WHITE SUPREMACY IS BAD. Full-stop. See, Trump? That wasn't hard or complicated. The disgusting statements made by the man currently occupying the White House have revealed him, once again, to be a person upholding systemic racism and unfit to lead.

Black lives matter. I'm stating the obvious again, but white supremacy must be condemned loudly and in no uncertain terms. Systemic racism is real, and if White folk are not using our privilege to speak up to dismantle it, we are part of the problem. If we want to be allies, we must call out overt racism when we see it. We need to be having difficult conversations with each other and not put the onus on POC to educate us. We need to be educating ourselves, listening and reading more, and lifting up the voices of POC. Stuck or feeling paralysed? Here are two helpful starting points: White Feelings: 0-60 for Charlottesville and Safety Pin Box.

Silence = complacency = complicity. I regret taking a hiatus from blogging in recent months. Though I was pretty sure no one reads this anymore, this blog/space existing means I should have used my privilege straight away to denounce the Charlottesville riot in one more place besides my social media posts. Hiatus over. Too often, we remain silent in fear of screwing up, but I have learned remaining silent is screwing up. Comments are always open on my posts, and I invite and am thankful for anyone to call me up on my inevitable mistakes. I am 100% still learning how to do this, but one thing is clear: White people, we have got to show up.

A couple of days ago, I posted 2 photos to Instagram with mostly the same tags. One was BLACK LIVES MATTER. The second was a cute tomato we'd just harvested from the garden that had grown in the shape of a heart. I was going to title this post "My first post that isn't a question," but here's one: Why did the tomato get more likes?


What are we telling our children?

What do we want our children to learn from this election?

*content warning non-graphic references to sexual assault and racial violence*

First of all, please watch this. Michelle Obama has articulated what I have been wanting to say over the past week most clearly than I seem to be able to. (I wish she would run for president.)

Now. To anyone who thinks staying home for this election is a sign of protest against a corrupt system or a showing of solidarity with a third party candidate, please realize: Staying home on November 8th is an act of complicity. For anyone who believes abstaining from voting would send a message, you’re right. But it may not be the message you want to send. Not electing Hillary Clinton would be a message to politicians, to our children, and to the rest of the world that the majority of adult United States citizens are willing to give the most powerful position in our government to a publicly racist man who is proud of sexual assault. It would be telling our kids that as much as we say social justice, human rights, bodily autonomy, respect, and basic human decency are important values, what really matters is being a wealthy, white cis-het man who is comfortable doing whatever it takes to get himself ahead. It would be teaching our kids that the things he has said and done claiming women’s bodies as his playthings and endorsing public violence are somehow excusable. Handing this man the presidency would be telling the world that the basic rights and safety of women, people of colour, Muslims, immigrants, and children mean nothing us. His most recent comments are alarming, but not surprising. As others have said again and again, his most recent comments are exactly consistent with whom he has shown himself to be for years.

Every time there is an election with a particularly onerous candidate getting a lot of press, I get upset and discouraged, but something about this candidate, as Hillary Clinton said clearly in the last debate, is different. We do not just disagree on certain issues; he is injecting so much bigotry and fear into the public sphere that I have not been able to find the words to express myself, and as a writer at heart, that terrifies me. That said, I’ve been silent on this blog for too long as some sort of act of self-preservation, because it’s all too painful to think about for long enough to put words down, and that is not okay. If with all my cis White American privilege, I can’t even bring myself to make a public statement, then I feel like I’m just rolling over for him. We need everyone in our country shouting from the rooftops that this man does not represent us. We are not complicit.

Unfortunately, we do not have the choice of whether or not to give this man power. He already has taken it. We do have the choice of how much more power to give him. Please ask yourself what you want to tell your children, your siblings’ children, and your friends’ children when they ask you what you did to stop this man from becoming president. We are not complicit. Please vote. Please vote. Please vote. Please vote. Please vote. Please vote. I don’t know how else to plead. A missed vote for Hillary is a vote for her Republican opponent. Please vote.

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 🙂

Integrity in Teaching

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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?