“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!

What colour is “cold”? 

Yesterday I hosted a little poetry lunch with my students. I brought in sandwich makings, and they shared their own writing with each other. Each student was proud to perform their own work, and we gave everyone snaps and commented on parts of the poems that resonated with us or asked about parts that made us wonder. When everyone had read their identity poems that they had written with me, I suggested they head back to the larger group to make sure they had time to play before the next class, but they all chose to stay and read more 🙂 One girl read a poem she wrote inspired by the colour blue, and her classmate wondered why she had included images of snow and ice in the poem. We talked about why that might make sense and how colours are often used to symbolise temperatures and feelings even if they don’t always actually look that way in real life. 

  • Do different types of weather have colours?
  • Can you feel a colour? What does it mean to feel blue? How might that be different than feeling like green or yellow?
  • What makes us associate certain ideas and feelings with certain colours? 
  • Can personalities have colours? 
  • Could you write a poem from the point of view of a colour itself? Try it out 🙂

I have minor synaesthesia,  which for me just causes me to have strong associations between certain numbers, letters, and words and certain colours. If you or your students experience colour connected to other senses too, it can inspire insightful poems and new ways of seeing the world. Fun to get different kids’ perspective on how they experience and conceptualise colour in different ways. 

Do you or your students have some colour poems or questions/muses to share? Pop them in the comments. Thanks and have a beautiful weekend!

Activity: What Makes Us People?

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An elephant painting

This is an activity to introduce thinking about essential and accidental properties of human beings, and what may or may not be important differences among people and between people and other animals.

  1. Get a large sheet of paper to hang on the wall (the giant Post-It stickies work well), or use a white board. (I prefer the giant stickies so they can be posted around the classroom afterwards and stay there to stimulate further musing.)
  2. Have the group generate ideas. Let children call out, or if you have a shyer group, go around the circle so everyone gets a turn.
  3. You may get things like “two eyes,” “can speak,” “can think,” etc., or you may get wildly different responses. Be prepared for anything and do not judge! Write everything down that the children suggest.
  4. After everyone has had a chance to speak, go back to your word cloud and ask of each one: Is this true about all people? And/or are there other animals of which this is true?

In the beginning, it may seem easy to come up with a list of traits that describe a human being, but in the end, it may be more difficult than expected to categorize what is true of all humans and only humans! After this activity, the group may like to continue with a discussion on perspectives and/or animal ethics using one of the poems above.

Activity: The Ships of Theseus

Activity: The Ships of Theseus

As Theseus takes an old ship and changes it piece by piece into something that seems entirely different, we will revitalize an old poem by changing it piece by piece into something fresh. 

1. Read “The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke and/or my discussion of the ancient philosophical paradox at Metaphysics Poems.

2. Start with an old poem of your own or a favourite poem written by someone else, and practice the art of revision: Change one line at a time, until every line has been altered significantly.

3. Share both poems with the rest of the group, and consider the questions below for discussion:

  • Is it still the same poem? Why or why not?
  • What have you learned by altering your poem?
  • Does it still have the same subject and/or main idea, or does it seem completely different?
  • If there is a significant shift in subject, did you make this change consciously from the beginning, or did it happen organically as the revision process went on?
  • If you began with a poem written by someone else, is the revision your poem, or does it belong to the author of the original poem? Why?

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 __ ?”

Metaphysics Activities

“It isn’t really Anywhere!”

This is a companion activity to go along with the philosophical discussion that a community could have around the poem “Halfway Down,” by A. A. Milne. I’ve written up beginning discussion questions at Metaphysics Poems.

  1. Read “Halfway Down” by A. A. Milne.
  2. Do you have a special place where you do your best thinking? What makes it so special to you? Make a list of what is and is not there and what you do there.
  3. Using your list, draw a picture of your special place.
    1. –> **Alternative to #3 for students with extra time and some writing skills of their own: Go spend some time in your special place and do a freewrite. Put your pencil to paper and try to just write and write without letting the pencil stop moving for ten or fifteen minutes. What questions come to your mind in/about this special place? What do you hear/see/smell/taste/feel?
  4. Bring back to the circle to share the image/writing of your special place. Explain what is there and what makes it so special. What colours and images did you use? How did you make those decisions? Do your images represent something else? Can you explain what they mean, particularly if your images are not literal representations? How does this place help you think? Does you usually go there alone or with other people? Why?
    1. Have a “scribe” (another student or a teacher) jot down these ideas, or take notes for yourself if you prefer and are able.
  5. Finally, put these ideas into a poem of your own, inspired by “Halfway Down” and your own special place.

Stir Up A Character Poem!

