At the end of my last post on children and philosophy, I mentioned a project that I've started with a bunch of GT 8th graders. The project is this: they can read whatever they want, and then they have to blog about it. It's simple enough, really. I've compiled a booklist of reads that are on the HS or college level that they may or may not find interesting. Pretty much, I've thought of books that I think I might have been able to enjoy when I was in the 8th grade (that is, before they were ruined by literature classes). The books are actually a little on the risque side, but what great literature isn't? And besides, they'll encounter it eventually, so why not pique their interest early?
I told the kids this: "You should pick any book you want, even if it's not on the list. Try to make it a hard book, you know, so you'll be challenged and stuff. Make sure your parents say it's okay for you to read the book. If you start a book and it sucks, then stop reading it." At this point, they were floored. They were never given the choice to stop reading a book they weren't enjoying. Several of their faces showed mistrust. Was I for real? I continued, "Then I want you to think about what the author is trying to say about life, or society, or morality. You know, the philosophical questions." Now they were confused. "What exactly is philosophy," they asked. Ha! Heck if I know. I only studied it for 3 years, but I can't for the life of me explain it to 8th graders. I explained their mission like this, "You guys are sick of doing plot diagrams, finding the climax, and making character sketches, right?" Total agreement. "Well, I don't want you to write about any of that. I want you to look for the deeper issues, and all of these books talk about them in some way or another. Your job is to figure out what questions the books bring up, and how are they answered. You can agree or disagree with the author. Or maybe the author doesn't even answer the question, but you may think you can. It's up to you. I want you to go beyond the plot when you read. Find what you are interested in. Then, write about it. If you are only interested in one page, write about it. This is not a book report; this is a blog where you can take your interests and develop them. The blog is very informal. Write about whatever you want, but try to be meaningful. I don't want you to tell me what happens. I've read these books; I already know. And frankly, I don't care. I want to know what these books make you think about."
Now I had their attention. They looked excited. For once they could get credit for doing what they do anyways, read books for fun. I also stressed that they should be reading each other's posts and leaving critical/helpful comments on them. I was overjoyed to see them that excited. Several of the students went out that very night to get a copy of Heart of Darkness from the public library. They were ready to get started.
The cons: blogs are on the Internet, and older people are afraid of the Internet. My fun project was not met well by some teachers, and probably won't be by some parents. A blog, heaven forbid. Is that like myspace? Yeah, wonderful. No a blog is not like myspace. Yes, the students can write whatever they want. But, the students are well aware that their teachers, parents and principal plan on reading their blogs/comments regularly. They have been instructed to post at their own risk. Their blog may be on the Internet, but that also means that their parents (for the first time) will really be able to see what their kids can do. I think it's great, and thankfully so do some of the teachers and the principal (and now I think, the superintendent!). We have had one student's parents opt out, which is fine. That student will be writing within the school's network, so it won't be online. The point of having the blogs be independent and online was for them to be able to keep it if they want when they leave the 8th grade. I wanted them to develop a skill that doesn't stop when the grades come in. They may not keep them, but they can, and some might. Sure, a crazy person could find their blog and leave a strange comment. But they have been removed from the listings, and honestly, unless someone goes to the 2 millionth page on a google search, their blogs won't be found. But because the blogs are open, we can show their project to other schools/students/teachers/etc. So we'll see how it all pans out.
Now back to the philosophy bit. These students are not formally exposed to philosophy at their school, and they won't be at their high school. Some may never really come across it at all, depending on what they study in college. But, that doesn't mean they can learn how to exercise some critical thought on their own. Because their blogs are independent, they won't have any formal instruction on how to argue, analyze, etc. But they will start looking for these questions on their own. And they will at least start to think about their own answers. This project is about getting them to start thinking critically on their own. It's not the perfect way to do it, but it's not a bad option. The other teachers and I will be reading their posts and writing comments to challenge them to think harder. The dialogue will begin. It may be the best we can do, and I think it's worth a shot.