At Landover middle school, philosophy is part of lunch menu

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010

Schools these days focus mostly on preparing students for tests of reading and math, but during lunchtime at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, the youngsters sitting in a small circle were tackling the really deep questions: Ethics. Fairness. How to split dessert.

All three issues turned up as the seventh- and eighth-graders in the Philosophy Club tackled the question of the day: "Imagine that you are babysitting a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. The parents have left some treats for dessert: two bananas, a lollipop and an ice cream bar. The parents' instructions are to allow each child to choose one treat. Unfortunately, both kids want the ice cream bar. How can you distribute the goods fairly?"

Someone suggested that they split the ice cream bar in half, but other students had other ideas.

"Whoever wants the ice cream bar has to eat the banana," said Malcolm Washington, an eighth-grader.

"I'd take a banana and pretend I like it, and then they'd be really, really jealous and they'd want the banana," said Connie Hackett, a seventh-grader.

So it went for half an hour, to the delight of Kathy Gregory and Jan Plane, who led the session.

Gregory started the club four years ago at Glenarden Woods Elementary School while teaching language and social studies to fifth- and sixth-grade students in the school's talented and gifted program. It gave them an intellectual diversion from preparing for the Maryland School Assessment, the examinations in reading and math that are a near-obsession for administrators and teachers.

They discussed issues that don't have simple textbook answers, such as whether animals have rights or whether it is ever permissible to lie.

"It gives kids the ability to think deeply. Kids need that," Gregory said. "The vast majority of these guys have mastered the MSA long ago. They don't need to spend a lot of time on test preparation."

Gregory took the idea to Kenmoor Middle School this year when she became the coordinator of the school's gifted program. Although many of the Philosophy Club's students are in the talented and gifted program, it's open to everyone, and more than 40 showed up at two sessions one day before the winter break.

The heavy smell of cafeteria food hung in the noisy corner of the school's foyer where the kids sat for one session. Announcements were read over the public-address system, and other students trucked through the hallways. But instead of socializing, the two dozen kids in the circle were fully absorbed.

"What about the idea of giving the ice cream bar to the older child?" Gregory asked. "Could that work? Is that fair?"

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