First Person

On The Meaning Of High School Philosophy Instruction

When I joined the faculty of Columbia Secondary School as a curriculum adviser last year, I had no inkling that I would eventually become the school’s high school philosophy teacher. This is an honor and an intellectual treat. I want to share my thoughts about what it means to teach philosophy at the high school level, what sort of curriculum we have, and what I am doing with it.

Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a selective 6–12 public school (currently 6–11) located in Harlem. The principal, Miriam Nightengale, has worked to build a strong curriculum and a lively school culture. The teachers are immensely dedicated, not only to the classroom, but to the school community; as a part-time teacher, I am humbled by their relentlessness and cheer. The students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness in common. All students take philosophy every year.

I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and will be fleshing it out as the year progresses. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. The philosophical texts range from ancient to modern; the 10th-graders, for instance, are currently reading the Book of Job; later in the unit, they will read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” The 11th-graders began with Sophocles and Plato, will soon read Aristophanes’ “The Clouds,” and will end the year with Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Eugene Ionesco.

I work from the conviction that these texts — and the lessons surrounding them — will give students perspective on their own philosophical questions and lives. The first challenge is to make sense of the texts. Often we have to take time with a single sentence, working through it and figuring out what it means. That can bring out surprising insights.

Philosophy is not all logical by any means. Much philosophical writing is poetic and allegorical. It is important for students to hear the cadences of the language; this often helps them find the meaning (and appreciate the beauty of the work). So I often read passages aloud, for their sound and rhythm and for the insights that these bring. I invite students to read aloud as well.

In the 10th-grade course, the Book of Job has posed some unexpected as well as predictable challenges. Many student are familiar with the story, but few have read Job in its entirety. I placed it first in the curriculum because it raises questions that recur throughout the course: Why must people go through extreme suffering? Within this suffering, do they have choices? Is there a proper response to suffering? Is there ultimate justice?

We read and discussed the first three chapters in class; all went swimmingly. Rapt students, fascinating discussions. Then I assigned them chapters 4 through 11 and asked them to explain in writing what Job’s friends are trying to persuade him to do and how he responds.

The following morning, before 8 a.m., student after student came to see me. “Professor Senechal,” a student said (the students call the teachers “professor” at my school), “I didn’t understand the reading at all.” Others came to me with similar reports. But when I received a stack of homework papers, I realized that they had tried to answer the question anyway.

At the start of class, I asked the students where their difficulty lay. Many had trouble figuring out who was speaking at what time. I explained to them that each new speaker is introduced and that a person’s speech might carry on into the next chapter. That cleared up a great deal of confusion. Most students had difficulty with the metaphorical language. I had anticipated that, so I directed their attention to particular verses — for instance, Eliphaz’s words in Job 5:17: “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth, therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.”

As as we read and discussed these passages together, the students themselves figured out their basic meaning. This allowed them to see the pattern of the dialogues; they understood that Job’s friends assumed he must have sinned, whereas Job could not find any wrongdoing in himself. (There’s much more to it, of course.) From there, we were able to discuss the questions underlying the dialogues: Why do Job’s friends assume that he has done something wrong? Are they correct to assume this? If not, what is the exact nature of their error, and what can we learn from it? Is Job in error as well?

At the end of class, I asked how many students now understood the reading better than they had before. Many hands went up. (Not all students had trouble with it initially.) I asked them how the lesson helped them make sense of the text, and they responded that they had learned how to tell who is speaking, what the overall pattern of the story is, and how to work with perplexing passages. One student told me when class was over, “This is good challenge.” Another said, “I just want to thank you for this lesson.”

I do not pretend that my teaching has been perfect or close. I have much to organize and tighten over the next few days and weeks, and this lesson itself had room for improvement. I bring it up because it suggests that precise work with the text can lead to larger ideas and lively discussion. Also, it reminds me to take the time to point out simple and essential matters, such as how to tell who is speaking when.

Is this philosophy curriculum good? It is too soon to tell. I know that aspects of it are. I am excited about the texts; I see the students and parents taking interest in them as well. A curriculum is much more than texts, though; it includes ideas, skills, questions, problems, assignments, and more. I expect to hone it quite a bit — and work with colleagues to coordinate it with the English, history, and mathematics curriculums. There is much more to say about all of this, but there’s good reason to wait. I look forward to continuing this story.

Note: Some comments have been changed to protect students’ identities.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.