Tools for Philosophers: Fun with Ethical Dilemmas!

…Or how to make your students create their own dilemmas to use in the classroom.

Real ethical dilemmas, of course, are never fun. You have to choose between conflicting values–sometimes the lesser of two evils–and it is always a tough decision that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, when not thoroughly depressed…

Bring them to the classroom, though, and things lighten up! Even the most disaffected student cannot resist voicing their opinion when one of these turns up.

They work greatly when you need to “change the air” in  the class; that is, if you’ve been lecturing for too long and feel that if you don’t do something else your students will die in their desks. It’s good to keep a couple of these handy.

Selecting dilemmas to use in class

Where can you get a good ethical dilemma? Most textbooks will have a good selection, but you should always read them in advance and look for such things as these, and possibly modify the case:

  • A case that provides a lot of detail is more fun to analyze than a very vague one (and thus, dilemmas based on real cases are usually more interesting)
  • A case that makes you decide from the point of view of one of the characters is more engaging than the general question, “what should be done”?
  • Some cases end up telling you what was done, and ask you to judge on those actions. If that is the case, it is better to cut the last paragraph out, and let the students develop their own solutions to the problem

There are many ways of using cases in a class discussion. I’ll discuss them in a future post. Stay tuned! (I.e., press the “Follow” button! 😉

A classroom activity: Dilemma “skits”

Download this activity

While I normally bring to class (that is, to Ethics class) some handouts with good “standalone” cases, I’ve recently had the opportunity of showing my students some flash presentations onscreen presenting short, everyday ethical dilemmas. These immediately capture the full attention of the most tired and distracted students, and are excellent for bite-sized discussions. Even if the acting is crummy, this adds an element of fun to the presentation!

The problem, however, is that there aren’t that many available. I quickly ran out of them.

So I thought: Why don’t I make my students come up with some?

That is how I came up with this activity, which you can download here. In a class with 22 students, we got five skits ready in just 45 minutes! You should allow about an hour for performing & discussing.

 This is how it works:

  • The activity guides students in creating “skits,” 2-3 minutes-long
  • The creation process is broken down so that it is very easy to keep students on track. The time assigned for each step worked perfectly in a 20+ students class…
  • …but you should walk around the groups and nudge them in the right direction if they are having trouble deciding on a topic
  • Groups can be of 3-5 students each, and every student should choose a speaking role. (One role can be the Narrator, introducing the characters and the situation)
  • The skit should not end with a decision, but instead should stop at the point in which a decision needs to be made.
  • When a skit ends, congratulate the students, and then use the opportunity to discuss the case with the whole class. In this way you pace them, and give each one the attention they deserve

* For a nice “extra credit” project, you can challenge your students to make a video of their skit. Eventually you may end with a small collection that you can use in future classes! (If you happen to do this and decide to make them public, let me know!)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Minimum Age: 7 (Okay, maybe 6) Maximum Age: None Categories: High Adventure;
Recent Good Stuff
Test drive: It became the favorite show of both my 6-year-old boy and my 8-year-old girl, who continued watching it over and over, for many years since.
When my wife and I began watching it, it became the show we’d all watch together every evening.

Avatar coverIf you haven’t watched this one, you should definitely begin here!

How good is it? Don’t let the fact that this is an animated series put you off: This show has better writing than most live-action series, and it is possibly the best-written show that’s ever been done in the fantasy genre.

Just how good is it? Do you have a family member who cares only so much for fantasy, and not at all for cartoons? Well, that would be my wife, and she made me promise not to watch too many episodes ahead.

Which was hard, I tell you, because the story draws you in. This is neither one of those shows in which every episode is like the rest, but a three-season story in which characters develop, allies are won and lost, and cities and countries fall to the war. The animation is extremely beautiful, each elemental type of magic based on actual kung-fu styles. The humor is spot-on, with visual gags that will have the young ones rolling on the floor, and clever jokes on the genre itself, which will stay with you for a long time. (The song “Secret Tunnel!” appearing early in the second season, became a family joke for months! I think my kids asked me to stop.)

In short, I can’t recommend this show enough without becoming a bore.  The one bad thing about it is that it ends. How dare they!

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(P.S.: Just make sure you don’t confuse it with the very disappointing live-action movie by M. Night Shyamalan. If you want to see how bad it is, follow this link to Honest Trailers. Nuff’ said…)

Back to the Future (1985)

Minimum Age: 10 Maximum Age: None Categories:
Spielberg’s ’80s
Test drive: Another family hit! “Very good and clever,” according to my 10-year-older.
A few of the special effects haven’t aged that well; but the fire tracks the DeLorean leaves on the pavement still look super cool!

