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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks: A Lesson on Meaning

I don't normally use this blog for anything other than picture-book based philosophical discussions. This entry, on the occasion of the death of Oliver Sacks, is an exception.   

Today, six months after his beautiful, invigorating piece in the NYT announcing his terminal illness, Oliver Sacks has died.

I've read most of Sacks's published work and I have to say I have found few people as contagious in their enthusiasm as he was. He was so fascinated that he was fascinating.

This summer I read On the Move. A Life. Some people are inspiring by speaking about what they do and why they do it, rather by trying to tell others what to do. Oliver Sacks was one of them.

I love his talent for inspiring curiosity and inquiring passion through narrative. Isn't that what education should be about? Not only about inspiring children but about inspiring them to inspire others; making them aware that their own curiosity and passion has the power to spark it in fellow students, seniors and juniors and giving them the tools and opportunity to narrate their curiosity and passion in ways that do just that.

I love Sacks' way of constructing connections and celebrating tangential, tentative, sometimes seemingly lunatic connections. The fun of connecting one idea with another idea, one's experience with one's ideas and the ideas or experiences of others. The thrill of discovering or inventing connections.

Whenever I read anything by Sacks, I find myself desperately needing to get my hands on every single book he mentions, including books about things I know absolutely nothing about and had never even thought about before. And constantly asking myself how much more meaning one could pack into a single life.

Back in February, in his piece for the New York Times where he announced he only had a few months left to live, Sacks said: 'I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can'. 

But unlike many who learn of their imminent death, this wasn't a resolution to change, but a hope for continuity. Oliver Sacks exemplified the meaning of life and then exited beautifully. Happily, rather a lot of that meaning remains in his work.

Thank you.

Text by Ellen Duthie. Copy or reproduce it, but please be nice and quote your source!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Story of Ferdinand: animal rights, violence, conformity and obedience to authority

The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
Original edition:  The Viking Press, 1936
A more recent edition: Puffin Books, 2011
There is also a famous Disney short of the story.

This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Madeleine Lifsey for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The Story
The Story of Ferdinand tells of a young, peaceful bull, who lives in a pasture with his mother and a large group of other young bulls. All the other bulls like to run and buck all day long, but he prefers to sit under his favourite tree and smell the flowers. When five scary men come to take the meanest bulls away, Ferdinand stays calm and content, assuming the men will not choose him. Suddenly, a bee stings Ferdinand. Startled, he loses control, bucking and fussing more than anyone else! Assuming that he is a very fierce bull, the men take Ferdinand away against his will, and they force him into the fighting ring. However, they become very angry when they find he refuses to fight…

The Philosophy in the Story
Our society puts a lot of emphasis on teaching children to make “ethical choices,” but it would be difficult for any of us to determine a clear set of criteria that makes an action “right” or “wrong” each time. The Story of Ferdinand is an example of a young protagonist who grows up very comfortable in his own skin and with his own decisions, but is soon confronted with difficult situations that challenge his peaceful way of life. Young children can use Ferdinand’s story to confront their own questions about ethical dilemmas. Each question set deals with the larger issue of how we make choices in our interactions with others, but this question can be broken up into more specific topics. Looking at how the men interact with Ferdinand can spark a discussion on Animal Rights. The next three topics deal with Ferdinand’s choices, rather than the men’s. Ferdinand’s passivity informs a discussion on Violence. Considering why Ferdinand does not follow the other bulls’ example of rough play leads to a discussion on Conformity. Finally, examining why Ferdinand does not follow the men’s orders leads to a discussion on Obeying Authority.

Animal Rights
The first question set deals specifically with interactions between species. Our society teaches us that humans have the right to use non-human animals for our own purposes as we see fit. Most humans view themselves as somehow “higher” or more important than all other animals, but they have a difficult time justifying why they feel this way. Does this concept need to be re-examined? Most students will agree that Ferdinand should not have been taken away and hurt, but they may disagree about whether or not his species makes a difference, and if so, why. If Ferdinand were a human, there would be little debate that the abuse he suffers is a crime. However, many reason that species membership is an arbitrary distinction that should not be the basis for how one is treated, no more than should race, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Illustrating this standpoint, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, maintained that the question is not “‘Can they reason?,’ nor ‘Can they talk,’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” Contemporary philosopher Peter Singer agrees that while species membership is not a distinguishing moral characteristic, sentience – that is, self-awareness and ability to suffer – is. We know that non-humans suffer acutely, both physically and mentally – for instance, mother cows will bellow hysterically when their calves are taken away from them, showing clear signs of distress long afterwards. If we agree that taking Ferdinand from his mother and his home and hurting him for our entertainment is wrong, then we must ask ourselves whether it is ever okay to exploit animals – for our entertainment, for our clothing, for our cosmetic products, for our food, or for anything else - and if so, how we decide when and why it is okay.

