “cold” at the same time in different ways? What would that mean?

“The Ship’s Whistle,” Tarapada Ray (India), translated by Shyamasree Devi and P. Lal, This Same Sky, p. 155

Here, there is more potential for discussion on the nature of Time. The poem sketches a scene of people getting ready to leave on a long journey. “Your old paper flowers still in that vase/Forever fresh—forever, what does that mean?” What does forever mean? Can we experience it? Is a paper flower always fresh? Can something be forever fresh that never was alive? Though in fact, the paper itself used to be a living tree, which was killed and preserved into an inanimate object. However, of course, all paper will decay and disintegrate someday, and become again part of the earth. Does this have any implication for the idea of “forever?”

Halfway Down,” A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, p. 83

This is a lovely little sketch of the special spot right in the middle of things, halfway down (or halfway up, depending on how you look at it) the middle of a staircase. For the child speaker of this poem, it is a particularly special place, unlike any other, where “all sorts of funny thoughts/Run round my head.” After trying to put a label on it and giving only a list of places it is not, the child concludes, “It isn’t really/Anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!”

  • Is it possible to not be anywhere at all?
  • If you aren’t anywhere, do you still exist? How do you know?
  • Where is the “halfway” point on a long staircase? If there are twenty steps, is it on the tenth? (really less than exactly half) Or the eleventh? (really more than half) Does it count if you’re on the ninth? How do you decide?

“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52

“Day-Dream” takes us into a vivid scene of a boy flying a kite alone. With no other people around, the kite takes on a life of its own. When the kite meets another kite in the air, the reader may wonder who, if anyone, is on the other end of the second kite. The line “Space is calligraphic in the clouds” prompts us to think about communication. “The boy/understands although no one else may read it.” What does it mean to communicate something to another person? Is he awake or dreaming?

We can also bring the discussion to epistemic questions.

  • What does the boy understand?
  • How does he know?
  • If you learn something in a dream, is it still true when you wake up?
  • How does the boy know whether he is awake or dreaming?

Finally, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.

Ravikovitch, Dahlia. “Magic.” Israel. translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, This Same Sky, p. 57

“Magic” begins “Today I’m a hill/tomorrow a sea.” Like “Magic Words,” “Magic” brings up more questions on fluid transformation in the natural world. As the poem cycles through a first person description of changing form, the poem can also prompt discussion of identity formation. Who do you think the speaker is?

Holman, Felice. “Possibilities.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 37

Another great poem to get kids thinking and wondering about what is and is not possible. This is a fun read-aloud with repetition and rhyming that feels fantastic to swirl around in your mouth, and a whimsical Gorey illustration that shows ideas and words as clouds emitting from a child’s consciousness.

Holman, Felice. “Voices.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 53

“The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke

The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical paradox about a beloved ship made entirely of wooden boards. As the ship begins to fall into disrepair, Theseus has each board replaced as soon as it breaks, until every board of the ship has been replaced. The paradox comes when we ask the question, is it still the same ship? A paradox occurs when two or more answers to a question seem equally plausible. There is a strong case for saying it is not the same ship: Every board is completely different! If the ship had been assembled by taking all of the new boards and putting them together at once, and the original ship simply destroyed, we would have no problem agreeing it there were two ships. However, there is also a strong case for the ship being the same: If it is a different ship now, when did it stop being the original ship? When the very last board had been replaced? When more than half the boards had been replaced? The moment the first board was replaced? If this is the case, then what does this tell us about similarly seemingly inconsequential changes in our possessions, or changes in ourselves? Like “Halfway Down” and its accompanying activity, this is another poem that can stimulate discussion of essential and accidental properties: How much can change about a thing or being before it/she/he becomes something/someone entirely new?

“If A Tree Falls,” Laura Purdie Salas, Bookspeak! Poems About Books

Most of us have heard of the philosophical quandary, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it still make a sound?” In this short and sweet poem that is part of a brilliant collection of poems bringing fiction to life, Salas takes the same idea to investigate the philosophy of fiction: If a book is never read, “does it still embrace a story?” Are stories real? What makes a story real?

Silverstein, Shel. “Colors.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 24 (see Resource List)

Using the -ish sound to great effect, “Colors” describes the rainbow that makes up the outside of one person, concluding with the intriguing line, “And all the colors I am inside/Have not been invented yet.” What does it mean to invent a color? If no one had ever seen the color red, would it not exist at all? See if you can relate this to “If A Tree Falls” by Laura Purdie Salas. How do we know if something exists or not? (You can see how this line of inquiry can also lead into epistemic questions.) Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.

Epistemology Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

Dickinson, Emily. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” (1263)

This lovely quick poem can be read aloud by a few different members of the group before discussion, taking time to enjoy Dickinson’s imagery and metaphors and letting the rhymes swirl around in your mouths before tackling the sticky epistemological questions around the concept of “truth.”

  • Dickinson advises poets to tell the whole truth but indirectly. Is this possible?
  • Can one person know everything that is true?
  • Is “truth” an objective thing?
  • Can something be true and not true at the same time? How, or if not, why not?
  • Dickinson tells us that the truth can “blind” people if we get it all at once too abruptly. Is it possible to know too much?
  • Are there any things you think it would be better not to know? Why or why not?
  • Why is “Truth” capitalized in the seventh line but not in the first? Is this an attempt to personify truth somehow?

Field, Edward (translator) “Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

The poem tells us things about this very-long-ago time as if they are facts. Are we meant to assume that they are true? If so, how does the speaker know? None of us were there – but do you have to have witnessed something to know it is true? There are plenty of things we tend to accept as true without having witnessed them ourselves, but they often rely on secondary experience: For example, most of us have never been to the moon, but we believe what astronauts tell us about it because they have been there. We believe what is written in history books, but we do not believe that the events written about in novels really happened. When we see words on a page, how do we know whether or not to trust them?

Field, Edward. “Heaven and Hell.” Magic Words. 

The last page of this book of poetry reads:

“Of course it may be
that all I have been telling you is wrong,
for you cannot be
certain about what you cannot see.
But these are the stories that our people tell.”

After reading the book, it could be great to have a discussion about what we know, what we believe, and what we assume. Some questions to consider:

  • Is there anything you know without having seen it for yourself? How do you know?
  • What does it mean to be “certain” of something?
  • Is there a difference between knowing something and believing something?
  • If many people believe something, does that make it more true?
  • Can anything be more or less true than something else?

Holman, Felice. “I Can Fly.”  At the Top of My Voice, p. 11

The speaker of this poem insists, matter-of-factly, “I can fly, of course,” explaining that since people would talk too much about it, they do so only when no one else is around. Is there any way to prove this claim true or not?

Tueni, Nadia. “In the Lebanese Mountains.” Lebanon. translated by Samuel Hazo, This Same Sky, p. 140

Like “Magic Words,” this poem tells of a time when the barriers between species were not so clear. The last stanza tells us “Remember—the child’s recollection/of a secret kingdom just our age.” Is it possible to remember something from before you were born? Do you ever feel like young children understand things in a deeper or different way than adults are able to? Why or why not? Is it possible to be born knowing something? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples?