Teaching junior-high philosophy
January 4, 2013 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Junior-high philosophy class. Suggestions for topics, discussions, resources appreciated!

I have been given the opportunity to teach an enrichment class on philosophy to a class of grade 7 and 8 students. I have a graduate degree in the field and know the students well, so I'm not totally lost, but would appreciate suggestions on:

1. Topics for discussion and investigation
2. Activities (things to do) and ways to encourage engagement
3. Resources (preferably free!)

And any other suggestions you have to make this experience meaningful and interesting for a great group of 13 year-olds.
posted by iftheaccidentwill to Education (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I remember one of my classes reviewed schools of philosophy (Skeptics, Stoics, Epicureans, etc.) and asked us to pick which school we'd like to follow, which made it personally engaging. We had to explain our choice to our peers, which encouraged deeper thought. With all the different viewpoints, at the end every group was saying "I never thought of it that way... maybe I'm a ______ too."
posted by heatherfl at 10:37 AM on January 4, 2013

Watch the Matrix -- discuss mind-body dualism, how you know the world isn't simulated or a dream, etc. Perhaps discuss the parable of the cave and plato, as well.
posted by empath at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2013

This might be a bit silly, but I recently heard about (on the premier BBC radio film program) a college ethics class that discussed the difference in morality between Batman and James Bond. As soon as I heard that, I was immediately disappointed that I had never been in that class. I bet there would be a number of interesting topics of discussion. For instance, Batman is a vigilante, but he doesn't kill people. James Bond is a state actor, but he also kills people without due process. Which is worse?
posted by gkhan at 11:01 AM on January 4, 2013

Ethics is a great topic and one that has practical applications, but I would stay away from pop culture references such as The Matrix or Batman because they will undoubtedly foster boyzone discussions and be more prone to derails from those who are big fans.

The Michael Sandel course could easily be pared down and simplified for your group. The trolley problem is a great discussion starter.
posted by perhapses at 11:20 AM on January 4, 2013

I taught a philosophy segment to gifted students in grades 6-8 one time. Heraclitus, stories about Diogenes, and initial sections of Epictetus's Enchiridion went over great. We also covered a bunch of informal fallacies common in argument, framed as conversational terrorism or something like that, and that went well. Students also enjoyed selections from Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and some Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:22 AM on January 4, 2013

For kids, a raft debate is usually a good framework because they quickly grasp the basic moral dilemma in 'scarce resource' arguments, while giving the discussion more immediacy and tangibility than more adult issues like abortion or pornography.
posted by fatbird at 11:30 AM on January 4, 2013

Action Philosophers makes for a great introduction, no matter what subject area you end up studying.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:00 PM on January 4, 2013

Ooo, seconding Monsieur Caution. Please please address logical fallacies.
posted by heatherfl at 12:08 PM on January 4, 2013

My favorite Jr. high philosophy project was when we all got into groups of 4 people and we had to create a country centered around one philosophy and present it to the class for a month. Projects included a weekly newspaper, flag, and oral reports on "this is what our country does for entertainment, school, etc."

In another class we had to rewrite popular songs based on different philosophies. I remember someone taking "I will always love you" from a stoic standpoint and it was hilarious.
posted by haplesschild at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2013

It's a bit of self link, but my wife wrote for a philosophy book designed to teach philosophy to school children.

It is called the Philosophy Shop.

I can ask her about other resources if you're interested, just drop me a memail.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 12:15 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple of ideas:

They may be too old to appreciate it (and not old enough to like it again), but there's a children's picture book about Diogenes the Cynic... where he is a literal dog. It is brilliant and awesome. I read it elementary-school style to my high schoolers when we do ancient philosophy, but middle schoolers might be too cool for that.

I haven't tried this before, but I intend to next time I do the philosophy unit: there was a group of students at a university in the UK who did a live like a Stoic week project thing, and I fully intend to use some of their resources and have my students try it!
posted by lysimache at 2:27 PM on January 4, 2013

Seconding Trolley Problems. Really anything Philippa Foot (her Trolley stuff included) is a killer discussion starter - though the abortion-related stuff may be further than you want to go with Jr High age kids.

Platonic dialogues could be killer here - I'm thinking particularly about Meno, Euthyphro, and Crito. These were my first introduction to philosophy (though in high school, not junior high) and got me hooked near-instantly.

Also consider some Parfit stuff - especially the Teletransporter/personal identity case.
posted by Rallon at 6:19 PM on January 4, 2013

There's an essay I remember reading in college but that was really appealing and a relatively easy read for philosophy material. It was called "What is it like to be a bat?" by Thomas Nagel, and it was the sort of thing I ended up referring to it in late night dorm conversations that happened to tend that way. I think the upshot is it is about the mind-body problem, and counters materialistic explanations of the natural world that are really taken for granted in a lot of science / neuroscience fields and would be familiar to high schoolers as a de-facto way of thought. Here it is! Hope you find what you need.

I also read Sophie's World when I was in high school and it really satisfied my fascination with obscure philosophical-sounding names and ideas :P

I can only speak for myself, but I always hated those trolley problems. I know it's the point, but I always end up thinking that there'd never actually be a fat person on the ledge above the lever or whatever and that it was a silly thought experiment completely divorced from worldly issues. But that's just me!
posted by mermily at 7:27 PM on January 4, 2013

The Logical Fallacies poster is here: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/poster

At a G&T program in the 1980s, we had a Philosopher (named Peter Shea) come in every Wednesday for a solid hour. He didn't teach the big names or get into theory much, but instead concentrated on specific examples. Like, over the course of a few weeks in fifth grade we were separated into two communities (the Cliffies and the Cavies, because we lived in cliff houses or down below in the caves) and we explored the differences in their values, etc., etc.

It was mind-expanding then, and I still remember a lot of it!

So maybe you can skip specifics (names, dates, et al.) that might strike them as "stuff we'll be tested on" and instead do a lot of thought experiments and things to engage them.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:56 AM on January 8, 2013

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