Pre-College Philosophy Summer Camp at Texas A&M


From June 20-24, 2016 Texas A&M University hosted its first ever philosophy camp on its main campus in College Station, TX. It was run by Claire Katz, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M, along with several of her colleagues at Texas A&M, faculty from Sam Houston State University, and former and current graduate students and undergraduates from Texas A&M.

“I thought philosophy was all about trying to find answers to questions…I learned that the process of just asking questions is philosophy, and you gain something from that even if you never find a definite answer.” -Middle School Student

Philosophical discussion on: “What do we learn and why do we learn it?”

“After hearing what everyone had to say, I actually realized I had changed my mind about what would constitute a fair system. I thought it was amazing to have completely believed in something and then by the end of the day, realize I didn’t anymore.” -High School Student

You’re the philosophers, what is your question?

Middle School students solving a mystery

Learn about the development of this new and exciting pre-college philosophy summer program in Texas by reading our interview with Claire and Desirae. They shared with PLATO some key insights that can help others who are thinking of creating similar programming!

The Beginnings of an Idea

PLATO: How did you come up with the idea for a pre-college philosophy camp?

 

Claire: I was interested in introducing the Philosophy for Children (P4C) program into the local schools where I had two daughters enrolled. I hold a masters degree in P4C (1987) and although I worked with the program for several years after earning my degree, I had not had the chance to work with it in recent years.

 

PLATO: What were the first steps towards establishing a pre-college philosophy program?

 

Claire:  In preparation for my meeting with Robert (Bobby) Bisor, Assistant Vice President for Public Programs and Outreach (PP&O) Office of the Provost at Texas A& M, I sent him several links about Philosophy for Children so he would know what he was supporting. By the time I met with him, he was completely sold on the program—and had much bigger plans than simply a faculty member teaching an hour a week in the schools. He suggested that we consider training teachers, hosting a summer camp, and working toward developing a center.

 

PLATO: What do you think made Texas A&M such a great candidate as a site of a pre-college philosophy program?

 

Claire: I am fortunate that from the very beginning, I have had the full support of the Provost’s office and the Dean’s office in the College of Liberal Arts. Additionally, because Texas A&M is a land-grant university with a special responsibility to the people of Texas, outreach is a fundamental part of the university’s mission. Philosophy for Children is the perfect outreach program for many reasons, not the least of which is creating a stronger bond between the university and K-12 education.


First Steps

PLATO: When did you first start planning your pre-college philosophy summer camp?

 

Claire: Actually, I initially set aside the idea of a summer camp. I was trained as a scholar and teacher, and I had no idea what was involved in organizing a summer camp. In July and October of 2015 I ran two teacher training sessions in Philosophy for Children that were well attended. Most of the teachers and administrators who attended were from schools in the Bryan-College Station area, but there were several people who came from the surrounding areas, e.g., Navasota, Huntsville, and Houston. All of the attendees were enthusiastic about the program. Conversations in between these two training sessions led us to consider developing a summer camp so we could engage the local kids directly. We had been in contact with one of the philosophy graduate students at the University of Kentucky who had run a camp in July 2015. The project seemed manageable and certainly worthwhile.

 

PLATO: What made you finally decide to pursue this idea of creating and running a pre-college philosophy camp?

 

Claire: In October 2015, I received a small grant from the College of Liberal Arts that was earmarked for enhancing the professional lives of graduate students. I thought working with a camp devoted to Philosophy for Children would be perfect. Graduate students would improve their pedagogical skills, engage in course development, organize a large project, and work with a program whose outreach benefits are endless. And so, with the help of the PP&O office and the College of Liberal Arts, we embarked on planning a summer camp whose sole focus would be engaging teenage students in philosophical dialogue.

 

PLATO: How were he funds from the grant used?

 

Claire: The grant from the CLA supported graduate student stipends, t-shirts, and a few additional expenses. The funds from the PP&O office supported lunches for the week for the campers and staff and other miscellaneous camp items (lanyards and folders). My research bursary paid for course packets and other miscellaneous items.

 

PLATO: How many middle and high school students did your pre-college philosophy camp have?

 

Claire: I had originally budgeted for twenty-five campers, hoping that we would get at least ten. I had not anticipated in my wildest dreams that we would have forty-six campers enroll! Even with that enrollment, we still had a waiting list with more than ten kids on it.


Camp Recruitment

PLATO: How did you advertise your pre-college philosophy camp?

 

Claire: Advertising for the camp was distributed over campus listservs and reached most if not all faculty, staff, graduate students listed as employees of the university. Additionally, I appeared on KBTX, our local television station, in a five-minute spot to promote the camp. Finally, flyers were distributed electronically through various lists in our outreach office, e.g., the local school systems.

 

PLATO: Who was the camp for and why did you pick this population?