Prompts for philosophical discussion about animal rights
Ferdinand wants to stay with his mother and sit quietly under his favourite tree, but the five men come and take him away to hurt him and make him fight.

  1. How do you think the men were able to make Ferdinand come with them even though he did not want to? Were they right to do this? Why or why not?
  2. Does being able to do something mean you should do it? Why or why not?
  3. If not, what is something you could do but should not do? Why?
  4. Are animals here for our entertainment?
  5. Do we have a responsibility to respect and/or to protect animals?
  6. What is more important: What Ferdinand wants to do, or what the fighting men want him to do? Why?
  7. If Ferdinand were a human being, would your answer be different? Why or why not?
  8. If someone hurt a person who has the same skin color as you, would you be more upset than if someone hurt someone who was very different from you? Would it matter if they were shorter, taller, younger, or older than you? Why or why not?
  9. Which would make you more upset, someone hurting a close friend of yours, or someone hurting a stranger? Why?
  10. Why do some kinds of differences seem to matter when we decide how we treat each other, while other differences do not?

When the men come, Ferdinand is calm because he assumes they will not choose him, but when a bee stings him and he bucks, the men take him away.

  1. Why do the men believe that Ferdinand is fierce?
  2. Can we know what someone is thinking or feeling just by watching his/her behavior? Do you ever think you can tell what your pets are thinking? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. Do the men ask how Ferdinand feels? Should they?

The second question set deals with violence in general, which should certainly be considered regarding interactions between humans and non-humans, but also among humans themselves. Children are taught from an early age “don’t fight,” but it is sometimes difficult to tell what this means. What about in self-defense? In considering Ferdinand’s reaction to the violent men who want to “stick” him with pins and spears, students can debate ways to respond when someone else initiates a fight. Some argue that once someone has been provoked, any kind of violence can be justified if committed in self-defense. Others maintain that violence is never acceptable. For instance, many advocate ahimsa, or “no harm,” a Sanskrit term that is the foundation of many Eastern philosophies. A subscriber to ahimsa, like Mahatma Gandhi, a peace activist and celebrated pioneer of passive resistance, would maintain that a nonviolent response is always more appropriate. While we teach the general mantra, “don’t fight,” television, video games, and other forms of entertainment tend to portray a violent lifestyle as the norm and as something to admire and emulate. Sometimes some forms of “fighting” can be healthy forms of play, like when children wrestle together. However, does this mean that there is something wrong with not enjoying rough play or violent video games? Parents and educators have been disputing through the ages whether violent play and entertainment is healthy or not; here is a chance for children to add their voices to the debate.
Prompts for philosophical discussion about violence
Everyone in the story except for Ferdinand and his mother enjoy fighting.

  1. Why didn’t Ferdinand enjoy fighting?
  2. Do you think certain types of fighting can be fun? When and how? Why or why not?
  3. Is fighting ever the right thing to do? Is it ever the wrong thing to do? When? How do you know?
  4. Is it ever okay not to fight back when someone wants to fight with you? Why or why not?
  5. What should you do if you don’t want to fight, but someone tries to start a fight with you?
  6. Do the answers to questions #2-#5 depend on whom you are fighting?
  7. Does it matter if the one you are fighting is weaker or stronger than you?
  8. Can a fight ever be fair? What makes it fair or unfair? Explain.

A big crowd comes to watch the men fight with Ferdinand.

  1. Have you ever had fun watching someone else fight? (hockey, wrestling, kickboxing – bullfighting!) What makes it fun?
  2. Is it still fun to watch if someone gets really hurt? Why or why not?
  3. Is there such a thing as a “good fight?” What makes it “good?” (entertaining, fair, difficult for both sides, safe?)
  4. Do you think the men’s fight with Ferdinand would have been safe for both sides? Why or why not?
  5. Is there a way to fight but make sure that no one gets hurt? How is this type of “safer” fighting different from other kinds of fights?
  6. Do you do martial arts? (Karate, Taekwondo, etc.)
  7. Is that a different kind of fighting than the kind of fighting in the book? (self-defense, everyone there is choosing to engage in the fight)
  8. Are there rules in our school/community about different kinds of fighting?
  9. Do these rules protect you? How?
  10. Would you ever want to change those rules? If so, what do you think should be the rules about how, why, when, where, and whom we fight? Explain.
  11. Should everyone have to follow the same rules about fighting? Why or why not?

