From Epictetus to road-crossing chickens

Philosophy can engage, inspire and deepen the thinking of high school students, writes Diana Senechal in American Educator. She teaches Philosophy for Thinking at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a selective New York City public middle/high school that draws an ethnically diverse group of students. (Two-thirds are Latino or African-American; 56 percent qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.)

Her students have published the second issue of their erudite and humorous philosophy journal, Contrariwise, which can be ordered here. 

Students write about Epictetus, the Book of Job, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Pascal, Gogol, virtue, kindness, humor, utopia, dystopia, the DMV — and more.

Peerayos Pongsachai uses math and philosophy to analyze the question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The journal includes national and international contest winners. Emma Eder (Georgetown Visitation Prep, Washington, D.C.) won first place for The Very Real Problem of Irrationality in the math/philosophy category. Her classmate Julia Sloniewsky took on the challenge of writing as a knight or samurai during the all of feudalism. She won for Letter in the Desk of Hiraku Kikkawa.

The international contest asked students to imagine their favorite dish is “its own nation.”

Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? . . . Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences — anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as secreatry of state.”

Plate’s Republic by Grace Eder, also a Georgetown student, won first place. Second and third place winners came from Italy, China, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.

Going international

cakeMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is holding an international contest for secondary school students around the world, as well as two national contests and an open call. (For more about CONTRARIWISE, see the website, Book Haven review, and PLATO interview.)

I am eager to see what comes in.

Here is the international contest topic (which has already stirred up much conversation):

Your favorite cultural dish* is now its own nation. Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? You may refer to the ingredients, cooking utensils, eating utensils, human participants, or other aspects of the food’s preparation and consumption. Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences—anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as ‘secretary of state.'” This can be a story, an essay, an epic poem written in the style of Beowulf, words set to a popular song (bonus points if it’s a song we don’t know and have to look up, and it becomes one of our favorite songs of all time), or anything, really.

Although it may seem a blend of Plato’s Republic and the Mad Hatter Tea Party, the possibilities go beyond any immediate associations. When I have mentioned it to people, their first reaction has been, “Where would I even begin with that?” Then they have ended up talking about it for days.

The national contests are intriguing too.

If you know secondary school students (grade 6-12), please feel free to pass on the information! The deadline for the national contests and open call is November 14; for the international contest, December 1.

This is the one plug of my guest-blogging stint. There is nothing I would rather plug right now.


Note: I revised one paragraph of this piece after posting it, in order to fix a mixed metaphor (my own).

On journals and joy

roundtable2This year my students at Columbia Secondary School put together a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. Filled with essays, stories, dialogues, letters, poems, and other pieces on philosophical topics, it received a lovely review and drew enthusiastic responses from readers.

In May we celebrated the release of the first issue. The event featured readings, empirical Shakespearean experiments, philosophical improv, philosophical questions, a cake, a song, and five humorous awards. The readings ranged from Khadijah McCarthy’s reflection on Locke’s views of marriage to Ron Gunczler’s time-leaping “Two Dialogues: One Ancient, One Modern.”

In a Chalkbeat article, I relate the event to Richard Hofstadter’s idea of “piety and play” in intellectual life. Here I will talk briefly about something related: the nature of joy.

Joy is often misunderstood. People equate it with overt displays of cheer: kids jumping up and down, adults laughing as they work together at a table. A “joyous classroom,” according to some, is a place of bubbling conversation, rapid activity, colorful displays, and so on.  Joy can include these things, but there is more to joy than that. It doesn’t always take blatant form, and it has room for solemnity. One kind of joy comes from seeing things take shape, and that means bearing with uncertainty for a while.

For a good part of the five months of production, the editors and contributors—37 students in all—didn’t know whether the journal would truly come together, but they trusted that it would. I will not tell the story of the journal here; some of it appears in the review mentioned above, and some will appear in an interview of the students. Other stories can be saved for future occasions.

But I don’t mind telling about the morning the boxes arrived. It was a quiet Friday morning in February, with sun coming through the windows at the end of the hall. As though nothing unusual were afoot, the custodians wheeled all but one of the boxes into the office where they would be stored.

Not long afterward, the editors-in-chief opened that first box, removed the packing paper, and looked inside.

They took books in their hands. They took them to the principal and others. Word spread that the journals were here. People started coming by to purchase copies. The day began to fill with exclamation.

The books were beautiful at first glance, and second, and third, and onward. But that was only part of it. All the months of planning and uncertainty, of editing and deliberating, of ideas and laughter; all the lunchtime and after-school meetings (with or without huge pizza pies), all the last-minute inspiration–all this was there in the books. (Fortunately the pizza was devoured and left no trace.)

But the reverse is true as well: before the journal existed, it kept hinting at what it might be. The students went after the hints, and I understand why. There’s something thrilling about working on something you can’t yet see. You see it even when you don’t. When you begin a language, you assemble the sounds and sense a puzzle coming together. Or when working on a physics problem that’s eluding you, you might “get it” in a flash–and then you know that you will figure it out.

There is a kind of joy that has to do with things forming. But formation is not easy or quick. Nor is the joy all reserved for the end result. There is joy in being able to hold the invisible. Maybe joy has to do with perceiving layers of things: seeing what’s there, and also sensing something else.

(Photo, links, and names included here with permission.)


Contrariwise is a philosophy journal written and published by Diana Senechal’s students at New York City’s Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering. It’s a public middle/high school with a technical focus, but students also study the humanities.

The “ambitious venture” includes dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary and art” on topics ranging from time to tyranny, writes Cynthia Haven on Book Haven.

It all started when juniors taking Political Philosophy wrote “continuations of Plato‘s Republic, Book VIII – the section in which Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the decay of the kallipolis, city of philosopher-kings,” write editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape. 

Topics in the inaugural issue include Alba Avoricani‘s “Letter from Folly to Platon Kovalyov,” Khadijah McCarthy’s “John Locke on the Nature of Marriage,” and, taking on Hamlet, Sofia Arnold‘s “Claudius: A Flawed Machiavel.” I was rather intrigued by Megan Almanzar‘s essay on freezing time, “The Key to Immortality,” and Fariha Wadud‘s “The Book of Job’s Greater Message.”

Daniela Batista‘s cover art shows a bird on the nose of a buffalo.

Here’s how to order a copy.