Back to the Future coverThe mid-eighties saw many protegees of Spielberg make a great number of truly creative, truly entertaining adventures, always with some element of the fantastic or sci-fi in them (much more fun as a rule than the gloomy adventures of the 2010s). Of these, Back to the Future is one of the most accomplished, and possibly the best time-travel movie ever made. Definitely something that you should share with your children!

You should know this; but in case you don’t (spoiler alert), the movie follows the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, in one of his most famous roles), the teenage son of underachieving parents, as he travels back in time to the 1950s, and accidentally causes his future mom to get a crush on him, which will in turn cause him to disappear from existence. So now he has to make his parents fall in love with each other, while fighting school bullies, finding a way to repair the time machine, and avoiding any further history mess-ups. On the way we are treated with buckets of out-of-time jokes, cool skateboard-action scenes, and a mounting tension, as at every turn of the road things gets increasingly difficult for Marty.

Nearly 30 years later, my kids still picked most of the humor, with the exception perhaps of some jokes based on political figures and celebrities (“Ronald Reagan is president?”) They found some of the effects “cheesy,” and the beginning felt a little slow. But soon they were caught in the mounting difficulties of Marty, and fell in love with the irresistible Doc, the eccentric, always intense inventor that envisions the ’80s like a Buck Rogers comic.

In short, the movie was a Blast from the Past.

For age-appropriateness, keep in mind that Marty’s mom tries to seduce him in a couple of occasions, and in a key scene, one of the bullies tries to, er, have his way with her. I mention this to avoid some awkwardness. I should also warn you against renting the sequels (BTF II and III). I sort of liked them in my time, but they get repetitive (most of the humor being based on repeating the same situations in a slightly different context), and the gags are too silly. My kids gave up early on them: they may have retroactively ruined their enjoyment of the first movie! Which means we’ll have to watch it again. Oh well…

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Barbie: Princess and the Pauper (2004)

Minimum Age: 3 Maximum Age: 9 Categories:
Hmmm
Test drive: My daughter played it over and over. My son watched it a few times.
Grownups: This is an exception to my “watch with your kids” selection, the reasons explained below. It’s easy on the ears the first five times, and may be eyed occasionally from the safety of the next room.

Please hear me out (before you preemptively unfollow me)!

It's...sooo...PINK!!!

It’s…sooo…PINK!!!

In the early 2000s, Barbie jumped into the business of computer-animated movies with something like a good idea: they recreated classic stories, but each functioning as a door to a certain art. Thus they produced, if memory serves, a Nutcraker and a Swan’s Lake focused on ballet, and Rapunzel that painted. The storylines were unremarkable, and the quality of their animation was consistently below industry standards, but with pretty dresses, “cute” by-the-book animal sidekicks, and the occasional appearance of weird big-headed children, it hit the mark with toddlers and young girls who couldn’t know better. And, truth be told, they made an earnest effort to add some “culture” into the dough. (My daughter learned some notions about classic paintings by digging into the special features.)

None of those movies, however, would make it into this list as something that grownups can enjoy together with their children. Unless, of course, you are the kind of grownup that enjoys being hit on the head repeatedly with a pink bat sprinkled with powdered sugar.

But perhaps an exception can be made about Barbie Princess and the Pauper. In this one, the producers tackled the musical genre. There’s here a plot to take over the kingdom, two girls—a princess and a seamstress—trying to find love and meaning in what they do, and a few cat sidekicks, a la Cinderella. (You should be warned: One of the cats barks, Barbie’s idea of a lesson about Accepting Those That are Different.)

To their merit, the music is not terrible. Worse perhaps, the voices are well cast, and the songs are awfully catchy.

But here’s the important thing:

The standard “message” of Disney productions at the time was something on the lines of “If you are feeling frustrated, it’s because your parents are dumb and don’t let you to follow your feelings. So do whatever you feel like, and think of no one else. Oh, and marry a prince or someone handsome.”
By comparison, the “message” of this movie is surprisingly mature! The girls must listen to their calling. It may not be what they originally wanted, but it may be bigger than them, so they must adapt, and sometimes accept it, and make the best of it. Oh, and marrying a handsome guy will not be the solution to all your problems: concentrate on finding yourself first, and your place in the world.

