Ethics Explorations & Deep Conversations

Posted on January 24, 2020


One of my favorite things to discuss with teens in the high school classroom is ethics. Fortunately, it is a topic that most teens enjoy exploring, and, over my decades in the classroom, explore we did!

We asked questions like:

What does it mean to be ethical?

How does one live in a principled manner, as described in the IB Learner Profile?

What does it mean to have academic integrity? Personal integrity? Professional integrity?

What are some consequences of unethical behavior?

How can individuals and communities heal the wounds caused by unethical behavior?

How can communities nurture ethical behavior?

These are big, important questions…How can they be approached in a safe and thoughtful way, to create a positive experience for all participants?

To make the magic happen, careful groundwork must be laid and practiced well before the discussion opens.

First, participants must learn how to engage in civil discourse; any ideas can be explored, but no persons will be attacked. All participants must feel safe to freely express their views, period. Students must be explicitly taught the protocols, expectations, and ethics of each situation.

Second, students must be provided with questions, texts, and ideas to work with: to read/view/hear, to annotate and respond, to formulate a thoughtful response that falls within the boundaries for the discussion, and clear expectations about what constitutes “doing good work” in this type of community conversation.

Third, teachers must prepare to deal with cognitive dissonance, which may compel students to lose sight of civil discourse protocols when experiencing strong emotions over ideas that conflict. If it should occur, a teacher needs to be able to safely, firmly, and lovingly cut off any harmful discussion and be ready to calmly explain what makes that subject problematic or inappropriate. The student should have opportunity and possibly encouragement to take a beat and start anew, in a good way. If the student cannot make the adjustment, they should be calmly excused to the office, to allow them to remove themselves from the situation and to allow the group to continue the discussion. I’ve never had to ask someone to leave the circle, but even if I did, I wouldn’t consider it a failure. I would want to work with the student to be able to calm down, stay in the circle, and be able to share their point of view in a good way in the future. I haven’t met a teen that couldn’t.

To enable students to be able to recognize how they experience cognitive dissonance and learn to consciously choose how to work through it to be able to contribute to the group is possible. One of  the single, most important tools that helps students succeed is regular Mindfulness practices. Mindfulness helps students manage emotions, calm down, think more clearly, and learn better. By practicing peace within ourselves, we are able to create a peaceful environment where we can have courageous conversations. With the right self-care tools at the ready, we can make the magic happen, even–no, especially– when exploring complex and often confusing concepts like ethics.

The poem below encapsulates some student reflections on such an experiences at school.

Talking Circle

(one of the deepest, coolest things I’ve done in school)

We’re all alike.

I have respect for you, my classmates,

because you speak from the heart.

I was wrong about you.

There is more to you than I thought.

I see your softer side.

Your feelings are my feelings.

It is hard to express myself,

but easier when we all share.

I am surprised.

I could open up to you.

I love your stories.


Like Thoreau,

Emerson reached into my heart.

He told me,

“To be great is to be misunderstood.”

He writes from the heart.


I learned more about myself in forty-five minutes

than I ever thought was possible.

I need to live each day to the fullest.

I shouldn’t take things for granted.

Being truthful and speaking from the heart is important.


I miss living in the country.

I had forgotten how much I missed Nature.

I’m not the only one to sit in the woods and connect to a higher power.

Nature’s beauty sprouts from simplicity.

I am a speck of glitter in a beautiful world.

I am at peace with myself.


When I left class yesterday

I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened

in the Talking Circle.


we created beauty.


This found poem was created with excerpts from reflections of the students in ms. lisa eddy’s AHS 1998-99 American Literature 11 Class, 3rd Period, December 1998.

This is a beautiful echo from the past, but then I recall that for several years at the end of my teaching career, I got to share the same kinds of magical experiences with the children of some of the students whose words appear in the poem. Roughly one-third of the parents who attended the last parent-teacher conference of my career were former students. I feel a BIG LOVE for all with whom I’ve sat in Circle. I say to you all,

“May you be happy; may you be well; may you be free from suffering; may you be at peace.” ~The Lovingkindness Meditation