Children, especially males, often grow up socialized to believe that they should be “tough,” and this can manifest itself in a number of assumptions about how we should behave. Amidst a cohort of young bulls who like to beat each other up all day long, Ferdinand is the lone, sensitive bull who prefers to smell the flowers. At first, when Ferdinand’s mother sees all the other young bulls playing a certain way and sees Ferdinand behaving differently, she worries that something is wrong, but when she understands that he is happy, she relaxes. Ferdinand’s mother ultimately decides that it is okay for Ferdinand to be different, but her initial concerns reflect the underlying ethical question of whether there is something inherently good or bad about conforming to social norms. Some argue that social norms originate outside the self and thus should not govern how the individual behaves, while others maintain that social norms serve an important role in regulating our behavior to best serve the interests of society.
Students will often decide that it is completely okay for two different groups (or a group and one “outlier”) to enjoy different things, but some may argue that it is important for peers all to behave the same way in certain situations. The discussion on conformity can focus specifically on peer pressure and bullying, which is especially appropriate in a school context and can be combined with the discussion on violence (see above). If everyone else around you is doing something, can you assume that it is okay? When phrased this way, it may seem that the answer is clearly “no.” However, given specific situations, our answers may become more complex. After all, we model our behavior on those around us, and so it can be difficult to determine when to follow and when to protest. One interesting activity would be to go around the circle and have each student think of a time in which they felt different from everyone around them. Most likely, everyone has felt this way at some point, and there will be those who feel this way most of the time. We could structure an entire session on the nature of “feeling different” and the ethical issues it raises.

Prompts for philosophical discussion regarding conformity 
All of the other bulls with whom Ferdinand grew up like to run and fight, but Ferdinand wants to live peacefully.

  1. What do you think the other bulls thought of Ferdinand?
  2. Have you ever wanted to do something different than what all your friends wanted to do? How did you handle it?
  3. If you did what you wanted to do instead of what your friends wanted to do, did they make fun of you? Did you or your friends end up changing your mind?
  4. Have you ever felt different from everyone around you? What was that like?
  5. Is being different sometimes a good thing, a bad thing, or neither? Why do you think so?
  6. Why do you think people get upset so often when one person acts differently from everyone else?
  7. Can it be threatening to see someone behave or think differently than you do? Why?
  8. If a new student joined your classroom and every one of your classmates started bullying him or her, would you join in? Why or why not? Would you try to stop it? Why or why not?
  9. If enough people decide something is right, does that make it right? If enough people decide something is wrong, does that make it wrong?

Obedience to Authority
At the elementary level, children are just starting to grapple with the question of whether their caregivers are always right or have all the answers (and quickly learning that the answer may be a resounding no!) However, just because our caregivers are not always right does not mean that they are not generally excellent role models. How do we know when to listen to someone and whom to trust? Children may suggest many different criteria. For example, we trust people who we have seen do good things in the past, people who have more education that we do, people who are older than us, and so on. None of these suggestions is right or wrong; the important thing is that students can take it a step further to articulate why. Ferdinand’s story offers a springboard to discuss how we know whom to obey. The scary men tell him he must fight, but he disagrees. Was he right to do so, and why?

Prompt for philosophical discussion regarding Obedience to Authority
The Banderilleros, the Picadores, and the Matador are angry because Ferdinand will not obey them and fight.
  1. Should Ferdinand have listened to the men and fought them?
  2. Why did Ferdinand decide not to fight?
  3. What are some ways we try to decide whether something is right or wrong?
  4. If an adult you trust tells you to steal something, but you think that stealing is wrong, would you do it anyway?
  5. Are adults always right?
  6. Do we trust certain adults [caregivers? educators?] more than others? Why or why not?

This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Madeleine Lifsey for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  
(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Robert Lawson, 1936

Monday, July 9, 2012

Shrek!: aesthetic judgements, the relationship between desire and beauty and why we love what we love

Shrek! by William Steig
Original edition: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1990. 
Our edition: Square Fish, 2007
This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Hilary Pollan edited by Jayme Johnson for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The Story
Shrek is an ogre who lives in a swampy home. One day Shrek's parents tell him to leave the swamp to go see the world and do some damage. Soon after Shrek leaves he meets a Witch who gives him a fortune to go wed a princess. After receiving his fortune, Shrek sets off on a journey to find the princess. Along the way he meets a pheasant carrying peasants, fights a whopper of a dragon, has bad dreams about happy little children, meets a jabbering donkey, fights a fearless knight, and gets lost in a hall of mirrors filled with ugly Shreks. Shrek is not phased by the fact that his ugliness overwhelms everyone he meets. In fact, he loves being so repulsive! When Shrek finally meets his stunningly ugly princess they instantly fall in love, get married, and live horribly ever after.

The Philosophy in the Story 
Shrek lives in a world where he perceives what is typically considered ugly by the general population to be in fact beautiful.  As philosophers, we must ask questions about how we define objects as beautiful and ugly. Philosophers refer to judgments of beauty and ugliness as aesthetic judgments, for which two main arguments exist: 1) that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and thus a matter of personal taste or preference, or 2) that there is a set of standards or principles that make something beautiful.  The second argument also believes that all people with good taste will have positive responses to an object of beauty, or in other words that there is a universal acceptance of what is beautiful. When considering what makes Shrek ugly, for example, the first argument would say that Shrek is ugly because he does not appeal to the characters he meets on his journey.  The second argument, however, would say that Shrek is ugly because he objectively lacks any degree of the property of being beautiful. In other words, on the second view, Shrek is considered ugly because, objectively speaking, he ''is''. 