 

Claire: The age range we hoped to enroll was middle and high school age. We decided this was a good age for several reasons: they are at a point when they do not need babysitting, but most are not old enough to drive or (in some cases) work; they are at a point where they can appreciate being offered something intellectually different from what they experience currently in school; they might be thinking about college at this point.

 

PLATO: Why did you believe it is important for middle and high school students to study philosophy?

 

Claire: Although part of our aim was to enhance the intellectual life of these kids, we had a simultaneous aim—a long game—to change how philosophy is viewed and, ultimately, to change the face of philosophy as a discipline. We believe that by introducing philosophy to younger people, they might see philosophy as an option to pursue academically where they might not have otherwise. Additionally, by allowing young women and girls, in particular, to participate in philosophical engagement before college, we hoped to undo or prevent patterns of thinking and behaving that are gendered and increasingly damaging to both men and women.


Camp Logistics

PLATO: What did the student population of your camp look like?

 

Claire: Of the forty-six young people enrolled in the camp, slightly more than half were young women/girls. We were able to divide each group, middle and high school, evenly between male and female campers. Our camp included racial, ethnic, and religious diversity—and the dialogues that continued through the week reflected the benefit of such a diverse group.

 

PLATO: How did you manage 46 campers?

 

Claire: With forty-six campers, we realized that we needed to divide the group in half into two main smaller groups. We would continue to divide into even smaller groups for discussions, but for planning and pedagogical reasons, dividing the large group into middle school and high school groups worked well.

 

PLATO: How did you organize the curriculum of the camp?

 

Claire: We organized the camp around a general theme of social and political philosophy. Philosophically, we began everyday with a reading from Plato, and everyday we ended with a contemporary theme that picked up on a question Plato had raised 2,500 years before.


Daily Camp Schedule

PLATO: Can you tell us a little bit about what each day of the pre-college philosophy camp looked like?


The first day we spent a great deal of time in the morning getting to know each other. My main goal for the morning was that everyone would know everyone’s name by the end of the first day. No one would go through the camp week being referred to as “her” or “him” but rather by name. Interestingly, one middle school boy commented on this the very last day of camp when the College of Liberal Arts was interviewing him; he believed that ensuring all names were learned and used meant that we were serious about respect and taking everyone’s ideas seriously.

 

On the first day, we began our philosophical discussions with an animated video of Plato’s Cave Allegory. The themes from that discussion stayed with them all week and several campers indicated that their lingering questions related to knowing what their own chains were.


The second day, we started with Plato’s Ring of Gyges and his dialogue “Euthyphro.” With the high school group, I led a discussion on the Cain and Abel story as a related story to the question, “Where do ethics come from?” The middle school group ended their day with a discussion of a Brain Games episode, “Compassion” and the high school group ended their day with a discussion of ethical themes in super heroes.


The third day was devoted to social and political philosophy, with the guiding question, “What makes a just society?” We began with excerpts from Plato’s “Apology” and “Crito,” made our way through the Declaration of Independence and themes from the U.S. Constitution, and then to MLK, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” to discuss both the theme of dissent and also who counts as a citizen.


The fourth day considered questions within philosophy of education. Here we started with themes from Plato’s Republic, in particular how human nature figured into the formation of the different parts of society and if Plato’s version seemed fairer than we currently encounter in our school systems under the label of ‘tracking.’ The discussion of Plato led to a discussion of Dewey.

 

In the middle school group, Paolo Freire was introduced and the high school group was introduced to W.E. B. Dubois. We introduced the high school group to Foucault’s concept of the docile body and discussed how traditional K-12 curricula is oriented toward “discipline and punishment” rather than encouraging or rewarding curiosity and creativity. Many campers contributed their own experiences mentioning things like high school rules dress codes. In the afternoon, both groups were asked to design their ideal school: what would it look like, what would the curriculum be, what would its purpose be?


Finally, on the last day we considered art and philosophy. The high school group viewed a video from performance artist Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance “The Artist is Present,” and, picking up themes from earlier in the week, they questioned whether there is a connection between art and compassion. After viewing works by a variety of artists—from Warhol to silent film—the kids really focused in on the question of artist intent and audience reception. They ended the section amicably split: half thought that artist intent determined the meaning of art, while the other half thought that our interpretation of art changes its meaning.

 

The middle school group watched a short video on the concept of a human capsule (like a time capsule). In small groups, they decided what they would place in their human capsules—how would they represent humanity to an alien culture?

 

For a fun diversion, we staged/reproduced Raphael’s painting, “School of Athens” on the steps of the YMCA building. The photo is pictured—and one can see that our camp was a bit more diverse than Raphael’s painting of the philosophers.

