“Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”
It goes without saying that I’ve been reeling with grief and shock this week. Here are some concrete words I was able to pull strength from in my conversations with students this week, from The Huffington Post. The article bears reading in full:
“Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school.”
“We need to teach students how to disagree—with love and respect. These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a democratic society that protects the rights of all people ― regardless of the cooperation or resistance those efforts face from the executive branch.”
Now we regroup, and we tell the people we love that they are loved and they matter over and over and over again. My question to myself this week: How can I most effectively leverage my skills and the privileges I have left to stand up for and support the young people who are going to spend a key portion of their formative years under the reign of a bigot who promotes sexual assault?
If you are devoted to this same goal as a fellow educator and/or advocate and/or restless globetrotter, I’d love to hear your ideas below. More to come soon.
Are you an activist-educator and would like an amazing job this summer? OR do you know a teenager who wants to strengthen their activism skills to make the world a better place? I worked with Youth Empowered Action camp as a mentor to teen activists last summer and can’t recommend it highly enough. See below!
2. Are you a dedicated progressive activist working in positive, peaceful, strategic ways to make our world a better place? Do you have experience in lots of different types of activism and are you supportive of a variety of progressive issues, including animal rights, climate change, anti-racism, women’s rights/pro-choice, and gay rights? Can you model being respectful of people who disagree with you? (No angry activists, please.)
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?
Hello lovely readers. With the school year in full swing, I’ve been spending a lot of hours with five-to-seven year olds in child care and student teaching. And sometimes (often) kids get frustrated. A parent asked me to write out some of my strategies for conflict resolution when siblings fight, so here’s a few things I try to keep in mind when tensions escalate. I’d welcome feedback! Thanks 🙂
1) Stay calm. This may seem obvious and also easier said than done, but kids really tend to take their cues from the people around them. If I get really anxious about something, they’re likely to get more anxious too. So if the kids are upset about something that seems like it isn’t actually a big deal, I just honor and acknowledge their feelings and then try to model calm and reasoned problem-solving. Of course if there is a serious problem, I communicate that to them, but as calmly as possible, and tell them what needs to happen or again model effective problem-solving.
2) Acknowledge their feelings and de-escalate. We take deep breaths and I remind them that we need to use words to communicate in order to solve a problem. Sometimes I use some modified techniques from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. http://www.wikihow.com/Practice-Nonviolent-Communication Though I try not to become too scripted, as that can seem disingenuous and thus be counterproductive. I ask “what are you feeling right now?” and “What do you need?” and work with them to try and find a way that we can all get what we need without anyone getting hurt (physically or emotionally).
3) Share my own experiences. I think it’s important for kids to realize everyone (adults too) gets frustrated and angry, that it’s not bad to feel emotions, and that there are constructive ways of expressing those emotions without hurting anyone. Last month, I had a conversation with some kids about punching vs. other ways of expressing anger without hurting anyone – e.g. I told them sometimes when I get upset, I throw a pillow or go in the backyard away from people to have a good scream. They laughed at the idea of my throwing pillows, which also helped de-escalate the tension.
4) Collaborate to find a solution. I give kids autonomy and try to always give them choices or ask them what they think we should do if it’s a situation with any flexibility, and I thank them for their helpful ideas. Then in the few circumstances in which there really can’t be any compromise, I feel comfortable putting my foot down, and they’re more likely to listen. I also encourage them to ask each other for what they need instead of having me give orders (e.g. “Did you ask Maria if you could have a turn next?” instead of “Maria, let Joshua on the swing now.”)
5) Always give reasons when I ask or tell them to do something (and I try to make a clear distinction there!) or when I say no. Most of the things I’m not willing to compromise on have to do with staying safe/healthy. I am lucky that most of the kids I work with are very responsible about not crossing the street without an adult, not touching the hot stove, etc., so I don’t have to say a flat “no” very often.
6) Problem-solve instead of punish. Once a child I was watching punched another child in the middle of a mall. I first quickly made sure they were all right and then told the child firmly “It is never okay to punch” and “we have to discuss this now,” but also told them “I’m not angry. I’m not angry, but we have to talk because I can tell something is very wrong.” We re-located to the closest quiet space (happened to be a couch in a bookstore) and continued “I know you wouldn’t have wanted to hurt [name], so you wouldn’t have done that unless something was really upsetting you. Please tell us what happened.” I assume the best of intentions. First the child clammed up and refused to speak at all, but when he realized I wasn’t punishing him, he was able to tell us why he was upset with the other child, and we discussed ideas of how to solve the problem without hurting each other. He eventually apologized but not before he was ready (as an apology is pretty meaningless if it’s not genuine).
7) Specific positive reinforcement. I try to point out things I’m really happy about to encourage repeating, instead of saying “no” all the time. “Thank you for telling us before you stopped your bike in front of me.” “Thank you for biking carefully and stopping before each street.” “That was so kind of you to offer to help your brother.” “That was so kind of you to offer to share with your sister.” Etc., etc. I also avoid just saying, “you were really good today” or similar because that doesn’t really give them any new information, and also can inadvertently imply that sometimes a child is “bad.”
Hope this offers some food for thought! I am always questioning and refining conflict resolution with a goal of honoring kids’ experiences and empowering them to stand up for themselves with peers and thoughtfully, effectively resolve conflicts – suggestions always welcome. Thanks again!
Post-script: To end, have a smile – This is the first photo I saw when I searched for “kids fighting” online … This looks like goat kids playing to me, actually! They hit their strong foreheads and horns together for fun. =)
“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)
A crew took part of the big tree away
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.
Background on Philosophical Issues
“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?
Philosophy of Language
The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.
What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.
However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?
When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
“Clouds on the Sea,” Ruth Dallas (New Zealand), This Same Sky, p. 177 (see Resource List)
I walk among men with tall bones,
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.