Defining Ugliness:
Shrek’s mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together
  • (look at a picture of Shrek) What makes Shrek ugly?
  • How does Shrek feel about his ugliness?  Does he like or it or dislike it?
  • How do other characters in the book feel about Shrek? 
  • How can people think different things are ugly? 
  • What about a beauty contest? How do the judges choose the most beautiful?

Shrek not only looks ugly, but he also seems to do ugly things, things that to most people seem dirty, fraudulent, and dangerous. Nevertheless, Shrek is still a desirable character. So even though, for example, we feel appalled at Shrek's narcissistic delight in discovering that the “hundreds of hideous creatures” he sees in the hall of mirrors are all images of himself, we nevertheless find ourselves rooting for Shrek. We want him to succeed, and find happiness. As philosophers we might ask questions about the connection between beauty and desire. Typically we associate good with beautiful and bad with ugly. Usually people desire what is good, and thus people desire to see beautiful things. Some philosopher’s, however, argue that that we don’t in fact need desire to see things as beautiful. What this means is that we can desire things concerning beauty, but it’s not intrinsic to the pleasure of beauty and the universal acceptance of beauty. This is not to say though that beauty cannot produce desire. What is interesting in Shrek's case is that he does see his ugliness as beauty. This not only brings the debate back around to the question of whether beauty is subjective or objective, it also makes provides an example of the connection between desire and beauty. Shrek desires to be horrible, because for him, horribleness is beautiful.  
Looking Ugly and Being Ugly: 
Some things that Shrek does, like taking down the dragon and the knight, might be considered mean.
  • What does Shrek do that is mean? 
  • What does Shrek do that is nice?
  • Would you call  Shrek more or less ugly based on his actions? 
  • Why do we call things ugly? Do we only call things ugly if we don’t like them?
  • What is it that we don’t like about someone that makes us think they are ugly? Is it just looks/appearance, or do other things play a role? 
  • Can you think things/people are beautiful even if they do mean things? 
  • Are people more beautiful when they only do nice things? 
This intermingling of the subjective understanding of beauty and the connection between beauty and desire is again raised in Shrek's love for the ugly princess.   As philosophers we ask if he’s falling in love with her because he has a positive response to her physical beauty. Does he thinks she is beautiful? Or, does he love her because she is like him? Philosophers have said that to love someone is to identify ourselves with him/her. Furthermore, loving someone is when we make a decision to dedicate ourselves to their values. As philosophers we question the nature of Shrek and the princess’s love, and the nature of love in general. 

Love and Ugliness:
Shrek falls in love with the princess because she is stunningly ugly.
  • Can you like things that are ugly? 
  • Can you love someone who has warts or is hairy like the princess? 
  • Do people love other people/things only because of the way they look? 
  • Do we only love people who are like us?  

There are two other important things to stress before teaching this book. Firstly, this book is the basis for a popular movie and while the book and movie share similar plots, their content is rather different. This book module is for the BOOK not for the movie.  The second important thing to note is that this book contains some difficult vocabulary. These words include: repulsive, warts, to get hitched, scything, rabid, noggin, peasant and knight. It’d be best to make sure children understand these words before reading the story.

This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Hilary Pollan edited by Jayme Johnson, and translated by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Wiliam Steig, 1990.  

Harold and the Purple Crayon: Deciphering Reality

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Harper, 1955
Our edition: HarperCollins, 2005
This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Jayme Johnson and Claire Bartholome, and translated by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The story
Harold thinks it over for some time before deciding to go for a walk in the moonlight. 

This may seem unremarkable, but it is not. There is no moon. There is nothing to walk on. There is nowhere to go. The only things that are real are Harold and the purple crayon. So he decides to get drawing.  

The Philosophy in the Story
The overarching theme of Harold and the Purple Crayon is deciphering reality. As an oddly ambiguous and usually assumed idea, the discussion of “reality” will throw the children into a fun and active topsy-turvy discussion of what it means to be real, and how one gives objects the power of reality. In a world represented by a blank page, Harold is free to draw his surroundings with his big purple crayon. Is Harold making-believe? Is that different from what is real? The questions in this set revolve around the children’s perception of reality.  Harold interacts with his drawings in a very “real” way.

What makes something real real? 