 

As a final “academic” activity, we asked the students to become the philosopher and share with us “their” question—one that had emerged throughout the week and by which they felt particularly moved and/or one that would linger with them after the camp’s conclusion. Their questions, a sample of which we reproduce just below, were not only extraordinary but also represented the diversity of ideas that a week of philosophical discussion can produce—even (especially?) in pre-college students.


PLATO: The week sounds amazing! Did you find that the students developed their own philosophical questions throughout the week?

 

Claire: The students asked some great philosophical questions throughout the week. Here are a few of them:

 

  • When we use the word “truth”, is it our truth or the truth is general?
  • Will there ever be a just society and who decides what a just society is?
  • Can you live in happiness and also in truth?
  • Is it possible to have both justice and compassion within a perfect society?
  • Is everything art or is art in everything?
  • What is the best way to differentiate between right and wrong?
  • Who and what determines normal and/or neutral?


Highlights & Lessons Learned

PLATO: What advice do you have for others who may be interested in running a pre-college philosophy summer camp?

Desirae: The entire week was quite intense for both the counselors and the kids, but there were a few things that really stood out to us as highlights from our time together:

Respect
Firstly, we were blown away by how respectful the kids were to one another. Even though they came from very different backgrounds and each held very different perspectives on the subjects we discussed, they treated one another as legitimate contributors to the conversation. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with preteens and teens will know how impressive this is: not one eye was rolled. When a divergent perspective was offered, it was given careful consideration, and it was ideas that were debated—not the people advancing them. At one point in the high school group, a participant advanced a position that made use of racial stereotypes. The resultant discussion was truly inspirational to watch, as it required no intervention or guidance from the counselors in the room. Contrary evidence was considered, counterarguments were formulated, and the entire dialogue on identity was advanced with a maturity that isn’t often credited to thinkers at this age.

 

Awareness of Ideas
Secondly, the camp really seemed to provide the kids a positive way to relate to ideas. Several of the high schoolers remarked that they preferred the “seminar” style discussions to the lecture-based instruction they received at school. At the camp, they were able to follow their own reasoning wherever it took them, and they were able to engage with other kids their age as they did the same. By the end of the week, several small intellectual communities—possibly the first these kids have ever experienced—had formed throughout both the high school and middle school groups. Kids from different geographical locations (cities, states, countries) and different backgrounds (racial, religious, and socioeconomic) exchanged information, followed one another on social media, and made plans to stay in touch with one another. The connections were fostered almost exclusively by their shared intellectual curiosity and mutual respect.

 

Impact on Teaching Practices
At the end of the week, several of the counselors remarked that the camp had an impact on how they envisioned their own teaching going forward. Some counselors were self-admittedly used to lecturing, and the more open, dynamic format of P4C challenged them to think about teaching in a different way. Some of the more inexperienced counselors remarked that they learned more about pedagogy in this one week of camp than they had in their previous teacher training.

 

Structuring a day around a Question
For those interested in running similar camps, there were some lessons we learned throughout this experience that might prove helpful. Probably the most important of these key takeaways is the kids are more engaged and the sessions run smoother if you orient them around a question rather than a lesson. We found that when we had a specific thing we wanted the kids to learn, we tended to revert to a lecture, which rarely stimulated student involvement or interest. Structuring the discussion around a question not only modeled the way that philosophical thinking actually happens, it gave the kids the freedom to take the discussion in any direction that they found stimulating.

 

PLATO: This is so amazingly helpful. Any final thoughts?

 

Desirae: This approach can be daunting because it prevents counselors from having any kind of roadmap for the session they are leading. This feeds into the second key takeaway we learned: have a substantial amount of material from which you can draw if needed, but try to avoid having a precise plan. We created ahead of time a “course pack” of readings and videos that we could draw upon when discussion lagged or we needed a concrete example to illustrate a point, but much of this material did not get used because we didn’t need it. When the kids are given the room to explore what interests them and how it relates to their own lives, they will generate more ideas, more examples, and more questions than you can anticipate or manage. Just go with the flow. And they will discover the power of philosophy in ways we simply did not anticipate.


The Future

PLATO: Will you be offering camp again next year?

 

Claire: We are hoping to have the funding to continue the camp next summer. Anyone interested in attending or volunteering can contact Claire Katz at ckatz@tamu.edu.

Check out the Texas A&M Philosophy for Children Website


PLATO would like to thank Claire and Desirae for taking the time to contribute to this blog post and for sharing their insights from running a pre-college philosophy summer camp.

 

About the Authors:

Desirae Embree is a PhD student in the Department of English at Texas A&M where she studies film and media with a special interest in gender and sexuality.

 

Claire Katz is Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. She teaches and conducts research in philosophy of education, feminist theory, modern Jewish philosophy, and contemporary French philosophy.

 

Photo Credits: Texas A&M

Pre-College Philosophy Summer Camp at Texas A&M

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