At Hyde Park’s City Elementary, UChicago Civic Knowledge Project’s pre-college philosophy program makes a unique impact with the school’s diverse learners
When City Elementary school first partnered with University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project team a few years ago, Hyde Park mom Penny Visser saw the impact the Project’s Winning Words program had on her daughter, Ella, right away. One early Winning Words session had City students acting out multiple roles in the same scene of a play. Ella is on the Autism spectrum and, like all City students, a diverse learner. The scene gave her a rare opportunity to experience an interaction through someone else’s eyes.
“It was just a really great exercise for our kids who might not have otherwise naturally considered the perspective that another person might bring to a situation,” Visser says.
Winning Words is an educational program in the Office of Civic Engagement that offers nontraditional philosophy instruction to underserved K-12 students, both on UChicago’s campus and at sites across the South Side including schools and community centers. Perspective-taking is a key element in the program’s approach, and at City that piece is especially meaningful.
“Our students tend to be pretty black and white thinkers a lot of the time and with philosophy there’s obviously a lot of gray areas,” City Head of School Christopher Flint said. “So, it forces our students to explore those areas a little bit more and shows them that there’s not a right and wrong answer for everything.”
City serves 20 K-8 students who are at or near grade level academically but may need extra social or emotional support. The school’s partnership with Winning Words started soon after its founding in 2014, and though both Flint and Visser said they were initially unsure whether their students would be ready to engage with the program’s philosophical discussions and activities, City students have embraced the weekly visits from UChicago students and faculty – even now as the visits have shifted to virtual ones in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For Ella, the opportunity to wrestle with philosophical issues in a structured and supportive context has been an incredibly stimulating experience that has broadened her perspective and sharpened her reasoning skills,” Visser says. “It's been really great for her.”
Making philosophy accessible to those who might not encounter or relate to it otherwise is central to Winning Words, UChicago Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Director of the Civic Knowledge Project Bart Schultz says. The field has traditionally lacked diversity of all kinds and, in the United States specifically, few pre-college students study it, Schultz says. Through its partnership with Chicago Public Schools and other community sites that serve CPS and other students in the University’s nine-neighborhood South Side focus area, the Winning Words team hopes to change that by introducing young participants to a philosophy curriculum that intentionally spotlights the work of women, people of color, and others who may have been left out of mainstream philosophy textbooks.
“It’s hard enough in any case getting some kind of enhanced version of pre-college philosophy into a school, but with diverse learners it’s a particularly big challenge so I’m really proud of the City Elementary partnership. It’s a great community there,” Schultz said. “I’ve been fortunate in getting some really wonderful young people [from UChicago] involved with just the right temperament and attitude who are really sensitive to the issues of diverse learners and willing to follow Chris [Flint’s] lead.”
Winning Words is one of several UChicago programs that partners with City. A Music Department partnership emphasizes music-related social connections. UChicago Medicine medical students teach mindfulness and exercise classes over Zoom. Axis student volunteers who advocate for people with disabilities lead virtual social clubs dedicated to topics like baking and dogs. Federal Work Study students offer tutoring in math and reading.
Ella is now in eighth grade and still loves having the chance to work with UChicago students and faculty at City, especially learning about the kinds of things college students study and interacting with mentors as she gets older and starts to think about going to college herself.
“We discuss a bunch of different things, it’s not the same thing every week. Right now, we’re discussing compassion, empathy, and sympathy and how they are different but can connect in some ways,” Ella said. “It’s just cool because it’s nice to hear everyone’s opinions on things and see what people are doing and what they choose to do.”
The Winning Words partnership, and other work the University does with City, offers City students and their families a way to tap into the University’s many resources and engage with a prominent institution in their own community, Flint says.
“Our students thrive in small environments but the world outside is much bigger than 20 kids,” he said. “We’re always thinking about ways to help our students thrive in this small setting but also how can we prepare them to thrive in bigger communities and the bigger world? So, the students from the University and the professors from the University that bring in their expertise really make a huge impact on our kids.”