Really. Don’t you wish the Disney executives had taken a page from them?

Furthermore, even the painfully catchy lyrics have a few neat moments. When one of the girls sings to her barking-cat:

“There is not a hair of you that I would rearrange
I love you the way you are, and that will never change,”

I can’t help thinking, “that’s exactly what I would tell my daughter!”

(Though not to that weird cat. Yeesh.)

Bottom line, you will probably not want to sit through this one—I never could—but it’s worth eyeing it every now and then from the safety of a corner.

* * * *

After P&P, Barbie did one more of those (The 12 Dancing Princesses), and then dropped the formula. They exchanged their computers for even older computers, by the looks of it, and began turning in some fairytopia and mermaidia stories that are even worse than they sound. By then, thankfully, my daughter was critical enough to realize that there were other things out there worth her time.

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Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Guide for Student Presentations

How do I get my students to read the material before class?

This is perhaps the greatest challenge college teachers face today! (Ideas? Post a comment!)

This will have to wait, though. What I have here [Download!] is a very simple way of getting at least ONE student to read the material before class. It is as simple as assigning them a presentation on the readings for the day.

The basic format of the presentation:

  • The student introduces him/herself and the topic
  • The student summarizes each unit assigned (a section, a paragraph, etc.) in two to three sentences, written beforehand.
  • The student provides a “reaction” to the reading (likes, dislikes, things that left him/her thinking…)
  • The student proposes one or two questions to the class. These are not rhetorical: Only after the questions have generated a few minutes of discussion is the student allowed to go back to their seat.
The format itself is not my creation (though this guide is). I think it’s pretty standard. I picked it up from Prof. William George, at Dominican University.
It’s a great way of reviewing the material too; and the most rudimentary feelings of empathy for the presenting student will have the others paying attention and trying to participate!
How to use it:
  • Write in the header the name of the student and the assignment. In this way, there’ll be no excuses.
  • It is better to assign short sections to many students. In that way, you get more students to actually focus on the reading!
  • A good presentation will take 10-15 mins. of class. Of course, I am counting on reasonably smart, motivated students. Results may vary.
  • Don’t let a student get away with a question that doesn’t elicit a good follow-up discussion. If they made the mistake of asking a question that can be simply answered with a “yes,” let them suffer the *uncomfortable silence* that follows for a few minutes. This will motivate the following students to prepare better questions!
Download A Guide for Student Presentations [in old Word format. Document will open in a new window.]

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Logic Inventory

So you’ve started your philosophy course with high hopes of getting your students to analyze the intricacies of Aristotle’s potency and act, Aquinas’ being and essence, and Kant’s Critique of something or other. And already you find your expectations stumped by the fact that your students–fresh from high school–are having trouble figuring the difference between a definition and an example!

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

This activity [Download!] can come in very handy at the beginning of a course that will be heavy in the use of various basic conceptual operations. Through it, students get to exercise the following:

  • Definitions (etymological, semantic, explanatory and classical, i.e., genus + specific difference)
  • Describing
  • Characterizing
  • Enumerating properties
  • Exemplifying
  • Formulating
  • Stating vs. Explaining
  • Paraphrasing
Each of these operations is given a brief explanation, after which students are asked to define/characterize, etc. such words as “whisky,” “to run” and “New Yorker.” (Feel free to modify it to your taste).
Recommended use: 
Use it in one of your first classes, and ask students to work in groups first. This will get them talking to each other. Then share with the class. This will get them talking to you!
The document is in old Word format, 5 pages long. It works better if each student has their own copy. 
You can find it here.  [Document will open in a new window.]
Enjoy!
Alf the Red

Coaching Children to Read in Church

DSC_1528-001

Once a month in our parish we celebrate a “Family Mass.” What is different about this one is that the parish children take care of most of the roles. This includes reading in front of the whole congregation!

I’m proud of our young readers. They put a bold front, and do an outstanding job. In many cases, their enthusiasm makes you listen anew to readings that had become trite and uninteresting from being read always in the same monotone. And even when they don’t quite pull it off, they still get the whole congregation to smile and feel that things aren’t so bad after all!

Through mysterious ways, I’ve somehow ended up as the “reading coach.” This means that every month I have to help a group of children and teenagers, ranging from ages 7 to 16, to prepare some really challenging readings. Sometimes with only a few minutes before showtime, since we don’t have formal practices set up. In the process, I have come upon a few tips & tricks that I’m passing on to you. (They may be helpful for other occasions too.)

