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The Odyssey and Philosophy

In our current 5th and 6th grade unit “The Odyssey and Western Philosophy,” we are reading Homer’s The Odyssey and are exploring a different philosophical concept for each story in the epic poem. This unit was inspired by the book The If Odyssey by Peter Worley.

This week, we read the story of Aeolus and the Bag of Winds this story to discuss the concepts of democracy and autocracy. In this story, Aeolus gives Odysseus a mysterious bag before he and his crew set sail back to Ithaca. However, as they approach home, Odysseus’s crew becomes suspicious that the bag contains gold and silver, and they are resentful that Odysseus has not offered to share the treasure with them. They begin to argue whether to obey Odysseus’s orders to not open the bag, or whether they should follow popular demand and open the bag.

Given that most Americans (including children) are likely predisposed to favor democracy, I felt that a simulation would be the best way to stimulate an open-minded discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of both of these systems.

I chose an activity called the Magic Carpet challenge, the premise of which is as follows:

This tablecloth has turned into a Magic Carpet! However, the Magic Carpet is going the wrong way, because it is upside down! Your task is to try and turn the carpet over without stepping off the carpet, jumping, or carrying any other group member. All class members must be on the Magic Carpet at all times.

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We did two rounds of this challenge. For the first, the group was instructed to function as a democracy — each person has a voice, and everyone can share their opinion. For the second, the group functioned as an autocracy — only the leader (selected by the teacher) could give instructions and make decisions.

For the democratic round, it isn’t surprising that some chaos ensued as many different ideas were tried — sometimes at once!

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The autocratic version went a bit smoother, and much more quietly.

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Students were then asked to reflect on the activity and make a list of the pros and cons of each system. Some of their comments included:

  • The democratic round had a greater variety of creative opinions and ideas
  • The autocratic round was much quicker to solve the challenge, due to the fact that there was some arguing and differences of opinion in the democratic round
  • Not everyone’s voice was heard in the democratic round (which then prompted the question — whose voices are marginalized in “real-life” democratic systems?)
  • Even in the democratic round, natural leaders tended to emerge.

 

It was encouraging to see that middle schoolers can reflect in a thoughtful and engaged way on political processes. We will strive to bring this same spirit of inquiry towards our future discussions in this unit!

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Imagery with “The Pretzel Activity”

Today we talked about how we can imagery in our writing. In particular, we talked about ways that we can appeal to our five senses — sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

Each group of students was given a handful of pretzels. For our first sense (sight), students spent a minute and a half silently reflecting on the appearance of their pretzel, and writing down their observations.

Responses included: “It is curved like a snake.”  “It is the color of sunburned skin.”  “It gleams like gold, with a crystal formation.”

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We repeated our observations with the remaining four senses — sound, smell, touch, and most importantly — taste!

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An excerpt from our class paragraph: “It makes a crunchy, swishing sound when rubbed together. It’s crunchy like fall leaves when shaken. A buttery scent like kettle corn, the sharp blade of salt. The salt melts on your tongue, and the bread becomes mush as you chew. It tastes like a burning fire with lots of smoke.”

Skyping with a philosopher

Last week the 6th grade class had the exciting opportunity to Skype with a real philosopher! Dr. Aaron Simmons, a professor at Furman University (Ms. Mitchell’s alma mater) very graciously agreed to answer our questions about happiness, which has been one of the major themes in our study of The Odyssey.

Our questions included:

  • What is your definition of happiness?
  • What is the key to true happiness?
  • How do philosophers come up with answers?
  • Can a philosophical question be right or wrong?

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Consumerism & Marketing field trip

Our current class novel for the 7th and 8th grades is Feed by M.T. Anderson, a dystopian Young Adult novel about a futuristic society.

Marketing and consumerism were major themes of the novel. To further investigate these topics, students chose a store they are interested in, and compiled research on the marketing and advertising strategies that store has used to promote its products.

As a culmination of this research project, we took a field trip to Alderwood Mall in order to gain in-person insights into the marketing strategies we have uncovered in our research.

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We look at window displays and discount signs to note the ways that they drew in potential customers.

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We also examined strategies such as the left digit effect, lifestyle images, background music, and product placement.

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Imagining Life Before the Internet

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My 7th and 8th graders have begun reading Feed, a YA novel by M.T. Anderson set in a futuristic dystopian society where an advanced version of the internet (called a “feed”) has been implanted in the brains of most citizens, allowing them constant and continual access.

Before reading the book, I wanted students to reflect on our own connectedness to — and reliance upon — the Internet. To do this, I posed the following thought experiment:

Imagine that it is 1975.  The Internet does not exist yet, but people use phones, TVs, the radio, and cars.  How would you go about finding the answers to one of these questions without using the Internet and only using the technology available at this time?

Questions included:

  • Your family is thinking of vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You want to help plan the trip before you go. How can you find out the best sites to see in Santa Fe, and what the weather will be like in April?
  • Your cousin is thinking about becoming a flight attendant.  You’re wondering whether it might be a good field to go into.  How would you find out what is the average salary of a flight attendant?

First, we took a trip to the school library to see if we could find an answer among the stacks.

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We got some practice with the Dewey Decimal system, and using encyclopedias.

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As it turned out, only one group was able to find their answer!

We then returned to the classroom, and discussed what other strategies we might use to answer our questions. Possibilities included:

  • Ask a family member or friend who might know the answer
  • Consult with an expert, e.g. family doctor, government office, corporation, etc.
  • Order the necessary reference materials from a bookstore

Several students commented that the strategies we were using seemed time-consuming and potentially expensive — whereas with Google, an answer can be obtained in seconds. We often take such easy access to information for granted!

As we read Feed, we will continue  our discussions about technology. Through these conversations, we will be examining how technology has impacted our lifestyles and ways of communicating, and what ways it might contribute or detract from living a “good life.”

To Kill A Mockingbird: Twitter feeds

In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of the most dramatic scenes involves a secret nighttime trip by Scout, Jem, and Dill to the spooky Radley house. However, what starts as a childish prank quickly turns dangerous, eventually culminating in shots being fired and Jem temporarily misplacing his pants.

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In order to keep straight the many events of that night, students created fake Twitter feeds from the point of view of one of the characters, providing “live updates” of each new and dramatic development.

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Twitter didn’t yet exist in 1934, but it is clear that if it had, these characters would certainly have had something to say!

The Giver by Lois Lowry: Utopia projects

In the 5th and 6th grades, we read The Giver by Lois Lowry. This book centered around the coming of age of Jonas, a young boy living in a fictional dystopian society.

In Jonas’s world, color does not exist, along with books, emotions, memories, pain, and the freedom of choice.

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To further analyze the themes of utopia and dystopia, students created their own utopian societies. They were asked to reflect on various aspects of their imaginary society — its monetary system, government, family structure, etc. — and consider what factors make a society a utopia.

As a class, we discussed:

  • What are some potential problems with your society?
  • Is your society a utopia for everyone?
  • Is it truly possible for a utopian society to exist?