Eight-year-old Stephan wasn't sure what to expect when he and 60 other second-graders from Springfield's Martin Luther King Charter School visited the Mount Holyoke campus in December.
After having an up-close meeting with a pair of colorful chameleons named Suma and Yoda and examining the heartbeat of a tadpole under a microscope in Clapp Laboratory, Stephan danced happily through professor Rachel Fink's biology lab and showed off a magnified fingerprint of his pinky.
"Look at this--it's my finger!" he exclaimed. "I was excited to come here today, but I didn't know it would be anything like this!"
The children's visit to Clapp Laboratory was part of an afternoon tour that included the MHC library and art museum, followed by an award ceremony in Willits honoring their semester-long participation in professor Thomas Wartenberg's Philosophy for Children program. Wartenberg and students Courtney Cioffredi '08, Julia Uhr '10, Cassandra Burns '11, Maya Dean '08, Ariel Sykes '10, and Nicole Giambalvo '10 partnered with teachers in three second-grade classrooms at the two-year-old MLK School to introduce philosophical issues in reading lessons.
It's been eight years since Wartenberg, chair of the MHC philosophy department, began offering the program, which uses children's books as a vehicle for teaching philosophy to elementary-school children. In addition to encouraging young students to think about subjects ranging from courage and honesty, to the difference between real and make-believe, the program provides an opportunity to build verbal and analytical skills.
Wartenberg says the experience of bringing their course work into local classrooms has been invaluable for MHC students.
"Teaching is actually the best way to learn a subject, even if your audience is second-graders," he said. "But the course also provides students with the impetus to think about their educations from a different point of view. Many of them wind up with interesting new perspectives about their own educations, both college and pre-college. In addition, it opens up a career option--pre-college teaching--for students who might not have thought about that as a possible career path."
Indeed, one of Wartenberg's former students is teaching at the MLK School. Sulaiha Schwartz '06, now a teaching partner in a first-grade class, accompanied the children on their visit to campus; she sought her current position because of her experience in Philosophy for Children, she said. This semester Wartenberg's students introduced the second-graders to Leon Lionni's Matthew's Dream, the story of a poor mouse who lives with his parents in a dusty attic; after Matthew takes a school field trip to an art museum, he dreams of becoming an artist--and uses his imagination to transform his dreary attic corner into a work of art.
Second-grade teacher Patricia Casavant said her students have benefited greatly from marrying the Philosophy of Children program to reading such books. She believes the program has increased the children's comprehension skills and generated interest in the authors.
"This very neatly dovetailed with so many things we were doing," she said. "It gave us a different way of looking at the book's message and the author's point, and then talking about it. It's a wonderful way to look at books."
The visit to Mount Holyoke was a bonus, providing the MLK teachers with an opportunity to push bigger, long-term goals for their students.
"We want to expose our students to a college and to the idea of college," explained Casavant. "This has given them a chance to see what a real laboratory is like, and they were very impressed with the library.… We've talked about colleges and that there are some for women, some for men, some for people who want to study science or music. We try to teach them there's a college to fit everyone.
"Most of the children aren't exposed to anything like this, and it gets them thinking about the future and its possibilities…. It's a wonderful opportunity."