The Platonic Academy is Alive and Well

I love when seemingly separate strands wind together like Wittgenstein’s rope. Here are reflections while observing the first of several classes at Akademeia High School in Warsaw. I’m posting this while two visiting scholars from Akademeia are at my school, in their first class observation here. AND a third visiting scholar, here with her family, will continue her European travels to Athens because her children are so interested in the ancient Greeks and Greek mythology. Good teaching, good parenting, good learning, strong rope.

I wait outside my first class visit at Akademeia with just a touch of self-consciousness. I sat down on a bench outside the room with a student, who promptly got up and left. I’m the new kid here, so to speak.

The teacher opens the door and we stream in, eleven of us, 9th graders who must be 14 or 15 years old, and me at 57, grandpa-age for these kids. I’m feeling my age, actually. I’ve definitely got a few years on the teachers I’ve seen here so far.

We start with a quick review of philosophy terms. Do you remember the branches of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics? The students do.

We are at an oval, blonde-wood boardroom table. Students take notes – with no prompting – as the teacher begins her lessons. There is quite a bit of terminology: secular, anno domini, atheist … Most students write with pen and paper, a few on tablets. The teacher creates openings for students to contribute, which they do, some more than others. And then a map of Ancient Greece on the screen – this is the main focus of the lesson.

Students make fun connections with Ancient Greece. They mention the gods, the Mediterranean, the economy (I’m interested in learning more about that), and sports. She has focused their attention, drawn them in. Not bad for first thing in the morning and the study of ancient civilizations.

I’m struck that we are thinking about a time period three thousand years ago. Will there be anyone thinking about us in three thousand years? 

A meta moment: the teacher asks the students about their process. “From the discussion so far,” she asks the students, “what have you written down as notes? How do you know what is important?” This is nice, we’re talking now about how to learn. Skills that transcend the subject matter, another way of making three thousand year old Greek history relevant this September morning, in Warsaw.

We make the switch to reading, an excerpt from “The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Explained Simply.” One student remarks that he’s seen this book in the library. Another student says he read a different book about philosophy, the teacher recommends he brings the book to class. Affirms how great it is that he has encountered philosophy before.

The students copy five guiding questions from the screen. What marked the birth of philosophy? What was the main concern of the early philosophers? I’m guessing the students will answer these as they read. I’m guessing, too, that they will read independently. The teacher takes a moment to discuss study skills again. “Reflect on the questions first, before reading,” she offers as a tip. “Be ready to annotate, to read carefully. This year is about getting ready to handle the IGCSEs.” 

The student who has been most active in the discussion so far offers to read out loud. Her English is excellent, she only stumbles over the Greek names, Thales, Pythagoras. The teacher takes over again when she finishes reading and leads the students to answers for a few of the guiding questions. 

During the discussion one boy defines empirical as “God-like.” The quick-thinking teacher replies, “I wonder where you got that connection?” in a face-saving way, a way that says to the student that he is making connections, albeit not always the right ones. I’m sure the other students notice they can be factually wrong but still right, in the sense that being a learner is about being both wrong and right and learning which is which. She straightens out the meaning for the class, ties the empiricism back to the early philosophers.

The lesson has been teacher directed, with seamless movement between the course topic and an emphasis on developing academic skills. Students contributed the whole forty minutes, flagging just a bit toward the end of the lesson. I can’t ask them, but I imagine they feel very good about themselves. 

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