Extra Curricular RE : Running a Philosophy Society

“The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates)

The commitment of running a philosophy society is one which I am thoroughly enjoying. It was set up in 2012 by my predecessor and the biggest challenge has been the inner battle of anxiety I felt about living up to the hype. All reports I had heard about it were hugely positive. I still worry about being able to deliver something which is not only popular with pupils, but is also seen as academically worthwhile by the staff. It is an ongoing project, and I have learnt a lot so far.

Ultimately, I remain passionate about RE and the department that I am so fortunate to work within. However, I often find that in my lessons there is little time available to follow a line of enquiry as fully as the pupils would like. Unfortunately, limited time and the pressure of looming summer exams can lead to the curtailing of opportunities for philosophical dialogue in the classroom.  However, it is my wholehearted belief that the importance of philosophy for children is that it remains a worthwhile activity in itself.  It is with this in mind that I decided to revive The Hampshire Philosophy Society after a year of working at my school.

The Eight ‘P’s of running your Philosophy Society

The following is meant as a guideline to help those teachers who are hoping to set up or restart their own philosophy society. It is not an extensive list, but includes elements from my own experience which I have learnt on-the-job. There is a tentative 9th ‘P’, something which may be unobtainable, but that I strive for, nevertheless.

1.Preparation

If you want to start up a new society, or reinvent one which used to run previously, it is important to plan ahead. I made my decision in June 2015 and spent the last few weeks of term thinking carefully about how it would work on a practical level. This included meeting with my Head of Department, the school’s Director of Studies and ensuring there would be a budget as well as a time in the afterschool activity slot for it to be feasible. This meant that when the new academic year began, all was in place for a fresh and slick start.

“Hampshire is a society for all ages who want to kick start the philosophical thinking process within a comfortable environment where all views are welcomed”.

2. Problems

I didn’t get all that I wanted. Due to the demands of other societies and clubs, the only time available was a tri-weekly meeting in a late-evening slot. Not ideal. However, working with the calendar committee I was able to ascertain that, in special cases where visiting speakers were arranged, flexibility was possible. Keeping the lines of communication open with SLT is crucial for overcoming any teething-problems which you may face.

3. Planning Ahead

It is important, I think, to remain positive and realistic when running extra-curricular events. Sometimes other things, such as sport and music, might be far more well-established. As such, I have had to ensure that before scheduling an event open to all pupils, it runs at a time which is not already full with other whole-school events. Selecting dates and times is tactical, and it is important to not put yourself, unintentionally, in direct ‘competition’ with other events. Best case scenario- there is a low turn-out to your event; worse-case scenario- you upset your colleagues.

“On Tuesday the 8th of September 2015, all eagerly arrived to The Tithe barn to embark on Miss Carter’s carefully planned philosophy forum, not quite knowing what to expect; which is ironic considering much of the discussions were based on what we can know, or rather what we cannot.”

4. Pupil power

Pupils love to take charge of clubs and societies. Before restarting the Philosophy society I invited a group of pupils across the year groups to talk them through my ideas. I asked them what they wanted. I advised them that this would be a great opportunity for them to have fun, gain leadership experience and have additions for their UCAS forms. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of opinions. I took them all on board. Especially the important role of complementary edibles.

“Not only was there food for thought, but actual food which everyone seemed delighted by…oh the perks of Hampshire Society!”

Some pupils expressed a desire to take a leading role. I established a ‘committee’ for the society, where I invite keen individuals to provide support for the smooth running of sessions. They help set up, clear up and, most importantly, circulate the attendees, engaging with them keenly and guiding them towards the most interesting philosophical questions. There are a few positions of pupil responsibility too, in the roles of Secretary and Deputy, as well as pupil Editors of the Philosophy section of the school’s pupil-run online magazine.

5. Purpose

A manifesto is very important for outlining the aims of a society or club. Restarting the philosophy society provided a great opportunity for renewing its aims and I intend to let the pupils review them every year to ensure they remain relevant.  A key one for me is giving pupils an arena in which to meet like-minded individuals across the years. This builds a sense of community and togetherness which makes the sessions even more enjoyable. It is important too that pupils feel that it is a place where they can share their ideas with confidence. It is not a place just for pupils of RE, nor simply a social event for the cleverest individuals. Being genuinely ‘open to all’ is an important part of keeping the society fun and inclusive.

 “Hampshire really does provide the opportunity for an open debate, where there is no such thing as a stupid question or wrong answer. This is the exact ethos of Hampshire, that the more we question, the better! I mean, what’s more satisfying than engaging our inner philosophers? With the sheer accessibility of the society it allows for all years to participate, with the younger years offering some incredibly intellectual answers, putting some of us sixth-formers to shame!”

6. Posters and Publicity

Advertising is crucial. Colourful and engaging posters around the school campus work well as well as announcements at lunchtimes. The society already had a Twitter account so I sought out the login details and set about keeping it regularly updated. Linking to other school accounts is important as it gets the word out to pupils and parents alike. I ask pupils to write up a report of our Philosophy Society sessions shortly after the event and pass this on to be published on the news section of the school website and in termly newsletters.

7. Practicalities

Running sessions can be stressful. Getting the basics right: booking the rooms in advance, getting the furniture set up in a manner conducive to discussion etc. is  careful work which is crucial to the success of any event.

I felt weirdly and uncharacteristically nervous welcoming pupils to our first session of the year, a ‘Philosophy Shop’ run on the lines of speed-dating (without the dating!). But I had prepared the resources carefully in advance [Extracts from the brilliant ‘Philosophy Shop: Ideas, Activities and Questions to Get People, Young and Old, Thinking Philosophically’ by Worley et al.] and had a team of 8 or so pupils who were there to do all the little jobs for me. This meant I could step back and watch the session ‘run-itself’. It is exposing; you are providing an extra activity which should be fun and enriching for the pupils. Being properly prepared is crucial to feeling confident that it will be a success.

“The philosophy shop was a great introductory session, from those experienced in RS to those who have never studied it. It allowed all to get comfortable in the environment, so that in the future when debate becomes more current, no one will feel nervous to get involved. Everyone is welcome to express their views at Hampshire.”

8. Peer Support

Running a society can involve a very large amount of administration and organisation. At times, far too much for one person. Some weeks the work can pile up from all angles and leave you without enough time to achieve all you wanted. Seeking support from colleagues can really help you stay afloat.

This is particularly important when doing things for the first time. Inviting speakers from local universities or organisations can bring a lot to your society sessions, and it is important that you follow school protocol appropriately. Consulting the relevant staff and making sure that you tick all the necessary boxes keeps you and your pupils safe.

The 9th ‘P’:  Perfection?

Is there such a thing? The anti-realist within me doubts it. But success of the society is something which is important to me. Only time will tell the extent of its achievements. For now, I will endeavour to regularly bring engaging and varied opportunities for philosophy as an activity for the pupil body to enjoy.

Of course, free food is also available.

http://www.repton.org.uk/Hampshire-is-back-and-serving-up-some-food-for-thought

http://www.repton.org.uk/Philosophy-and-Gaming

http://www.repton.org.uk/The-Hampshire-Philosophy-and-Christmas-Quiz

http://beyondthebubble.co.uk/category/thought-in-action/

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at: www.BlogSyncRE.org.uk

Please read some of the committee’s articles here. They are written by pupils from Year 10 all the way up to Year 13. The only requirement is that they link philosophy and ethics to current affairs.

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