This was a bad news kind of summer.
I finished my report cards, hugged my students, cleaned my classroom. With a sense of accomplishment and a sigh of relief, I walked out the front door. Summer was here.
I packed my bags and embarked on a lovely vacation with my family to Canada. The tree-lined roads were long and free of cars. Unseasonably cold weather was a treat for our Hawaiian-raised children who seldom have a chance to wear their fashionable jean jackets. We stayed in a small cottage overlooking a crystal-blue glacial lake. It was an idyllic summer vacation for our little family.
Then it hit. The peaceful atmosphere was shattered by horrible headlines both domestic and international. One after another, the horrific details flashed across television screens and dominated newspaper covers in bolded capital letters.
The tragedies reported in the news were not natural disasters, forest fires, or terrible car accidents. These were acts of violence committed by individuals against individuals. Humans were intentionally taking the lives of other humans.
A man in Orlando opened fire in a dance club killing more than 40 people. In France, dozens of innocent people lost their lives when a man intentionally drove a truck into revelers on Bastille Day. In the United States, unarmed citizens were killed by police officers. Later, several police officers were slain by a man wielding a gun.
Each story rattled me to the core. I couldn’t stop thinking about the wife who lost her husband, the children who lost a father or mother, parents who lost a child. Each victim was a son, daughter, father, mother, husband, wife, sister, brother, cousin, and friend. One moment a person was alive and in an instant that person was gone forever.
At the lake’s edge, I looked down at my daughters, contentedly digging tunnels in the sand with colorful plastic shovels. My heart felt heavy. How can I keep my daughters safe?
This experience really made me wonder how we as educators prepare our students for the future. Are we truly performing our jobs by dutifully teaching the standards, one by one, with the goal of passing a standardized test at the end of the year? Should we be asking ourselves and each other what skills and attitudes will prepare students for the future? Could we be neglecting to cultivate habits that are tremendously important like listening with empathy and respecting different perspectives?
We spend so much time creating, refining and implementing academic standards, should we also put equal effort into crafting standards of how to treat other human beings?
To prepare our students for the future, schools must create time and space for students to develop a deep value for the voice and perspective of others. It must be a priority to promote a safe environment for students’ voices to be heard and for them to listen with empathy to their peers. We must teach our children to listen and respond to other points of view mindfully and respectfully.
It is our responsibility to make sure that every student feels that it is his or her responsibility as a part of the human family to listen to and respect others. But how?
Philosophy for Children does just that. It is a simple practice that, at its core, teaches children to listen with intentionality and respond from the heart and the mind. In P4C students are empowered to generate their own questions or “wonders.”
Wonders are written on small strips of paper and collected in a container. The questions can be anything from “What if the world were made out of cheese?” to “Where does fear come from?” The classroom community then votes on which student generated question will be discussed that day in the community circle.
Teachers then lay out a “Good Thinker’s Tool Kit” on the floor near the children’s feet. The P4C magic words, such as point of clarification or POC and please, one person at a time or POPAT and one more time or OMT serve as visual reminders of the norms of the circle.
Children sit criss-cross apple sauce on the floor and pass around a community ball to each speaker. All children sit so that they can both see and hear their classmates. Only the person with the ball can speak. All others are listening and waiting to add to what their classmates have shared.
Students use the thinking tools to guide their responses, stating, “I agree with so and so because,” or, “I would like to give an example of what so and so just said,” or, “If this happens, then…” Students in the community circle are taught to listen with empathy to their peers.
Often students in the community circle have different points of view. Students report that after discussing a topic they feel differently in light of listening to the responses of their peers.
In P4C it is ok to have different opinions, perspectives, and feelings. This practice empowers students to speak at length about what they want and creates a safe place for disagreement and discourse. It teaches intentional listening with your mind and heart engaged.
I think back to the bad news of the summer. Had the man driving the truck into the crowds at Bastille Day had had an opportunity to speak and be heard in a community of his peers? Had the shooter in Orlando had an opportunity to sit in a circle with his classmates and speak freely? Had these individuals felt safe in school? At home? In their communities?
Had these individuals been listened to? Had they been in a safe environment to share how they were feeling knowing that they would be heard and respected by their peers? Could the simple act of listening mindfully have saved lives? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer.
Not all in the teaching community agree on the merit of P4C in classrooms. Some educators are concerned about the time dedicated to the practice of P4C. Spending one to two hours weekly sitting in a circle talking about anything the students want to talk about will take away valuable time from addressing the Common Core standards.
Others feel that putting students in the driver’s seat will the undermine the teacher’s role in the classroom. P4C may also be dismissed because there is no hard quantitative data linked to actual learning in the P4C circle. Others may go so far as to say student led inquiry is simply a waste of time.
I would like to invite a skeptic or even a non-skeptic into my classroom during our P4C time. I would encourage this person to listen and engage in the activity. This observer will notice the joy with which the students form the tight knit circle. The observer will notice how the students enthusiastically raise their hands to answer the question, and, despite their excitement, respectfully lower their hands when a peer is talking.
This observer will hear the voice of the child who hasn’t shared anything in class this year until joining the P4C circle and be amazed at what he has to say. Trying to assess the value of P4C in the classroom is like trying to measure love. Some things aren’t measurable. Some things speak for themselves.
With the world changing so fast, we as educators are scrambling to prepare our students for an unknown future. Despite all the unknowns, one thing I do know is that we are all on this planet together. All humans have feelings, thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams. It is our responsibility as educators and humans to make it a priority to teach our students to listen to each other with open hearts and minds.
If we use P4C as a way to cultivate this value in our students, then maybe we will help create a safe space to live together in peace. Our students will not want to hurt each other because they will have been taught to respect and value the beliefs and opinions of others. We are all fundamentally one human family, one large community circle.
ENDNOTE: After I completed this Community Voice, the United States elected its 45th president. This president based his campaign on building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants and screening immigrants based on their religious status. My students have more questions now than ever.
It is imperative that educators cultivate a safe space in the classroom for thoughtful inquiry and listening with empathy. In a safe P4C circle, we can plant the seed of understanding that can bloom into acceptance and rather than divisiveness; respecting differences rather than fearing them; love rather than hate.
Two days after Election Day, my grade 3 students gather in the classroom teeming with questions to discuss. After the buzz of discussions slowly fade, students assemble themselves in our P4C circle on the floor. As students gradually find their spaces in our circle, I observe their knees touching, shoulders gently leaning on each other, hands tenderly reaching out to touch friends’ hands.
Today I happily neglect to remind them about the “hands to yourself” rule. We are one tight-knit community circle. There is no space in our future for a wall.
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