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Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association (OPTA) Conference

Monday April 29, 2019

As of January 2018, approximately 24,000 students in grades 11 and 12, in some 420 Ontario high schools, study philosophy. This is the largest number of students in a single jurisdiction in the English-speaking world.

The Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association (OPTA) is the official subject association for philosophy teachers in Ontario public and Catholic high schools.

The U of T Department of Philosophy is pleased to be hosting the annual OPTA full-day conference, which consists of a plenary and break-out sessions on topics of two kinds: theoretical sessions led by university professors, and pedagogy-oriented sessions delivered by practicing high school philosophy teachers. Non-professionals may be invited to present relevant topics.

Conference Schedule

8:00 – 9:15      REGISTRATION (JHB 100B)

Fee: $40.00 for teachers; $10.00 for post-secondary students and teacher candidates with ID.

There is no pre-registration.

Coffee, beverages and muffins are available in JHB 100B.

9:15 – 10:30    MORNING SESSIONS

1. Alistair Macrae – Teaching Ethics with the Help of Two Immoral Literary Characters (JHB 100A)

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the odious Lord Voldemort engages in all manner of immoral conduct. This presentation compares Lord V’s understanding of ethics with that of Callicles, a shamelessly immoral character in Plato’s Gorgias. Is Callicles as shameless as he thinks he is? Under what conditions – if any – is it appropriate to be shamed into pursuing a course of action? These are two of the questions that I will address. A list of articles concerning Callicles will be distributed. If you bring a USB, I will give you a copy of my PowerPoint presentation.

2. Tamara Ray – Philosophy Fun: Enhancing Learning through Games (JHB 418)

This workshop is grounded in the idea that philosophical thinking is inherently fun and intrinsically valuable. During this session, teachers will have an opportunity to play philosophical games. Access to clear and easy-to-follow guidelines for how to facilitate the activities will be provided. The goal of this workshop is to provide registrants with the tools to demonstrate to students just how enjoyable philosophical thinking can be, independent of its other benefits. By putting students in the mindset to enjoy “doing philosophy,” students will hopefully be more receptive to and prepared for the more challenging tasks of deep reading and extensive writing. The activities shared in this workshop will assist educators in helping their students meet curriculum expectations for Philosophy: Questions and Theories (HZT4U) and Philosophy: The Big Questions (HZB3M).  By the end of the session, teachers will be equipped to implement several fun and meaningful activities in their philosophy classes.

3. Sheldon Lawrence – Teaching Philosophy through Literature (room TBA)

Literature, like other media forms, often conveys philosophical connections better and with more ease than primary or secondary philosophy texts. This session discusses how three monthly novel assignments can lead to a novel essay that connects philosophy to literature. A list of novels that I have compiled over the years will be shared, and additions/recommendations will be welcomed. The key to this assignment is a willingness to share with students what your own canon of literature is. The media we consume is very similar to the arts that we consume as we can make connections to philosophy that we can then share with our students. Novels such as Brave New World, Funny Boy, A Man of the People, and Notes from the Underground, among others, have rich connections to political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, critical race theory, postcolonialism, and more. To allow for differentiation, students may present abstract art with a one-page write-up. Lastly, rubrics will be provided that allow students an opportunity to connect not only literature to philosophy but philosophy to their own journeying to determine their identity – philosophy as a way of helping one discover oneself.

4. Scott Nicholson – A Footnote to Plato: The Problem of Change and the Metaphysics of Time (room TBA)

The problem of change is one of the oldest philosophical puzzles, dating back to the Presocratics at least. It’s a problem that differentiates the metaphysics of Heraclitus and Parmenides and provides a rationale for Plato’s dualism. As the ancient Greeks lived in a remote time and place, it is sometimes hard for students to see their relevance and value, or the relevance and value of ancient philosophical puzzles. However, the problem of change continues to have relevance to modern inquiries in both metaphysics and physics. Following Plato’s lead, John McTaggart’s thesis on the “unreality” of time, as well as Einstein’s (or Minkowski’s) concept of “spacetime” can both arguably be read as possible resolutions to the problem of change.

This workshop will outline a series of lessons used to show connections between ancient perspectives on the problem of change and modern perspectives on the metaphysics of time, the aim being to show students how certain metaphysical topics have lasting, even “eternal” significance, and how the wisdom of the ancient Greeks still has relevance. These lessons include a few conventional PowerPoints, worksheets and clips from modern commentators, as well as more unconventional assessments, such as a “Socratic Dialogue” and a “Philosopher’s Café.”

