EUGENE, Ore. — The fourth-grade students in Jenny Vondracek's class are wrestling with a thorny question — the nature of work.
To prime the discussion, the Edison Elementary School students read "Frederick," by Leo Lionni, about a community of mice. The mice spend the summer gathering and storing food for the winter, except for Frederick, a poet who just sits around observing the natural world, storing up images in his mind. When winter comes and the mice run out of food, they turn to Frederick, who warms and entertains them with reminders of the sun and tales of beauty.
The question for the fourth-graders: Is Frederick working in the same way as the mice who gather food?
Under the guidance of University of Oregon philosophy student Kevin Keitner, Vondracek's 28 students are ready to jump right in.
"He worked hard by thinking," Lucas Scott says of Frederick. "The others worked hard by carrying things."
Classmate Trevor Veillette offers a comparison:
"Studying hard for a geography test would be different than, like, training for a triathlon," he says.
Jarrett Bryant has his own perspective. "I don't think that mouse was working hard. He was just sitting out there."
For one hour each week, Eugene fourth- and fifth-graders at a handful of schools are tackling philosophy, thanks to a joint effort between the university and the Eugene School District.
University students lead the discussions in classrooms at Adams, Camas Ridge, Chavez, Family and Edison elementary schools.
What does it mean to be brave? What is friendship? Can we evaluate good and bad art? Is lying always wrong? Do animals have rights?
And yes, says Paul Bodin, the instructor in the UO's education department who dreamed up the program, kids are totally up to the conversation.
Bodin talked the UO philosophy department into offering a class to encompass the project, and letting him teach it, after stumbling on a book, "Big Ideas for Little Kids" by Mount Holyoke College philosophy Professor Thomas Wartenberg.
It was the fifth session for Vondracek's class, and the students needed only occasional prompting from Keitner and Bodin.
Fourth-grader Addie Belcher prompted a chorus of lively reaction when she said: "You don't have to be working hard to be working hard."
What exactly did that mean? other students wondered.
A few minutes later, the conversation took a surprising turn.
"I think Frederick was working the most," said Josh White. "In the end he gave everyone else warmth. It's better than freezing to death."
Other students objected. Frederick is all talk, they said. He may make the other mice feel better but he doesn't literally make them warmer.
Lucas, however, wasn't so sure about that. He described a study he'd heard about in which sick people given a "fake pill" with no medicinal value got better anyway.
"You mean a placebo," Vondracek said, and the conversation veered toward the power of the mind.
Vondracek loves the sessions. "I'm amazed at how into it the kids get," she said. But while the engagement is great, she's even happier about the critical thinking skills her students are developing, she said.
The UO students don't just wind the students up around a topic and let them loose. They help them frame an idea or opinion clearly, teaching them to listen to each other and to paraphrase classmates' opinions.
Bodin was a longtime middle school teacher before teaching at the university. He said he wants the young students to learn to use logical thinking to support their ideas and to create generalizations from specific examples.
They are also learning to see many sides to an issue and to respect opinions they might not share.
"They're learning to disagree in a respectful way," Vondracek said.
Across town at Family School, teacher Andrea Harwood's blended fourth- and fifth-grade class went in a different direction, caught up in the "community" aspect of the story and dishing up analogies to refine the discussion."Community is like a spider web," Addie Liebhardt said. "If one person lets go, the whole thing collapses."
For Naomi Pfeiffer, community is a stew. "If everybody adds one thing, it's not very interesting. If everybody adds something different, it's better."
Bodin credits philosophy department head Ted Toadvine for ponying up the money for the University of Oregon course and Eugene district Superintendent Sheldon Berman for giving a green light to the project in local schools.
Whether it will be a one-time experiment or funded again is still being discussed, but for now Bodin is happy to see the effects in the classroom.
Bodin knows there might be some concern from parents who worry about teachers' pushing a particular point of view on impressionable students, but he said he and his UO class are teaching skills, not pushing answers.
"That's the role of a teacher," Bodin said. "To help kids struggle with the gray areas, the areas of interpretation that we all deal with every day. Without struggling with it and coming to grips with it, they won't be empowered to deal with these things in their lives."