By Karen S. Emmerman, Philosopher-in-Residence at John Muir Elementary & PLATO Education Director

How a Philosopher-in-Residence Program Works

Yesterday, as I walked down the halls of John Muir Elementary school in the middle of year eleven as their Philosopher-in-Residence (PIR), I passed by students who greeted me with an enthusiastic “Dr. Karen! Are you coming to our room today?”. It brings me joy to be such a recognizable part of their school community.

PLATO’s first foray into the PIR program was in 2013 with my appointment to John Muir. Since then, we have grown to include another elementary school in Seattle and high schools in Seattle, Boston, and Philadelphia. We receive many inquiries from practitioners, teachers, and administrators about how these programs work–from getting them off the ground to the day-to-day details. This post will fill you in on many of the details. 

Laying a Foundation

A successful PIR program starts with building relationships and interest in a particular school. It can be quite challenging to move from no philosophy programming in a school to a PIR program. The intermediary steps involve establishing relationships with teachers and administrators, offering demonstration classes so they can see the work up close, then working with several classrooms. Over time, a philosophical school culture begins to develop, laying the foundation for a discussion about introducing a PIR. The PLATO website lays out in-depth how to get a philosophy program started

Building Relationships and Word of Mouth

Once the PIR program is established, you can expect it to build over time. I began at John Muir with five classrooms. Within a few years, I was up to my maximum of ten, the number of classes I could teach in the time I had at the school weekly. This growth is largely attributable to word of mouth between teachers and my efforts to build relationships with staff in the building. One method that has been successful for me and others has been to ask a teacher if they think their fellow grade-level teachers would be interested in having philosophy in their rooms, thus creating an environment where all fourth graders, for example, get philosophy. Another way to spread the word is by offering to write a short blurb about your sessions that goes out in teachers’ weekly or monthly newsletters to students’ families. This enables families to discuss what goes on in philosophy together, learn about the program, and advocate to expand the philosophy program at the school.

It is important not to be discouraged if the number of interested teachers is initially lower than you had anticipated. Part of the work of a PIR is building the philosophy program by meeting with teachers, communicating with families, and reminding the students to advocate for philosophy if they love it. 

The Beginning of the School Year

Before the start of the school year, the philosopher-in-residence needs to determine what schedule will work for them while keeping in mind the school’s schedule. Many of us set aside one or two days a week (or portions of those days) designated for our work at the school. Around the second week of school in the fall, we email all the faculty and administration letting them know about the philosophy program, providing details on what philosophy for young people is, and offering to schedule demonstration classes. From there, we build a schedule with teachers. Schedule-building can be a challenge given the competing demands on teachers’ and students’ time, but it will come together. Some teachers enjoy an opportunity to meet before getting started so the PIR can hear what their class will be learning about that year and how to coordinate philosophy with their curriculum. Others are delighted at the chance to not have to plan something, so they just leave you to it. The beginning of the year is also an important time to check in with teachers and see if they have students with particular needs you will need to develop skills for supporting.

Day-to-Day Flow of a PIR Program

Once the program is established, teachers have bought-in to doing philosophy, and classes are scheduled, the delightful part of the work begins! I do not use a set curriculum because I like to go where the students are interested in going. I do, however, keep a list of books/prompts I generally use in specific grades so I can avoid bringing the same prompt I did in second grade to a group of third graders, for example. The PLATO Toolkit and Literature Library are rich resources for putting together philosophy sessions appropriate to different age groups. 

School administrators vary in how much contact they want to have with the PIR. Some are quite involved whereas others are happy to have the philosophy program running smoothly on its own and not demanding their attention. Teachers, too, vary in how much contact they want from their philosopher. Some like weekly reminders of upcoming sessions, for example, whereas others keep track well on their own and prefer fewer emails.

Five helpful things to keep in mind as a PIR include:

  • Establish a relationship with the school librarian so you can borrow books for sessions, recommend books to your students, and ask the librarian for help choosing books relevant to a particular topic.
  • Ask for a place to work in the building – due to the complexity of scheduling, it is common to have long gaps between sessions during which you may want to rest or get some work done. Often there are little nooks in schools that administrators can make available for your use.
  • Spend time in the teachers’ lounge! This is helpful for building relationships with teachers, getting a sense of the mood/needs of those working in the building, and cultivating a philosophical discussion with the teachers while they eat their lunches (when they are keen to do so) which can be great fun for everyone.
  • Building a philosophical school culture takes time and, of course, philosophical thinking and discussion. It also takes building rapport in non-philosophical settings. Take any chance you can to interact with students in the hallways, ask them about their interests, and be a helpful presence to them when they need it. This not only enriches the connections you make during your day but enables them to see you as more than just a person who comes to their classroom once a week.
  • Connect with the school’s PTA or PTSA. This is an important way to reach adult members of the school community who are not in the building but who can spread the word about the program and advocate for the work. It also helps you understand the community and its needs better.

A PIR program is one of the most satisfying ways to engage in philosophy with young people because it involves building deep and lasting relationships with students, teachers, and administrators. One becomes part of the community which enriches the philosophical work and the joy one takes in it incalculably.

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