The first question in this set addresses a secondary character that follows Harold throughout the story: the moon. The idea of the moon as a constant in the night sky is one children tend to agree with. What complicates this situation however is the fact that when the moon is absent in Harold’s world, he draws it with his purple crayon above him in the “sky”. This is left the children to question the validity or reality of Harold’s world. If Harold can draw a moon in the sky, it seems that he could not possibly be existing in the “real” world. And furthermore, he must simply be pretending because, as the children may point out, no one could draw a “real” moon in the sky. Or could they? What makes the moon we observe any more “real” than Harold’s moon? 
Question set 1. When Harold notices the moon is missing from his walk, he uses his purple crayon to draw a moon in the sky.
  • Is the moon that Harold draws the same as the moon we can see in the sky at night?
  • Which moon is the "real" moon?
  • What makes it "real"?

Does fear of something make that something real? 

The second and third question sets revolve around Harold’s experience. As the questions in the second set indicate, Harold seems to be in danger during part of the story, he may even be afraid of the objects he draws. For some of the children this may indicate a level of reality that is not at first apparent. To have feelings either sensory or emotional about an object indicates that the object holds some form of power over its observer. This power is translated to designate a level of “reality” as compared to the surrounding world. 

Then the task is outlining the differences or definitions that make something real. These qualities in Harold’s drawings further blur the line between what is presumably the “real” world outside of the story. When Harold falls from the hill that he climbs, and when he stumbles into the ocean he has drawn, it seems as though his life is seriously in danger. This fear is a form of power Harold has passively given to his drawings. 

On the other hand, one may ask if that gives the ocean or the rock the physical reality to harm Harold. Physical reality and the scientific properties therein sometimes indicate a kind of absolute reality that is independent of Harold. The children can then begin to question the idea that if an observer were not around, objects would still exist. Physical properties seem to give objects a sense of absolute reality. However, most people will never see a tree at a purely molecular level, they will see a tree as brown and green, using subjective measurements within each individual. The kids will then be able to draw their own connections about whether believing in something, or fearing it, gives it reality for the observer and thus an absolute reality independent of the observer. 
Question set 2. When Harold falls into the "ocean" that he draws, do you think his life is in danger, do you think he could drown?
  • Do you think Harold is afraid of the ocean?
  • Does his fear make the drawing more "real"?
  • Do emotions and beliefs make things real?
Are dreams real? 
In the third question set, the conclusions from the second set can again be reevaluated. Although the emotions or physical danger Harold may feel could be classified as “real”, where do they exist?  In this stage, the children can begin to question the idea that Harold could be dreaming this entire world that he depicts.  If Harold is dreaming all of this, it seems easier to swallow, we as an audience can attribute these “fantasies” to something we know and also experience.  However, the next step in the debate is a discussion of the reality of dreams. Are dreams “real” in the way we have previously defined the term (see question set 1)? The children may choose then to reevaluate their definition of “real”. 
The boat seems to save Harold from drowning.  Do you think that what is happening to Harold is real?
  • Are the things happening to Harold in his mind or somewhere else?
  • Could it be that everything happening to Harold is a dream?
  • Are dreams real?
Can you make an accident happen?

In the fourth question set, we begin to discuss the idea of Harold as a character in these drawings. If these are Harold’s drawings and they belong to him, could accidents happen within them? In this way the students will continue to discuss and stretch the reality of Harold’s world. The role of ownership in the story is undefined in the story and in the lives of the children themselves. Do people have control over the events that occur in their lives, are they purely accidental, or can they be attributed to another force?  The students can describe Harold’s accidents and relate them to their own in a connection that will help them to understand the concept universally. 
When Harold steps over the edge of the mountain, he begins to fall through the air.  Do you think that it was an accident?
  • Did Harold know that was going to happen to him?
  • Can there be accidents in Harold's world even if he's drawing them?
  • Can you make an accident happen?
As seen in the fifth question set, Harold also is subject to being lost in his own drawing, lost in the world he created. He travels for a long and perilous journey to find his bedroom window and when he finally does, it is questionable whether he even needed to walk through the cities of windows to find his own at all. If this crayon gives Harold the power to create his bedroom anywhere then it is curious why he is so intent on searching for his “real” window. Being so submerged in one’s own creations gives them the ultimate sense of power and reality because at this point of the story as Harold frantically searches for his window, there is the sense that Harold cannot escape the world he has created even if he would want to. The idea of transcending reality seems like it would generally be too “heavy” for children to understand, but through Harold’s story, it becomes possible that we are all existing in a world we have created and cannot escape from. This leads the children to question the world “outside” of Harold’s world. They can compare themselves with Harold and thus apply his story to their own existence.

 If Harold is drawing his own world, why does it take him so long to find his window?
  • Do you think Harold could get lost in the world he is drawing? 
  • Could he be imagining that he is lost? 
  • What does it mean to be lost? 