This activity is meant to stimulate discussion on identity formation and essential vs. accidental properties of a species or individual, as well as give students practice writing a revising character poems. A set of essential properties tells us what it means to be that thing or being. The properties of being “male” and “unmarried” are essential properties of a bachelor. All bachelors are male an unmarried, and if someone is not male or unmarried, they are not a bachelor. In contrast, an accidental property is something that just happens to be true about an individual, but is not necessary. I have brown hair. But sometimes I dye it black, blue, or purple. Since “brown hair” is something that just happens to be true, it is an accidental property of myself. When my hair colour is different, I still identify as the same person. I am still Madeleine. But if I imagine myself with completely different body parts or with different parents, I may or may not feel differently.

  1. Begin with “Stir Up A Character Analysis Recipe” at Education World.
  2. Write a poem about a) yourself, b) someone you know, c) a famous person, or d) a character you’ve made up. Incorporate a collection of qualities that make up this individual. This may include physical characteristics, personality traits, things the person is interested in or has done, and more. Incorporate a variety of different types of pieces of information about the person.
  3. Come back to the group and discuss why each property is necessary.
    1. Could you still be human without two eyes, a nose, and a mouth? Why or why not?
    2. Which of the things mentioned in your poem could change and allow you to still be writing about the same person? Which things would have to stay the same? Can you explain why?
    3. A large part of writing good poetry is learning what must be said in a poem versus what can be implied, what the reader might understand without being explicitly told. Is there anything that your poem tells the reader about your character that could be shown in a different way, or something that is actually just not as important as it seemed during the first draft? Think about this for revisions.
    4. Are choices you make essential to your identity? This will probably be different for different people. For example, I am a vegan, and I feel that that is essential to my identity. There may be some vegans, however, who can imagine themselves as the same person if they were to start eating animals. How do you decide if something if part of who you are or just something about your experience, that could be otherwise?

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.

Metaphysics

Metaphysics is the area of philosophy that is concerned with investigating how the world really is, not just what we experience or believe. In his system of logic, Aristotle drew a distinction between essential properties and accidental properties of an object or individual. When we put ourselves in the world of this poem, we are even challenged to wonder what it would really mean to be able to change our species at will, and what is it about ourselves that makes us truly human. If something is essential to my identity as a human being, then without that property (i.e. characteristic or quality), I would not be human. If something is an accidental property, it just happens to be true, but does not need to be true. Accidental properties often change over time, while essential properties tend to remain the same. For instance, I identify as a female adult, so “woman” is relatively essential to who I am. Another commonly-accepted essential property (though this has all been contested) is parentage. If I had been conceived and born from different parents, many people would say I would actually be a different person, as both my DNA and full set of life experiences would be different. On the other hand, clothing is generally considered an accidental property. Today I am wearing a black scarf. If you were to point me out in a room, you might use that property to identify me: “Hey, do you see that woman wearing the black scarf?” However, when I take off the scarf this evening, I will not change who I am. Therefore “woman” is an essential property of my identity, but “wearing a black scarf” is accidental. Unfortunately, the distinction is not always so clear. What about properties like “lives in California” or “has three sisters?” We can all imagine ourselves living in different places or with different families, and since we say “ourselves,” there seems to be some intuition that we would be the same people. However, if our experiences shape our identity, some philosophers argue that we would actually be different people. So where does this line get drawn? My favourite humorous illustration of how this distinction can easily get muddled comes from the popular joke that starts with a riddle: “What is red, hangs on a wall, and whistles?”

“I give up,” says Jim.

“A herring!” says John.

“But – a herring isn’t red!” “So you paint it red.” “But – a herring doesn’t hang on a wall!”

“You could nail it to the wall.”

“But – “ Jim sputters in disbelief. “A herring doesn’t whistle!” John shrugs, smiles, and says, “Okay, so it doesn’t whistle.”

The joke makes a point by taking accidental properties to extremes. You could certainly paint a fish and still call her a fish, and even nail her to the wall (however gruesome the image might be), while still acknowledging her fishness. At a certain point, though, if we imagine too many absurdities, we will have lost something of what it means to be a fish. In the Inuit poem “Magic Words,” the question of what it means to be a different kind of animal is broached in a more ethereal way, opening the door for children to open their minds to new ways of categorizing.

Another area of metaphysics that is touched on in many of the poems discussed here is the nature of time. How do we measure time? Is it a “real” thing, separate from human consciousness, or is it just something that we’ve made up to help conceptualize our experiences? Some people have argued that time is a separate dimension, while others have argued that it is just arbitrary units of measurement.

Metaphysics Resources

I was originally introduced to the concept of accidental and essential properties and the corresponding silly story while pleasure reading during high school, in Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein’s Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. (See the Resources section for my discussion of this delightful book.) For further background, refer to Teresa Robertson and Philip Atkins’ SEP article, “Essential vs. Accidental Properties,” Louis F. Groarke’s IEP article on Aristotelian Logic, and William G. Lycan’s Philosophy of Language (Routledge, 2000) on definite descriptions and identity statements. For further discussion on essential and accidental properties of objects and individuals, Tom Wartenberg’s The Important Book module is a great resource.