By Julia Ferrante
Each fall, students in Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg’s Philosophy for Children class pack up their picture books and bring big ideas to elementary school students in the Pioneer Valley.
Rather than slogging through philosophers’ names and theories, however, the Mount Holyoke College students are teaching second graders at the Martin Luther King Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts, to question their own assumptions, listen to each other's points of view, and sometimes even change their minds—all through the lens of children’s books.
The class, cotaught by Wartenberg
and Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella
last year, is the subject of a documentary film that will premiere on PBS affiliate WGBY Channel 57 on Monday, November 3, at 8 pm. Big Ideas for Little Kid
s: Teaching Philosophy through Picture Books will be rebroadcast (see schedule below) and available online starting November 4. See a clip now.
“The second graders learn some of the basic rules for having a philosophical discussion, from what it means to be a respectful listener who respects differences in opinion, to how to build a good argument when making a point,” filmmaker Julie Akeret, a regional Emmy Award winner, says. “These young students are excited to be asked not only what they think, but why.”
When the class was filmed last fall, the Mount Holyoke students used six children’s picture books, each focusing on a different question of philosophy. Frederick, for example, prompts the question, “What is work?” through the story of a mouse who composes poetry while his family and friends gather food for winter. The Giving Tree inspires an impassioned examination of whether a tree surrendered “her whole self” when she gave up her lush branches and towering trunk so her friend could build a home. And Emily‘s Art incites a debate about whether a judge really knows best in an art contest.
The Mount Holyoke students spend several weeks learning the principles of philosophy, and how to teach them on an elementary level, before facilitating discussions among the children and their teachers.
“The undergraduate students come in with different levels of preparation. Some have been exposed to philosophy and others have not,” said Wartenberg, who has been teaching the class for more than 15 years and has written two books on the subject. “They are learning philosophy by teaching it. We talk about not just what the book says but we are also trying to get the kids to think for themselves, to present and defend ideas through interacting with others.”
The children have responded so well to the lessons that the Springfield school has made philosophy a component of the curriculum. One teacher says the second graders have even put the ideas into practice on the playground, where children resolve disputes with words and an exchange of ideas, as they learned to do through philosophy lessons.
The college students serve as role models for the second graders, many of whom might not have thought of college as a possibility, their teachers say. At the end of the semester, the second graders visit Mount Holyoke College, exploring a laboratory and other learning spaces. The teaching experiences also allow the Mount Holyoke students to connect classroom work with outreach.
“The course involves community-based learning and it’s about getting our students into the schools and preparing them to teach,” Wartenberg said.
Akeret, a documentary filmmaker originally from New York City who has been living in the Pioneer Valley for 20 years, collaborated with local public television station WGBY/57 to create the documentary. Russell Peotter, general manager of the television station, said the film, "was the perfect fit with WGBY’s mission of connecting the people of our region to enrich lives and improve our communities."