Coffee, beverages and muffins are available in JHB 100B.

10:30 – 11:45  PLENARY SESSION (JHB 100A)

Prof. David Jopling, York University – Slave, Dog-Man, Dumpster Diver, People-Hater: Some Experts’ Views on Life and Death  

This talk is not primarily about the meaning of life, but about how to teach it and how to guide students through the maze. The main goal of the lecture is to offer up suggestions that can be taken into the classroom and subjected to experimentation and tinkering: suggestions, for example, about worthwhile readings, online and supplementary resources, examples from real life, examples from the arts, curriculum design, and typical challenges that may arise when teaching this curious topic.

The talk has two parts. In the first part I will discuss some ways to teach the highlights of the ancient practical philosophies of stoicism, cynicism, epicureanism, and skepticism, and how to convey to students the idea that philosophy is, or can be, a way of life. The ancient philosophers Epictetus (slave), Diogenes (dog-man), Epicurus, and Sextus Empiricus are the guides here, as well as Dan Suelo (dumpster diver) and Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, both alive and well.

In the second part I will discuss ways to teach more specific problems: Does life have meaning? If so, what is it that gives it meaning? If not, is it all for nothing – and then what? Do pain, suffering, and death rob life of its meaning? Is it a good thing to be, or is it better not to have come into existence at all? Is death the worst thing that can happen to you? Some of the figures to be discussed in this part include Schopenhauer (people hater), Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Wolf, and Nagel.

12:00 – 1:00    LUNCH

Lunch is not provided. There are several good eateries within a 5-minute walk from JHB.

1:15 – 2:15      AFTERNOON SESSIONS

5. Veronica Tuzi – The Good Place: Learning How to Be a Good Person . . . a Little Too Late  (JHB 100A)

Making philosophy culturally relevant can sometimes pose a challenge, but Michael Schur’s award-winning NBC show, The Good Place, has thrust philosophy into the limelight as no other show has done before. Almost every episode of this fantasy-comedy is rife with philosophical references and conundrums, as we watch the characters struggle with the study of ethics, and the goal of becoming a better person, so that they can reach the actual Good Place. The brilliant twist to this dilemma is that the characters are dead, and so trying to become good in the afterlife seems almost futile . . . and yet they persist. After viewing the first two seasons, the realization dawned on me that using The Good Place to guide the HZT4U1 course would help students become more engaged and to see first-hand the importance of philosophy in everyday life.

In this session, a full-year/semester syllabus aligned with the show will be presented, along with strategies of how to incorporate the philosophies presented, and resources that have been developed for each episode.

6. Jeff Hanlon – Sophistry Lives! Rhetorical Writing for Students of Philosophy (JHB 418)

Some teachers rely heavily on the sandwich model of an essay, or on other templates that meet with complaints from stifled students. But creativity and technē need not be enemies! This workshop ventures to explore alternative strategies for the writing process that encourage purposeful argumentation, creativity and, yes, structure. This session includes a review of current research and recommended pedagogy for academic writing, with an emphasis on “They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter” in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. The session draws on sample student writing and exercises the untapped rhetorical skills of participants. Come prepared to write and persuade!

7. REPEAT SESSION: Alistair Macrae – Teaching Ethics with the Help of Two Immoral Literary Characters (room TBA)

See the description for session 1 above.

8. REPEAT SESSION: Sheldon Lawrence – Teaching Philosophy through Literature (room TBA)

See the description of session 3 above.

 2:30 – 3:00       PRESENTATION (JHB 100A)         

 Dr. Sandra Lapointe, McMaster University– The Collaborative: A New Platform for Educators

The Collaborative seeks to provide educators from all sectors with opportunities to engage, create, and increase their capacity to demonstrate and communicate the value of conceptual tools associated with the humanities, liberal arts, and social sciences: critical thinking, information literacy, deliberative reasoning, citizenship, creativity, empathy, etc. The aim of the presentation is to explain how the Collaborative leverages the creation of person-to-person connections between educators teaching in elementary and secondary school and those working in post-secondary education to involve them in co-creation activities that take into account educators’ limited time and resources.


Check the website of the Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association (OPTA) for more information.

Questions about this conference? Contact Ken Peglar.



Monday April 29, 2019
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Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association
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Jackman Humanities Building, Room 100 (Main Floor Lecture Hall)
170 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5R 2M8 Canada
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