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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beyond Close Reading: Engaging Children in Philosophical Inquiry

Close, analytic reading is an outcome of the Common Core State Standards. Students will be asked to apply close reading strategies during upcoming high stakes assessments and teachers will need to teach this important skill. Unfortunately, for those of us who view literacy as more than just knowledge acquisition, close reading feels dispassionate. When one reads closely, the text is privileged as the ultimate source of meaning making and the emotions that the text evokes are generally considered irrelevant.  Stepping too far outside of the four corners of the text is regarded as distracting.  During close reading routines, we ask students to analyze the text: What does the text say? What is your evidence in the text? Forget about wrestling with the grand philosophical meanings that well written texts engender, close reading isn't interested.

Although we are called to teach students to embrace analytic reading, at its core, literacy is more than just a cognitive or analytic act. Serving as a window into life's tough issues, literacy is meant to be savored, enjoyed, and grappled with. Indeed, Louise Rosenblatt reminded us that, "We read to find our way through life." So in the age of close reading, just how can we focus on the evocations that texts provide? Well, one avenue is through the marriage of picture books and philosophy.

Why Philosophy?

  1. Children are born philosophers.  If you've ever worked with young children, or been a parent, you've been confronted with some tough questions. In his book "Big Ideas for Little Kids" Thomas Wartenberg describes tucking his five year old in one night as the boy asked "How did the first human get here?" Children are natural inquisitors, not only about the spiritual workings of the world, but the social, ethical, and political dimensions as well.  As educators, we can leverage this inherent curiosity through philosophy.
  2. Philosophy relies upon imagination not reading levels. When children engage in philosophical inquiry, they aren't grouped by reading level or ability.  Rather, ones imagination and experiential knowledge drives the discussion.  Thus, children who have been marginalized by school due to low literacy levels can thrive in philosophical dialogue.  When a teacher reads a picture book aloud and prompts with philosophical questions evoked by the text, all children's ideas contribute to the co-construction of deeper meaning.  The greater the diversity of ideas, the richer the discussion.   
  3. Philosophy teaches Speaking and Listening. Mikhail Bakhtin noted that "Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction."   Philosophizing with children is a dialogic activity. Children learn ground rules of talk, co-construct knowledge, and deepen their understanding of issues through discourse with others. Invariably, as our children engage in more and more screen time, it is essential that they unplug and learn the norms of face to face discussions including the importance of eye contact and body language.  Philosophical inquiry facilitates this.
  4. Philosophical Inquiry Engenders Critical Thinking.  Musing about philosophical themes is no easy task.  Students must consider diverse viewpoints, demonstrate cognitive flexibility, and wrestle with abstract concepts.  When children consider the philosophical issues presented in a text, they are engaging in higher order thinking in a manner that is complex and engaging.
  5. Philosophy promotes healthy socio-emotional interactions.  In our violent and often emotionally tumultuous society, children need opportunities to process difficult events. Helping children engage in philosophical inquiry naturally allows them to work through issues of friendship, truth, values, and overall human behavior. For example, philosophical questions ask:
    1. Are there ever times when violence is okay?
    2. Is lying always wrong?
    3. What makes something you say true?
    4. What does it mean to be a friend?
    5. How do we know if something is real. Are aliens real?

Philosophical Inquiry and Picture Book Read Alouds

Some might believe that in order to teach philosophy, one needs a degree or expert training. Thankfully, this isn't the case. One way to engage children in philosophical inquiry is by using children's picture books. An excellent resource is Thomas Wartenberg's wiki which contains a plethora of book modules and discussion guides.  Wartenberg has also written a book that guides teachers through the practice of teaching philosophy with picture books. If you want expert training, Montclair State University houses the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (P4C) and provides training for teachers as well as the published curriculum, Philosophy for Children, for schools interested in adopting a school-wide approach. 

Whatever path you choose to take, don't forget that at the core of all philosophical inquiry is student centered discussions. For ideas on how to get kids talking, read my previous blog post about cultivating rich classroom discussions.  This week, I challenge you to take just one read aloud and facilitate a healthy philosophic discussion with your students.  I guarantee you will be surprised at how engaging and rich the practice is!