The students just keep coming. All of the seats are filled 10 minutes before the workshop is set to begin. As the instructor writes a series of guiding questions on the whiteboard, the final few stragglers — still on time — fill in the spaces between desks and backpacks. A confident voice rings out amid the hum of cheerful chatter:
“What are we?”
Without skipping a beat, the response:
And the discussion begins. It really is a sight to behold. Twenty middle school students craning necks and raising hands so hard their bodies hover above the seats below them. This is the Advanced Philosophy + Ethics workshop at EXPLO at Wellesley — and until a week ago it didn’t exist. They created it, through the power of petition and the confidence they have developed during their first two weeks here.
How Students Make Their Voices Heard
When the summer began, Philosophy + Ethics was scheduled for the first two weeks of the session. During the first week, 14 students were enrolled. The following week it was 15. The debates were lively, but sharp. The students — or philosophers as their instructor called them — were eager, excitedly engaging in role play on topics from environmental ethics to metaphysics and epistemology. Imagine how they reacted when they learned that the workshop was not offered for a third week.
And so they organized themselves and drafted a petition “respectfully demand[ing]” an additional week of the workshop. The petition garnered 14 signatures and was delivered to the Head of EXPLO at Wellesley, Elliot Targum.
“This is exactly what we mean when we talk about student agency,” Targum says. “It’s not just that they’re demanding — respectfully or otherwise — additional philosophy classes. It’s that in just two weeks at EXPLO they have developed the confidence and resourcefulness to make their voices heard.
“This is exactly what we mean when we talk about student agency . . . It’s that in just two weeks at EXPLO [students] have developed the confidence and resourcefulness to make their voices heard.
“That’s not to say that we accommodate every student request. But our curriculum office is strong enough that we were able to make their wish a reality. The instructor, putting in additional work, was able to plan a more advanced version of the workshop with the prerequisite that students who enroll must have taken the workshop in week one or week two. “
Llona Kavege introducing a case study to students.
Student-Directed Learning Drives Civil Discourse
The advanced workshop enrolled 20 students. Many of them came back because of the instructor, Llona Kavege.
“Llona is one of the highest minds at EXPLO,” the petition stated. “We have learned so much from her that it would be an honor to learn more from her.”
Helen, a student from Connecticut who initiated the petition and rallied support for the extension, notes that Llona’s teaching style and the in-depth nature of their debates is what kept the class engaged and excited.
“In our discussions we were all split, but Llona said that we’re all going to have our own opinions. She was very good at telling us her ideas and leading us in the right direction. We’d all get very distracted because our minds all got blown, and she’d let us because she knew we were all growing through it. Then she’d pull us right back in.”
Llona (left) and Helen (center) continuing discussion after class.
For her part, Kavege says that it is the spirit of EXPLO that allows students to take risks and direct their own learning.
“EXPLO is a community of openness and acceptance,” Kavege says. “It empowers students to truly advocate for themselves so that they are heard in the classroom.
[EXPLO] empowers students to truly advocate for themselves so that they are heard in the classroom.
And outside of the classroom it gives them the opportunity to do things they might not have had either the courage or the chance to do in their respective schools and communities. It gives them the ability to create their own clubs and leagues, and activities, or to design and create projects to present during Explosé. And I think that’s something that makes this learning experience very unique and memorable for all of the students.”