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Supporting Gifted Students to Develop a Love of Philosophy

Written by: Christina Barber

One of the things I love about teaching gifted kids is their keen interest in exploring philosophy. Over the years my class has had some incredible discussions about the nature of thought and its corollary concepts, events, and structures, often generating vast questions of an existential nature which robustly take hold of my students; it’s great when we can work through some of them, even if we don’t find definitive answers. For this following series of posts, I will present three books that will help your children develop a love of philosophy and help them embark on their own journeys of thoughtful inquiry. The first book I would like to share is based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions. Jon J. Muth’s adapted story for children, deftly illuminated by beautiful watercolour imagery is an ideal introduction to active contemplation whereby they may address their nascent existential thinking. I have long used Muth’s book in my classes both in French and in English. The imagery is evocative, and observations and inferences can be made throughout. I highly recommend this book to teachers and parents alike!


The Story:

The story opens with Nikolai, the story’s young protagonist wondering about life:

“When is the best time to do things?”

“Who is the most important one?”

“What is the right thing to do?”

At first, Nikolai seeks out the answers to these big questions from his friends: Sonya the heron, Gogol the monkey, and Pushkin the dog, who all strive to help him answer his question, but ultimately show the tendency of humans to centre their answers around themselves and their own experiences. When his friends’ answers only leave him more perplexed, Nikolai embarks on an archetypal quest to find answers to his questions. Seeking out the sage elder living in the mountains, Leo the tortoise; Nikolai is guided on his journey towards self-reflection and a greater understanding of what it means to be human and of our purpose here on Earth. A series of events calling upon a kind heart and swift action will reveal to the young boy the answers he seeks.

What I love:

This rich story is accessible to children from K-7 and can serve as a jumping off point for deep discussion and reflection, particularly with older children. The text works in symbiosis with the rich illustrations which themselves serve as further material for questions and discussions about imagery, allusion, and metaphor.

In the classroom:

* Prediction: ask students what their answers to the three questions are. * Analysis: look at Nikolai’s friends’ responses: What do they have in common? Why is Nikolai left feeling his questions haven’t really been answered?

* Connection: Why does Nikolai seek out Leo, an elder? Who do we look to in our own lives when we have questions? Why?

* Reflection: What events have taken place in our own lives that have led us to finding the same answers as Nikolai?

Extension: Philosopher’s Corner

My students love Philosopher’s Corner. We try to set aside 30-45 minutes for discussion a couple of times a month to discuss ideas, questions, and events. Sometimes students have their own questions that prompt the discussion, but I also keep a jar of piquant questions handy and sometimes we pull one out and develop discourse from its prompt.


Jon J. Muth is an award-winning author and illustrator best known for his illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Wake and his children’s books: Zen Shorts and Zen Ties.

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publishing date: Jan. 2002

Language: English

Softcover: 32 pages

ISBN-13: 9780439537636


Christina Barber is a writer and educator who lives in Vancouver, Canada. She teaches a full-time gifted program for students in Grades 5-7. An avid reader, she shares her passion for Canadian literature and history through her reviews at The Miramichi Reader and on Instagram @cb_reads_reviews. She has most recently been committed to writing and staging formally innovative single and multi-act plays for her students.

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