“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.

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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!

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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!

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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?

“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
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

Environmental Ethics

“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?

languages

References:

Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • 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?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.