A long-running philosophers in schools program has focused on racial inequity and social justice issues at a campus with clear divisions between race and class.
Over the past two decades, professors from the University of Washington have visited dozens of elementary-school classrooms across the Seattle area to talk with young children about the meaning of life, ethics and other meaty philosophical topics.
But this year, as more communities question the root causes of de facto segregation in public schools, the UW philosophers decided to bring that discussion to some of the young people who are living it.
“We’re trying to explore solutions with the kids,” philosophy professor Jana Mohr Lone said of the students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary.
Lone directs the Center for Philosophy for Children at UW, which this is year is trying out a new program at Marshall that focuses on racial equity and social justice.
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Marshall provides a good setting for such a program because it has a broad mix of students — some from the surrounding neighborhood who are largely black and Latino, as well as many white and Asian students, who make up the majority of students in the advanced-learning program.
And the two groups rarely interact.
“If you walk down the hallways, you can see which classes are which … just by virtue of the color of the kids sitting in them,” said Marshall Principal Katie May.
“That’s pretty problematic for a school in this day and age and especially for a campus named Thurgood Marshall,” she added, referencing the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
As part of a larger effort to address that division, teachers in each grade level have merged the general education and advanced-learning classes for common social-studies lessons. In fifth grade, the Philosophers in the Schools program takes over those classes every other week and gets the students to consider class privilege, prejudices, stereotypes and more.
“They’re hyper aware of some of these issues,” Lone said. “We often don’t credit children with having wisdom to contribute to these conversations, but in fact they really do.”
Earlier this month, just before winter break started, graduate student David Phelps struggled to command the attention of 27 restless fifth-graders. Phelps attempted to speak over the noisy room as he explained the rules to a game he designed for the program.
As soon as they started to play, however, the students quieted down. Phelps had divided them into groups of three, and each group sat around a paper bowl filled with glass stones. Each player received different directions on how many stones they could choose to take for themselves or share with their teammates.
In some groups, one of the students received no stones at all, while in others, the members worked more collaboratively to spread the wealth.
In a discussion afterward, one boy from the advanced-learning program looked up from a graphic novel hidden on his lap to comment on whether the game resembled real life.
“Unfortunately,” he said. “It’s actually pretty close (because) one person’s going to get everything.
“Some people can do much better than you, and not for any real reason.”
That prompted emotional reactions from a mix of general-education and advanced-learning students, including one who wondered if a dictator could better distribute their limited set of public resources.
In previous sessions, students debated where emotions come from, and why people make snap judgments of strangers.
Next month, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the students will discuss the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and why humans divide themselves into groups, Lone said. She also has already contemplated possible changes to the program.
“Maybe the way we expand next year is just working with (general-education) students in the fourth grade,” Lone said. “Then by the time they get to the fifth grade, they’d be the only ones with philosophy already and a little more comfortable to have those conversations.”