1) What readings you need to cover:

In a Sunday Catholic Mass, readings go like this:

 The first reading is taken from the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Book of Revelations. Most of these readings will be either a narrative passage, or a passage from one of the prophets.
The greatest challenge with the former are the long, unfamiliar names of places and people. With the books of the Prophets, the challenge is to make the words “sound” prophetic.

 Between readings, the Psalms are normally sung, but if they aren’t, you may need a reader for this too.

 The second reading is taken from the Apostolic Letters. The style, the long sentences, and the fact that these are normally selections from a longer, ongoing argument, make these readings a challenge even for adult readers.

 The Gospel is read by the priest, so you don’t need to worry about that one.

 After the Offertory (when the gifts are brought forward to the priest), the Prayers of the Faithful are read. These are normally between five and six short prayers, written specifically for that Mass, each followed by the congregation answering “Lord, Hear our Prayer,” or a similar invocation. When read by children, these are usually split among them.
Practice especially the last one, where the “intention of this Mass” is read. This will have the name of the person/s for whom this particular Mass is prayed. It has to be heard well, and proper names can be tricky.
If you have more than one reader for these, and they are reading many prayers each, it is better not to alternate them (Reader 1, prayer 1, reader 2, prayer 2, reader 1, prayer 3 and so forth).
Group them instead (e.g. Reader 1, prayers 1, 2 and 3; Reader 2, prayers 4, 5 and 6). This is because readers may be of varying heights, and stand differently, and then you’ll be needing to adjust the microphone for each over and over.

 Lastly, you will need a vivacious reader for the Announcements. These are read at the end of the Mass, right before the final blessing. By then the congregation’s attention may be faltering, and you need to convey these announcements in a way that reaches your audience!

 Sometimes, you will also have the person reading the announcements (or a different one) read a short welcoming phrase at the beginning of the Mass. Make sure that everyone involved knows this will be read, and that the priest has a clear signal to indicate that the Mass will begin (since he will usually stand by the main door and process in).

A good rule of thumb is to get five readers: Welcome/Announcements; Reading One; Reading Two; and two readers for the Prayers of the Faithful.

2) What to do during practice time:

So those are the readings, and here are some tips that have helped my readers come through loud and clear.

 Have at least three copies of each reading available. One goes to the reader, so they can practice before Mass (and review during Mass, if they are nervous). One goes to the lectern (the reading stand), so the reader doesn’t need to bring their copy, and one stays with you, for emergencies.

 Determine who will be reading what, at least a week before, and e-mail the readings to the designated readers or their parents. Ask them to practice at home many times. That will make an enormous difference!

 Ask all the readers to arrive early. (20 to 15 minutes before Mass works for me, but you may need more time if you are just beginning to work with them.)

 Ask each reader to read their part once. Take mental notes of the places they have trouble with, and make them read those again until they get them right. This will usually involve strange names of people and places; long, unusual words; and long sentences with complex structures.

 Strange and unusual names and words: Pronounce them slowly, and ask the reader to say them a few times. Then ask them to read the whole sentence. (If you are not quite sure how a name is pronounced, don’t sweat it. Just give an authoritative best guess. The important thing is that they feel confident about it.)
A curious effect is that these difficult words sometimes come out even clearer than the rest of the reading, because the reader slows down in order to get them right!

 Long, complex sentences: Tell the reader where to stop for breath, and give them a pen to mark it in their copy.

 After you have sorted out these details, ask the reader to read the whole thing once more, “from the top.”

3) Some common difficulties, and how to deal with them:

Some readers (especially younger readers) tend to read “inwards”; that is, they seem to be reading to themselves, rather than to the congregation.
When practicing with them, a good trick is to stand at about ten feet away from the reader. Tell them that you have to read to you, where you are standing. This will hopefully get them to start projecting outwards.
It also helps to tell them that they are reading to the people standing at the back of the church, though it will be normally the older children who can use this trick to their advantage.
This is a challenge that can rarely be resolved in one day. Your readers will need time to grow in their reading skills and become more confident. For this reason, it is usually a good idea to assign the younger readers to the Prayers of the Faithful, since there isn’t such a dire need to hear these loud and clear.

