New education website aims to help area middle schoolers think like philosophers

Last modified: Monday, November 25, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — In a recent sixth-grade class at JFK Middle School, the topic was bullying, but the underlying lesson was about philosophy.

Students in John Crescitelli’s technology class watched a short film clip about cyberbullying, then tackled questions about the onscreen story of a British schoolboy whose classmates were bombarding him with mean texts.

The inquiries were tough ones: What does it mean to be an ally? What role do parents play? Should you tell other people if you’ve been bullied?

Thoughtful questions are the point of a new Web-based program that Crescitelli and other teachers at JFK have been trying out over the past year. The free online program “What’s the Big Idea?” uses film clips to teach middle schoolers how to think like philosophers. As the introduction to the website states, this is not the abstract philosophy of a college classroom. Instead, the site shows teachers how to use films to spark active discussions where middle school students can “express their philosophical selves.”

Students in Crescitelli’s class enthusiastically debated ethical issues raised by the film clip they viewed, “Still Fighting It,” with music by Ben Folds.

When asked to describe how the boy in the film responded to being bullied, sixth-grader Nicole Adams noted that, at first, he hid the problem.

“He says he’s fine when the teachers and his mother come up to him,” she said.

“When is it OK to keep what’s happening a secret?” Crescitelli asked the class. “How many of you don’t want your parents to see your Instagram?”

Student Molly Cole said there might be times when teens would keep things from parents. “But not if they say, ‘this person is hurting me,’” she added.

“Which do you think hurts worse, physical or mental bullying?” Crescitelli asked at another point.

The room was noticeably quiet for a moment before hands began to shoot up around the room.

Thinking before speaking is one of the skills that “What’s the Big Idea?” aims to teach. The website, launched last month, offers an introduction to students that emphasizes listening to others and viewing philosophy as an active discussion rather than a set of static texts.

The site offers teachers film clips, discussion questions and classroom handouts covering five topics — bullying, lying, peer pressure, friendship and environmental ethics. Clickable media choices for each subject range from the TV comedy series “Freaks and Geeks” to clips from feature films such as “Bend it Like Beckham,” “Smoke Signals” and “Thirteen.”

Crescitelli, a 24-year veteran at JFK, said the website has been a helpful tool to engage students.

“I’ve always used videos to delve into morals and ethics,” he said. “This makes it easy because someone else is doing the legwork and I don’t have to hunt for the clips.”

Elyse Langer-Smith, who teaches science and English at the middle school, has used “What’s the Big Idea?” in small group advisory sessions known as Forum. She said the program’s philosophical approach helps students feel more comfortable voicing opinions about difficult issues.

“The kids in my group loved the idea that there are no right or wrong answers” to the discussion questions, Langer-Smith said. “It’s a good way to get kids talking about issues they face every day and to share ideas in a safe place, to build community.”

Philosophy through film

“What’s the Big Idea?” grew out of a collaboration between Julie Akeret, a filmmaker and former JFK parent, and Thomas Wartenberg, a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke College since 1984.

Three years ago, Akeret was filming Wartenberg’s work using storybooks to introduce philosophy to elementary school children, ”when she had this idea that we could use film clips to teach philosophy,” Wartenberg said. “That immediately resonated with me.”

With $20,000 in grants from the Northampton Education Foundation, the state Foundation for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Association. Akeret and Wartenberg designed the website and produced teaching materials. Film clips were obtained for free through “fair use” copyright rules.

They decided to design a program for middle schools because early adolescence is a time when students begin to test their own ethical beliefs, Wartenberg said.

“There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in the adult world that I think kids wonder about at that age,” he noted. “Why shouldn’t you tell a lie? Why is it important to tell the truth? These are questions not being asked in a lot of classrooms.”

“What’s the Big Idea?” is also a way to teach all types of students critical thinking and discussion skills that are now required learning in public schools, said Akeret, who lives in Leeds and whose two sons attended JFK.

“That’s one of its best points,” she said. “Teachers are always worried about taking time away from test preparation. But this actually helps builds those same skills.”

Akeret credited local teachers and students who answered surveys about film choices and helped shape the Web program before it went live last month. In addition to JFK, teachers at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, William Norris School in Southampton and Amherst Regional Middle School have also used “What’s the Big Idea?” in their classrooms, she said.

One suggestion came from Kevin Hodgson, a neighbor of Akeret’s who teaches English at Norris.

Hodgson, who had used the website’s film clips with sixth-graders, felt the program should include a section on environmental ethics.

“Middle school kids are particularly attuned to environmental justice issues,” he said. “They look around the world and wonder why animals are extinct. It can make them feel powerless.”

Since that section was added to the site, Hodgson has used clips from “Avatar” and “The Lorax” to enhance discussions about environmental themes in student reading assignments. “It’s another approach to get them thinking,” he said.

Let students lead

One of the challenges facing the program is encouraging teachers to let students take the lead in philosophical discussions, Wartenberg said.

“The teachers are not supposed to supply the answers, but to help students think about what they would have done facing the same dilemmas” they see onscreen, he said. “A lot of teachers haven’t had the experience of eliciting the kids’ views.”

Langer-Smith, of JFK, said that’s something she hopes to do more of as she grows more used to the website. “One of the biggest signs of success is that I facilitate discussions less,” she said.

Eventually, she said, it would be interesting to draw parents into the program, as well. “Maybe they could watch film clips together and discuss them,” Langer-Smith said.

Updating film choices available on the “What’s the Big Idea?” site is another ongoing task, its creators say. While not all of the offerings are newly released movies, Akeret and Wartenberg said they’ve tried to choose films and TV shows most students are familiar with so discussions flow more easily.

Why is it important to teach philosophy in middle school?

Nancy Cheevers, a former reading teacher at JFK who is now the district’s director of curriculum and assessment, said helping students articulate beliefs builds confidence about all types of learning.

“It’s an opportunity for students to know that they do have deep thoughts and those are worth sharing,” said Cheevers, who used “What’s the Big Idea?” in her reading classes.

On the website, Wartenberg puts it another way: “Education will not live up to its ideals until we make every student a philosopher,” he says.


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