Frog, Toad and the Big Questions

Thursday, June 12, 2008 - 10:48
The following story ran in the June 11, Daily Hampshire Gazette and is used with permission.

By Bob Flaherty, Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY - Parents have long delighted in reading the comic misadventures of Frog and Toad to their children at bedtime. But Frog and Toad as catalysts for philosophy? The beloved amphibians, stars of a series of bestselling picture books by the late Arnold Lobel, are at the center of a growing movement of teaching philosophy to elementary school children.

Last month, Thomas E. Wartenberg, professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College, received a three-year, $56,000 grant from the Squire Family Foundation to continue his work in that field.

Wartenberg has developed a course at the college, Philosophy 280, which prepares undergraduates to teach philosophy in elementary schools - the Jackson Street School in Northampton and the Martin Luther King Charter School of Excellence in Springfield first among them.

"Philosophy is the only major discipline not taught before college, but as soon as you show people how it can work, they can't get enough of it," said Squire Foundation executive director Roberta Israeloff. But Wartenberg's program, said Israeloff, is the first one to use children's literature to stimulate discussion.

A similar grant was awarded to the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University to create an "Introduction to Philosophy" curriculum. The University of North Carolina and Montclair State University have also developed philosophy outreach programs for children.

"We use books as a means in and of themselves," said Wartenberg. "It makes kids see books as really interesting. The trouble with the elementary level is the pressure to learn material. When they're really young, it seems to me, is the time to get the concepts found in literature."

Wartenberg said the grant will allow him to spread the concept of philosophy for young children to greater numbers, and sees his Mount Holyoke students as "tentacles," a means to get philosophy into multiple classrooms, in Valley schools and beyond.

"It really opens up the possibility of introducing more children to philosophy," he said. "Or, to be more precise, since many of them have already been thinking philosophically, to help them recognize and refine their thinking whenever they wonder why things are the way they are. I can't tell you how often I'm amazed at the philosophical insights that elementary schoolchildren have. That's a big part of what keeps me going."

Wartenberg said one of his favorite Frog and Toad stories is "Dragons and Giants," which examines the issue of courage in the face of danger, all told in Lobel's childlike yet ironic style. A teacher might ask: Is brave simply looking brave? Can you be brave and run away? Is brave stupid?

In the story, after almost getting devoured by a snake, Frog and Toad run home, bolt themselves in and jump under the covers. Of Wartenberg's suggested prompts, one asks: Do even very brave people need some time to recover from the excitement of doing something scary?

"Lobel must have intuitively been a philosopher," said Wartenberg. "His stories are concrete, but very problematic."

Last year, Jackson Street second-grader Christopher West considered the examples of Gandhi and anti-segregationist Rosa Parks when he wrote the following statement for his teacher:

"I think that bravery is standing up for what is true and right even if people laugh at you. ... I think that bravery is not doing something stupid like standing on the train tracks instead of saying I don't want to do that."

A new curriculum

Wartenberg's dream is to create a philosophy curriculum for elementary schools.

"You've got to get kids when they're young," said Wartenberg. "Their character forms quickly. They are trying to figure out who they are at a basic level. We never tell them anything, never mention a philosopher by name - our interventions are to get them to talk to each other, to empower them as critical thinkers."

Jackson Street Principal Gwen Agna calls it "character education" and rather than push the district to formally integrate philosophy into the curriculum, she would urge people to see it for themselves. "I would advocate teachers and principals to come and observe these sessions, to get a real sense of how it might fit into their own schools."

"It's not as if teachers don't address the issues that children grapple with," she added, "... But this program gives you tools to elevate conversations and make kids see that they're part of something larger."

Wartenberg's Web site at Mount Holyoke features dozens of picture books to explore, with question sets and suggested philosophical themes to raise. "Emily's Art," by Peter Catalanetto, about a girl's unsuccessful entry in an art contest, examines the nature of contests, judging, and who decides what is and isn't art. And, if your heart is broken, is it really hurt?

And Leo Lionni's "Frederick," about the iconoclastic field mouse who gathers words instead of food for the oncoming winter, leads into a discussion about the value of poetry and poets versus the necessity of food. And, though Frederick's contribution is different from that of the food gatherers, has he earned the right to eat the food?

Wartenberg said the goal of the project is to try to create materials to allow a professor of philosophy to teach these types of courses.

"Even more surprising to me is what college kids get out of it," he said, of his initially skeptical students, some of whom blanched at the idea of reading 'age inappropriate' stuff like Frog and Toad. He quotes one as saying: "I thought kids' books were stupid - but I never knew what went into them."

"As a result, teachers become more reflective, thinking much more critically about the way they were taught," said Wartenberg.

Power of perception

Mount Holyoke grad Sulaiha Schwartz worked at Jackson Street while taking Wartenberg's course.

"I came away from the first few discussions quite surprised at how perceptive the children were and the level of discussion that they were able to have," she said. Schwartz now teaches at the Martin Luther King Charter School in Springfield, where, she said, King's values of respect, responsibility, perseverance and social justice are incorporated into the curriculum. "The Philosophy for Children method really goes hand in hand with our school's philosophy by giving children the tools to discuss some of these big ideas," she said.

Wartenberg said the impetus for much of what he is trying to do stems from the research of Gareth Matthews, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, whose books, including 1998's "The Philosophy of Childhood," based on guided dialogues with children, turns the restrictive notions of maturation and conceptual development on their heads, and suggests that adults can learn much from kids, rather than always trying to teach them. Children, according to Matthews, have the ability to come to terms with life's riddles way beyond the abilities of adults.

Bob Flaherty can be reached at bflaherty@gazettenet.com.