Many readers tend to rush. This is either because they are really nervous, or because they think that Reading Well is Reading Fast. As a result, their reading lacks power and clarity, and they end up without breath in the middle of the reading.
In my experience, telling them to “read more slowly” doesn’t quite work. They will slow down for a sentence or two and then start rushing again.
Instead, tell them to take a full breath at the end of each sentence. When they see a period, breath. Do this with them during their practice (tell them: stop! Breathe). Even exaggerate it, if needed.
Kids take well to this kind of very specific instructions. The result is that they will slow down significantly, relax, and they will have time in between to start processing the next sentence.
Think it will go too slow? It won’t: If they are using a microphone, this is just the time needed for the echoes of the last phrase to die away.
As an added bonus, if the reading is from one of the prophets, it will sound very powerful!

Teenage and pre-teen readers (especially girls) tend to pitch their voice through their nose, and to blur and dissolve together groups of words, especially those with the sound “M” on them. Even excellent readers start doing this when they reach this age.
And good luck telling them that! You can have them read those clusters of words a few times, insisting that they separate the words more, and it may work. But their resistance to direct criticism being quite low at this age, you could have your practice run backfiring badly.
What I’ve done, to rather surprising effect, is blame it on the microphones. I tell teenage readers that the microphones are creating a lot of echo, and that it is important that they wait until the echoes have died out before they read the next sentence, or it will all get blurred together. (Which is true!)
This seems to create in them (at least in the most conscientious ones) an additional degree of awareness about the need to separate the sounds. The times I’ve done this, there was not a word that could not be heard clearly!

So that’s what I’ve got for now. I’ll keep updating this post as tips and techniques come up my way.

Alf the Red

Using Props in the Classroom

Trying to figure out these three guys
developed into a discussion in which
Lonergan’s “four levels of conscious operations”
were identified, no less.

Hands-on philosophy, you say?

Philosophy teachers don’t usually get many chances to teach “hands-on.” We learn by reading heavy texts, we improve our understanding of subtle points through long discussions, and our teaching is most often very discursive, with nothing for our students to hang on but words, arguments, the records of past experiences, and–if we are feeling generous–flat images on a flat screen.

That’s why I love the look in the face of my students when I bring an actual object to class. What I call a “prop.”
I discovered this when trying to explain Aristotle’s Theory of Abstraction in an introductory class. I was fascinated then by how my kids–barely toddlers at that point–would recognize a basket for bathtub toys (a thing made of yellow fabric, hanging from the wall with suckers) as a “fish,” which is what it was shaped like. This they did without any prompting from the grownups, showing a capacity for relating abstracted images to a “model” at surprisingly early age!
Fishy
Since I was going to talk about this in class, I borrowed one of my kids’ toys–a very cute squeaky shark.
When I took it off my bag, planning to pass it around while asking the question, “Is this a shark, or is this not a shark?” a girl sitting at the front spontaneously exclaimed:
“That is so cool!!!”
Man, were they starving to hold something in their hands! They passed it around twice.
Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to break the monotony by bringing other objects to class.

My favorite is a mate (pronounced “mah-teh.” Not “maté,” as you’ll find it spelled out by most tea companies. That accent is made-up) with its stand, and its bombilla. (Picture above). I use them to make students discover by themselves the “four level of conscious operations,” described by Bernard Lonergan in his work Insight.

If you’ve been to Argentina or its neighboring countries, then you’ll know that mate is a type of tea (different family, probably; I’m not being technical here) served in a recipient made from hollowed gourd, called, also, mate. This is stuffed with the leaves, hot water is poured in it, and you drink it through a metal straw called “bombilla” (also pictured above). It’s a social drink: once you’ve drunk, the host fills it up again, and passes it to the next guest (drinking, yes, from the same bombilla).
My students (I teach in Chicago) normally don’t know this. So when I pass around these objects, they look immediately puzzled. It’s an almost complete unknown at first. They touch, tap, examine, smell, use almost all their senses. They note their observations out loud. (First level: experience.) They formulate theories about their use (“is this a musical instrument”?) They try to put the different objects together in a meaningful manner, finding sometimes that the mate fits perfectly on the stand. Test names, relate them to things they know. (Second level: understanding.) They discuss their theories, weigh them, criticize them, look at me for a hint. (Third level: judgment.) They look with interest when I tell them that mate is really good if you want to pull an all-nighter, and squirm when I tell them that they’d have to drink from the same bombilla, or make up a really good excuse if they don’t want to offend their host. (Fourth level: value judgment.)

Most importantly, they look unanimously awake.

Trust me: It’s really worth a try.
Alfredo Mac Laughlin
* Have you used an unusual prop in one of your classes? Tell us of the context, the reactions you got. When I collect enough of these, I’ll cast them into another post. *