In a kind of climax of the question sets, the children are forced to address an event common to their own lives and understand the role of reality in it. All the children are likely to relate to Harold’s nine-pie picnic.  However, in the illustration and description of the book, it is glaringly obvious that Harold is drawing the pies in one moment and then has supposedly eaten them in another. This picnic is reminiscent of a make-believe tea party that you throw for you and your stuff animals to enjoy. In this case it is a hungry moose and a deserving porcupine that interact with Harold. For the children who may have previously defined Harold as un-realistic, this is an example intended to make them define their positions. What is going on in this story?  Is it make-believe, a dream, reality, or something else? Encouraging the students to back up their beliefs with reasons and evidence will help them to formulate and understand this verbal debate oriented dialogue.
Harold draws himself a picnic with nine different pies. 
  • Have you ever had an imaginary tea party or an imaginary picnic?
  • Is that what Harold is doing in the story?  Is he making-believe? 
  • Or could the events "really" be happening to him?
  • What's the difference between "make-believe" and "real"?
This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Jayme Johnson and Claire Bartholome, and translated by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Crocket Johnson, 1955. Copyright renewed 1983 by Ruth Krauss. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Frederick: Community, Work and Poetry

Frederick, by Leo Lionni, 1967
Random House

This text is a reproduction of a module written by Nicole Giambalvo, translated by myself and revised by Mariana Zárate for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The story
Winter is near and all the field mice are busy preparing and gathering food for the cold months ahead - all except for Frederick. Always the daydreamer, Frederick is preparing a small surprise that will warm the hearts and feed the spirits of his fellow mice when they need it most.

The philosophy in the story
The story Frederick raises philosophical questions regarding the nature of community, the value of work and the nature of poetry (and art in general).  

The Nature of Community
The Nature of Community and the social philosophy that governs community is the first issue we shall address. Frederick's story appears to be sympathetic to Collectivism, a term that describes any moral, political or social outlook that stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective, rather than the importance of separate individuals. Early socialist and communist philosophers inspired Collectivists, like Hegel and Marx. Collectivists are concerned with community and society and seek to give priority to group goals over individual goals. They believe that a type of “social contract” exists in which the terms of this contract are decided by the “general will” of the people. In the story, Frederick contributed to the mouse community in a different way than the other mice. Yet, did he violate the social contract by not also helping to gather food?

Questions for philosophical discussion regarding the nature of community: 

"I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we'll run out of things to say ."
  • What makes a community?
  • Try to think of some communities you are a part of. How do you know they are communities?
  • Your school is a community and everybody contributes something to it. The mice have a community, too, and everyone is contributing something. What and how do the mice contribute?
  • Does everybody have to do his or her part in a community?
  • What does Frederick contribute?
  • Frederick is a part of the mouse community. Does Frederick deserve to get some of the food even though he didn’t gather any of it?
  • Do you think it’s fair that he gets some of the food? Why or why not?
The Nature and Value of Work

Frederick also poses questions about the Nature of Work. There are many arguments about what actions are considered to be work, and it is not clear-cut in our society what is considered work and what isn't. In the story, Frederick does not physically work, but still makes a contribution to the mouse family. Is Frederick working? 

Karl Marx's Labor theory of value suggests that the labor one does is only equal to its value in society. Use-value determines the value of goods produced. Marx would view Frederick's contribution as not socially necessary or not valuable or as valuable as the other mice's contribution, since they contributed to the survival of the whole family. If they had not run out of food, Frederick's poetry may not have had any use-value. 

On the otherhand, one might argue that Frederick's contribution was necessary. Perhaps poetry is unique and only valued for as much as one is willing to pay. If Frederick were a famous poet, would his poetry be more valuable? Again, the focus on community and the roles of people in their community are addressed. Part of Marx's socialist theory stated that everyone would have to do some work in order to reap the benefits. Is it fair that Frederick gets to eat the food?

Questions for philosophical discussion regarding the nature of work: 
“I do work,” said Frederick. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” 
  • Do you think Frederick is working?
  • When do you feel like you’re working?
  • If you like something is it still work?
  • Do you think going to school is work?
  • Is your favorite subject work? What about your least favorite subject?
  • Does work have to be hard? Why or why not?
  • What is the difference between work and play? Give an example of something you do that you think is work and something you think is play.
  • Do you have to be paid for working? Why or why not?
  • Some people play professional sports and they get paid, are they working?
  • Do only adults work?
  • Does work have to be physical? Why or why not?
  • What can or can’t be work?
  • Is thinking work?

Questions for philosophical discussion regarding the value of work:
"What about your supplies, Frederick?"
  • What makes a type of work important?
  • Do you think Frederick’s work was worth as much as the other mice’s work? Why or why not?
  • If something is not important or not as important does that mean it’s not work?
  • Can they both be equally important, but in different ways? What are the differences?
  • What would have happened to the mice if Frederick hadn’t written poetry?
The Nature and Value of Poetry (and Art)

The social importance of art and the role of the artist in society are other topics addressed in the story. What was Frederick's role? Many poets debate these questions among themselves. Some focus on how much or why a poet is paid to write as essential to knowing the social function of poetry. Others say the content of poetry reflects its specific utility, or that the way a poem makes us feel and connects us to other human beings serves as its social function. Still others argue that poetry's social function is to just be, that one can take what she wants from poetry. Thus, the importance of poetry, or any type of art, in our society is not clear. Frederick's contribution of poetry to the mouse family was useful, but many would argue that food and shelter are more important than art in regards to the family's survival.

