Tiffany Poirier appeals to the philosophical instincts of kids — in her
classroom and in a new children’s book about the ABCs of rational thought.
It’s rooted in a quest she’s been on since an early childhood tragedy.
As a little girl, Tiffany Poirier lay awake at night pondering the big questions. What is happiness? How did I get here? What happens when we die?
She sought answers from the grown-ups in her life, a fruitless exercise. Then, as now, children were not considered capable of handling profound truths. Instead, she heard fairy tales and folk wisdom. She was told to not bother her pretty head with such thoughts.
Today, at age 29, she still seeks answers to her early questions, having embarked on a lifelong quest that has taken her from University of Victoria philosophy studies back to elementary school classrooms. She is a teacher who encourages her precocious charges to be as inquisitive as she had been at their age.
She may have more understanding today than she did as a child, but the supply of unanswered — and, sometimes, unanswerable — questions is never exhausted.
It is her belief, which she puts into practice every working day, that children are natural philosophers.
“Some people think philosophy is the domain of university professors in tweed blazers with long white beards in some book-bound library covered in cobwebs,” she says.
She prefers to introduce philosophy to adolescents with scuffed knees and a natural curiosity. Often, it is the teacher who gets schooled.
“Kids have so much wisdom,” she says.
Poirier, BA ’04, was forced to confront the big questions at an innocent age because of a shocking tragedy that befell her family. Even today, a quarter-century later, the memory of what happened quickly reduces her to tears, an understandable reaction to so deep a loss.
Poirier brings passion to any conversation, especially one touching on teaching. On a recent visit to Victoria from her home in Surrey, she brought with her to a downtown coffee shop a thick binder of teaching notes, through which she eagerly searched for examples of the lessons she uses in class.
She has flashing eyes, a clever sense of humour, and a rapid-fire patter that no doubt enraptures even unruly classrooms. She would be played in the movies by Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election, all the achievement without the Machiavellian plotting. Poirier has accomplished much since graduating from UVic, gaining an education degree and becoming an accomplished public speaker and conductor of teacher workshops.
She has contributed to “The Teacher Diaries,” a series published by the online magazine The Tyee.
Did we mention she has won awards as a teacher? As a vocalist? A songwriter? As an actor?
Earlier this year, O Books published her children’s primer, Q is For Question: An ABC of Philosophy, which she both wrote and illustrated.
“This is a book of questions,” she tells children. “There are no answers. You have the answers.”
Children should be introduced to philosophy at their level, she argues, not through instruction from old textbooks.
Even simple misbehaviour in the classroom raises philosophical questions. Take a pupil tapping a pencil. The irksome noise is disruptive, but Poirier is not distracted by the tap tap tap. She hears the student asking, “Do I matter? Do you hear me? Am I alone?” A push in the schoolyard, while obviously transgressive, also poses questions: What are society’s rules? What can I get away with?
A lot of philosophical lessons come from child’s play. While she was a teacher at General Brock Elementary on Main Street in Vancouver’s gritty Riley Park neighbourhood, some students complained about the condition of the playground, which they regarded as ugly and dirty.
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