English Project Inspires Middle Schoolers to Think Like Philosophers

By Larry Sandomir

If Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were alive today, I do believe they would be middle school teachers. They would revel in the philosophical musings of Calhoun seventh graders, because these young people see the world in profoundly moral, compelling and values-laden ways. Better than most adults, they understand our past, make sense of the present, and offer common sense solutions for the future.

Student raises hand in class

In seventh grade English, the first long-term project our learners tackle is called “The Philosophy Project.” Its goal, beyond helping kids deal with time management and extended writing, is to put them in the position of thinkers, asking them to mull over questions that have multiple answers (or perhaps none), consider the ideas of Elie Wiesel, and deal with challenging notions posed by Harry Potter, the Avengers, Star Wars, baseball, Superman and The Big Bang Theory.

They are asked to wonder about identity, the nature of violence, the power of silence, truth and lies, equity and equality, emotions, wisdom, competition, and the chicken/egg conundrum. They are tasked with extending their thinking on such issues as military ethics in war, the nature of the soul, cheating, trust, fate and free will, and making judgments. When they rise to the challenge of considering the ideas of Elie Wiesel, they take choices from topics like the nature of labeling people, why tolerance is a negative word, evil and humanity, the value of listening, the sacredness of words, the value of protest, the nature of small gestures, why humanness is more preferable to perfection, what freedom is, and the firmness of beliefs.

The final challenge is to create, in whatever way is comfortable for them, an explanation of their own philosophies – the meaning of life for them. They may do this in essays, poems, sculpture, paintings, stories, drawings, computer art or any medium they feel will best express this idea.

Part one of the project is made up of questions such as: Why are we here? Is there a difference between reason and a purpose? Do you change the world for the better by changing yourself for the better? To you, what does it mean to act morally?

In part two of the project, students are asked to grapple with issues brought up in familiar books that speak to philosophy, such as the questions concerning freedom and moral responsibility faced by Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. With these questions in mind, students must then write a response to a prompt such as, “In what do you believe – fate or free will?” and include examples through writing or art that support their belief.

Finally, before they expound on their own philosophies, students read quotes from Elie Wiesel and answer questions about them. For example, in response to Wiesel’s statement that “We must not give in to the impulse to cage others; we must instead guard the otherness of the other,” students write responses to a prompt such as, “Why should we care about the other?”

MS students raise hands

After doing this section, one student told me that he read all the quotes by Elie Wiesel because they each made him stop and think.  My recollection is that the word, “Whoa!” occurred often in the telling. Another said he felt really good after finishing the project because he accomplished something meaningful, but it also gave him ways to approach being his age.

While kids may complain about homework or tasks they find too hard, they are natural thinkers, and when given the opportunity to exercise their brains, they don’t balk, but rather embrace. It’s not that they love when a teacher takes up their time or that the specter of a 5-6 week project isn’t daunting, but rather that the questions in this project tell them we trust them to rise to challenges and think about significant ideas. They often debate the questions with each other during independent work time or discuss them with their parents or older siblings who have done the project when they were in seventh grade.

I’ve used this project in my classrooms for over three decades, and I never fail to be astonished by the wisdom of seventh graders. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, I feel certain, would agree.

For examples of student work from this project, click below: 

Untitled poem

"My Philosophy"

Untitled reflection

"Four Minutes"