Questions for philosophical discussion regarding the nature and value of poetry:
"But Frederick," they said, "you are a poet!"
  • Do you like poetry? How about Frederick’s poem? Why or why not?
  • Why do people write poetry?
  • Is being a poet a job? Why or why not?
  • Is poetry work or play? Why?
  • Do people need poetry? Is it important? Why or why not?
  • Was having poetry as important as having food for the mice? What about for people? Why or why not?
  • Why is it important for people to have art such as paintings, poetry, and music?
This text is a reproduction of a module written by Nicole Giambalvo, translated by myself and revised by Mariana Zárate for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.
(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Leo Lionni, 1967

The Big Box: Rules and Freedom

The Big Box, by Toni Morrison and Giselle Potter
Hyperion Books, 1999

This text is a reproduction of a module written by Taryn Hargrove, Mary Cowhey and Thomas Wartenberg, and translated by Mariana Zárate and revised by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The story
Because they do not abide by the rules written by the adults around them, three children are judged unable to handle their fredom and forced to live in a box with three locks on the door. 

The philosophy in the story
The Big Box is about three very energetic children "who just can't handle their freedom". To make these children abide by the rules, the grown-ups create a world inside a box, a world with toys and games, treats and gifts, and all kinds of stuff they think kids need to be happy and carefree. They are three locks on the door, which opens only one way. 

Life inside the box
The first set of questions is designed to elicit discussion regarding the life in the box. 

Life in the box, depending on how you look at it, may be a happy place for the children. The children can be who they are and have no one judge or punish them. They are free to do what they want in that confined area. On the other hand the box could be an unhappy place for the children. The children are given everything that adults assume would make the children happy. Are the children happy with all the clothes, toys, and candy? What makes us happy? There is a conflict between happiness and what people perceive happiness to be? Some children consider happiness to be freedom of speech and freedom to do what they what. Other children may be happy with materialistic things. 

The questions make us think about what truly makes us happy. If you were put into the box, what would you choose to put in the box with you? Why do the children stay in the box? Some may say they are scared to go out and face the rest of the world. Others may say that they are happy in their own little world.

Questions to prompt philosophical discussion about life in the box

  • What is a one-way door?
  • Does our classroom open two ways or one?
  • What are the locks for?
  • What's good about life in the box?
  • Do kids need toys, snacks, and cool clothes?
  • If they have cool toys, clothes, snacks and other stuff in the box, why aren't they happy?
  • What would we need to give you that would make you happy to live in the box?
  • Why do they stay in the box?
The meaning of rules
The second set of questions explores the meaning of rules. These questions allow us to evaluate whether rules are important in our communities. What would happen if our society did not have rules? Rules are important for structure, organization, and safety in society. Do the rules we have make our communities perfect? Even though we have rules we still have the freedom to make our own decisions.

Questions to prompt philosophical discussion about the meaning of rules

  • Do we need rules in our homes, classroom, school, and community? Why?
  • Who makes the rules?
  • Who has to follow them?
  • What if there were no rules?
  • Would you like to go to a school with no rules?
  • What would be good about it? What might be bad about it?
  • What are some good rules that you like at home or at school?
  • What rules did the kids follow?
  • Did anyone even notice what they did right?
  • What are appropriate consequences for breaking rules?

The concept of freedom
Freedom is the last topic of discussion. We are absolutely sure that there are at least some cases where we make decisions, and that in making them we are free and hence responsible for these decisions. We cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a community in which there is no such thing as responsibility. On the other hand, does freedom actually exist? With a lack of resources are we still free to do what you wish to do? Freedom appears to be impossible in a world where everything runs its ordinary course and no irregularities happen. But why is that so?

Questions to prompt philosophical discussion about the concept of freedom

  • What does that line mean, when the adults say to the kids, "You simple can't handle your freedom."?
  • What if parents decided that their two year old could handle her freedom and just let their baby go free? What would happen?
  • What if the parents decided you could completely handle your freedom and just told you to go free? What would happen?
  • When you are 18 years old, do you think you will be ready to "go free"?
  • When you are free, do you still have to follow some rules?
  • Why do people call the United States of America a free country if there are rules here?
  • If a two year old is not able to handle freedom, what would make someone older ready to handle freedom?
  • What does the older person know or have that the two year old doesn't?
This text is a reproduction of a module written by Taryn Hargrove, Mary Cowhey and Thomas Wartenberg, and translated by Mariana Zárate and revised by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Giselle Potter, 1999

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Press Here: causality and the paradox of fiction

Press Here, by Hervé Tullet
Chronicle Books, 2011

The book
Press Here by Hervé Tullet is one of the most innovative, clever and sophisticated children's books published in recent years. Books can't get more interactive than this, yet it has absolutely no gimmicks, sounds or batteries in it. Pure paper. And imagination. Lots. 

