Teaching Ethics in “Real Time”

Ruth Schapira

Naturally, the world of popular entertainment exerts an enormous influence on our students, and the dubious ethics in contemporary society find their way into our classrooms. As much as we would like to insulate our students from the “real world,” cheating and plagiarism are offenses that are no longer rare, and many of our students are exposed to this on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they are becoming more and more at ease with breaches of ethical conduct.

I’ve asked students if they report cheating when they see it. An overwhelming majority said no. I asked them if they know other things that would compromise any usual ethical standard. Heads nodded. So, how can we possibly teach ethics in this environment? As school leaders and teachers, how can we really know that students will internalize the concepts we are teaching, especially when teaching Pirkei Avot? How can we insure that the relevance of ethical conduct is not lost on them?

In addition to administering a school, I have the privilege of teaching as well. Last year my eighth grade students seemed to understand the concepts I was teaching in my ethics class, and they often responded with looks of acknowledgment as we learned middot such as yedidut (friendship), shelom bayit, derech eretz, and more. We discussed relevant source material, but I felt that there was something missing because the students did not seem to connect emotionally. We know that social-emotional learning affords us this opportunity, but how do we bring it into our everyday practice?

One day I was given an opportunity to bring what they were learning in texts to life in the classroom. I used a technique called “stop action” to discuss what was actually happening in class (the process, or the “how” of what is being taught, as opposed to the content, the “what” is being taught). I’ve also heard the term “transparent facilitation” used to describe this method.

One of my students eagerly approached each class with a passion to learn. He was the first one to shoot up his hand every time I asked a question. Sometimes when a topic may have been unclear, his quick responses reassured me. Several students who were not such enthusiastic scholars began subtly teasing and making fun of him. Soon their comments were more audible.

Initially the situation seemed clear. The academically oriented student is a teacher’s dream, right? Who wouldn’t want an enthusiastic student who is highly responsive and obviously “into” what I was teaching? This student, whom we often categorize at the Pesach Seder as the “chacham,” the wise child, can unintentionally distance other students with his knowledge, and inadvertently remove an opportunity for others to participate. He may also be unaware of the need of others to answer questions if he is always the first responder. Yes, it is up to the teacher to encourage others to participate. “Thank you, it’s great that you have an answer, but can we hear from some of the other students?” is a typical response, but more often than not it tends to embarrass the student into not answering questions at all in the future.

The other students’ behavior seems even more clear-cut: who could deny that the students teasing him were insensitive and unkind? They did not internalize the course content and that what we were learning was not just “text” but “text for life.” This is the most difficult challenge that faces us as teachers. The question we might ask ourselves is, how much of what we’re teaching in class actually translates to our students’ actions both in class and outside of school?

So both of the behaviors that created this incident were worth examination by the class, though at the outset there would clearly seem to be a “wrong” behavior and a “right” one.

Like every teacher, I had a decision to make. I could work through these issues in the usual manner (separation, talking privately to the students, calls home, etc.) or I could create a real-time opportunity to put the ethics we were learning into action by working through this in “real time.” I decided to do the latter. Here’s what happened:

My objective was to make the entire class aware of the behaviors that were going on. Immediately after the interaction between the students occurred, I pretended I was a director of a film and called “stop action,” making a hand motion as well. I asked the class these questions which had these results:

Can anyone describe what just happened?

Students began with responding in a cursory manner, but when pressed a little, the answers were quite detailed and rich. They knew exactly what had happened. They also accurately described both sets of behaviors. The students noticed that it wasn’t only the teasers who were responsible, but the student who always raises his hand first was also guilty of not thinking himself as part of the class. In his enthusiasm, he was only thinking of his own needs to be recognized and not that he might be preventing others from participating.

Based on the sources we have been learning here, what concerns or issues do you have with what you just witnessed?

What ensued was one of the most productive and meaningful discussions we had up to that point. Students responded thoughtfully with source material that explained and gave a foundation for their point of view. They talked about how these values were relevant to this very day. They offered their own additions to the sources based on what they know about students today. We had an amazing lesson.

From that point on, our class became a different place. We continually used the “Stop Action” technique, and decided that anyone would be able to be the director if an ethical situation arose. Students were taking responsibility for what happened in the classroom. There were many times that we couldn’t afford the time to process everything, but I felt that in the end with this technique, students were given real tools to work things through themselves.

Ethics need to go beyond the page and into students’ hearts. They experience challenges on a daily basis to what they are learning in class. There may be many “hidden” opportunities to make the classroom curriculum “real” that as administrators and teachers we don’t always take.

Some of these program suggestions may help uncover ethical issues that students are facing, and ultimately may help drive school change:

Have students take an anonymous survey to share the challenges they are facing regarding cheating, plagiarism, etc.

Appoint a student-run ethics committee to work on ethical issues that are facing the student body.

Conduct an assembly featuring a student panel to discuss the relevance of ethics to their lives today, and what changes they might suggest to improve things. This can offer students a chance to give “real time” input with tweets about it.

Encourage students to “tweet” about this topic throughout the school day (on breaks, at lunch, etc.) using hashtags, and cull responses to use in an assembly.♦

Ruth Schapira is Director of Academic Affairs at The Jewish Community High School of Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at rschapira@gratz.edu.

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011