It starts off with a blank page and a yellow dot in the middle of it and invites you to "press here and turn the page". And the magic starts. On the next page, there are two yellow dots, and we are invited to press again and turn. The next page shows three dots. Here we are invited to rub one of them gently and turn the page, to discover we've made it go red. Over the next pages we are invited to tap a dot and turn the page (to discover our taps have generated a tower of dots), to shake the book and turn the page (to discover we've made all the dots move about the page), to press down hard on all the yellow dots (to discover on the following page we've made the light go off and it's all black), to blow hard "to get rid of the black", to clap and make the dots grow, and grow and grow, until we eventually end up with a white background and yellow dot again and are invited to do it all over again. Sheer genius. And a great little techno-generation joke.  

The publisher's own book trailer is probably the best way to explain what it is and what it does!

The philosophy in the book
Press Here touches on two main philosophically interesting issues, namely, causality and the paradox of fiction. 

Two thematic blocks of questions to prompt debate among children follow, with a very brief and general, non-specialised and name-free background introduction to each of them for teachers / parents / grandparents / anyone out there interested. 

The paradox of fiction

The paradox of fiction refers to people being "moved" (normally emotionally) by fictional characters, events or situations despite knowing that they are fictional and not real. How can we explain that we feel sad for a character in a book even though we know that they do not really exist? Or that we feel frightened by a monster in a film, despite knowing that no such monster exists? Or, in the case of Press Here, that we reach out and press, or blow, or clap, despite knowing that we are not really making anything happen when we do so? 

Philosophers of art have tried to explain this paradox in different ways. Some have suggested that, with fiction (at least with good fiction), we enter a special state whereby we willingly suspend disbelief and -at least momentarily- embrace it as "real". Others suggest that it's not entirely accurate to say we are moved by fictional characters or events. When we say we feel sad for a character in a book, what we are really saying is that we feel sorry for people in real life who could be in that situation or in a similar situation. Others suggest that it is another form of "pretending" or make-believe (that is, we don't "really" feel sad or frightened, we are just pretending). 

Press Here is interesting in this way, because, although not strictly emotionally, it does move us in a very clear way, to take part and engage in the illusion that we are making things happen in the book, even though we know very well we are not. And this does not only happen the first time we read it. It happens again and again every time we look at it. 

Prompts for philosophical discussion about the paradox of fiction

  • Is Press Here different from other books you have read? In what ways? What makes it different? What do you like about it? 
  • Who makes things happen in the book?
  • Is Press Here like magic?  
  • Did you laugh while you were reading it? What do you think made you laugh?     
  • How hard did you blow on the black to get rid of it? How did you feel when you turned the page and saw that a lot of the black was gone? 
  • If you know that it's not you making things happen, why do you do it? What makes you continue doing it? 
  • Is Press Here a book or a game? Why?
  • Are all books a kind of game? 


Press Here plays with the assumption that our actions are "causing" things to happen; that when we press a dot, we make it duplicate, that when we blow, we get rid of the black, that when we clap, we make the dots grow, etc.  In doing so, it raises timeless philosophical questions regarding causality. 

Prompts for philosophical discussion about causality
  • 1a. When you press the yellow button on the first page of Press Here, it turns into two on the second page. By pressing it, do you cause the one yellow button to turn into two? 
  • 1b. When you press a doorbell, it rings. By pressing it, are you causing the doorbell to ring?
  • 1c. What is the difference between the two cases above? What is it that makes us say that in 1b there is a cause-effect relationship between pressing the doorbell and it ringing, whereas in 1a there is no cause-effect relationship between pressing the button and it turning into two?  
  • 2. How can we know when two things are linked through cause and effect? If you pressed a doorbell and you suddenly felt ill, would you think it was an effect of having pressed the doorbell? Why? 
  • 3. Does experience of seeing two events occurring one after the other again and again confirm that there is a causal link between them? How many times do you think you have to see two events together to conclude there is a causal link between them? 
  • 4. Can you think of two things that always "go" together but do not have a causal link between them? 

General Comments
The philosophical questions raised by Press Here are quite abstract and may suit slightly older primary school children. Younger children will still enjoy thinking about some of the questions about the paradox of fiction though.  

Remember that the idea here is to use this as a very rough guide for a lively child-led discussion about the book. Let them lead and you follow their flow!

Enjoy! And leave a comment telling me how it went if you used any of the above  material. 

Read more about the idea behind these picture book reviews for philosophical discussion among children here and about some proposed general "discussion rules" for facilitators and participants, here (coming soon). 

(c) of all the images in this post, Hervé Tullet, 2011

(c) of text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and site.