Engaging Ideas

for Education

Why (and how) to teach ethics–in as early as 8th grade

Reprinted from Education Week: Teacher Leaders Network, Sept. 12, 2012



Courting Controversy: Why (and How) We Teach Ethics

By John Prosser and Ryan Prosser



We teach ethics to our 8th grade students—and we do it from the very start of the school year. A lot of our colleagues wince at that. Aren’t we nervous about teaching a subject usually reserved for parents? And whose ethics are we teaching, anyway? Here’s how we respond.

As the study of morality, ethics is not the teaching of a specific set of beliefs. Rather, ethics is about learning to analyze and evaluate beliefs. As long as you communicate that clearly—and practice it in your classroom—there’s no need to worry about “whose ethics you’re teaching.”

Middle school students engage in ethical decision-making daily. Listen closely to nearly any student’s social musings and you’ll hear a lot of talk about justice and injustice, about “right” and “wrong.” Students constantly evaluate their experiences in this way, critiquing the fairness of the dress code or debating whether iPods should be allowed in class. Why not harness this interest for an intentional unit? Read more…

Running red lights-can disobeying law be ethical?

image credit: New York Times Andre da Loba published Aug. 4, 2012

When it comes to the law we often want adolescents to think of it in strictly black and white terms, and certainly developmentally they may have challenges thinking of it in shades of gray, but this exercise is designed to do that.

Clearly in retrospect we know of laws that were unethical, such as bans on interracial marriage or laws requiring segregated schools.  In contemporary society, we now debate gay marriage, while many states, including Arizona, forbid it by law.

This essay by Randy Cohen in the New York Times explores ethics and the law. Not all illegal behavior is unethical, cites Cohen arguing his law breaking while cycling is ethical.

Likewise, not all legal behavior is ethical–citing the great damage that cars do to our environment.

This essay creates an interesting an entry point for a class discussion that could then turn into a written essay or lead as a segway to other discussions of ethics and the law and human behavior. Read more…

Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking into the Classroom

1904 photo by John Tarbell of unnamed African-American man holding a copy of Joseph Barry’s The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, published a year earlier.

On the cusp of his December 1859 execution for treason, murder, and inciting a slave rebellion, John Brown handed a note to his guard which read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” Although the institution of slavery was purged in the crucible of the American Civil War, John Brown’s determination to expose and end chattel slavery still resonates. The multiple legacies of slavery and questions about the efficacy of violence as a tool for change in a democratic society continually bring historians and teachers back to the complicated life of John Brown. When students consider Brown’s contributions to the American narrative, lines between advocacy and criminality, contrasts between intensity and obsession, and differences between democratic ideals and harsh reality are brought to the surface. To this day, artists, authors, historians, political activists, and creators of popular culture maintain a fascination with the antebellum rights-warrior and his death.

This continuing interest in John Brown presents a great teaching opportunity. Not only can we help to situate John Brown within the context of his era, but we can explore how historical interpretations of the man and his actions have changed over time. The lesson I describe in this article asks students to consider Brown’s biography, multiple artistic representations of the abolitionist, as well as historical and contemporary viewpoints in order to develop an evidence-based interpretation of how this controversial historical figure should be commemorated. Students conduct an analysis of the diverse, and often conflicting, historical sources, and then apply their interpretations to the development of a historical marker that would be placed at the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. In this sense, Brown provides a unique opportunity for students to examine a figure whose actions, and their attendant meanings, tell us as much about antebellum America and the origins of the Civil War as they do about our own time.

Read more…

Olympic participation by country

An advertisement for the lottery is “you can’t win, if you don’t play.”

We have another lesson plan that deals with medal counts. This one deals with the harbinger of medal counts, participating in the games. Some sports have cultural biases, like skeet shooting. Others require higher degrees of apparatus to participate at a high level like gymnastics. While others require much less like running or football (i.e., soccer).

In this lesson students can use the visual graphs at the UK Guardian’s web site (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/interactive/2012/jul/27/olympic-athletes-list-visualised) to analyze the participants by country with a global mapping device. They can reduce it to a sport category or for overall participation. Or they can focus on gender participation–some country athlete delegations are entirely or almost entirely male, for instance.

The data can be downloaded as an excel sheet. There is also a free program if you’d like to download the program and display called tableau public.

What kinds of questions can be asked?

Compare sport configurations by country:  How does the Olympic team for the United States compare with the Olympic team from Kenya?   Read more…

Should Olympic Athletes be paid or show sponsor tattoos?

Nick Symmonds sporting temporary tattoo for Hanson Dodge

Marketplace Morning Report ran a story on

Nick Symmonds must cover sponsor’s tattoo during competition

runner Nick Symmonds, an American athlete’s use of sponsorships–related to a temporary tattoo on the shoulder of the athlete from a sponsor that will need to be covered during the games.

The athlete argues that given all the money the Olympics generate, (American) athletes should be paid.

The Olympics were originally about amateur athletes-but recently that has been breached as we now see NBA and NHL players participating in the Olympics, for instance.

This raises an issue of fairness on two levels.  What’s fair to American athletes, who need to devote their lives to preparing and qualifying for the games when the event itself is a major money generator?  How should resources related to the Olympics be distributed?

Teachers can extend this issue by bringing up athletes from less developed countries who don’t have access to the kind of facilities and sponsors that American athletes have. Read more…

Olympics measuring, comparing and analyzing medal counts

During the Olympics a country medal count is standard.  Though countries may rearrange the count priority to make them look a bit better (see below a German by Gold ranking and a USA by total medal ranking).

Many links and jumping off points are offered here.


German newspaper rendition:  Germany #5 (US #2)


US newspaper rendition: U.S.  #1 (Germany #6)









image credit:  http://rubli.info/blog/2008/08/24/patriotism-olympic-style/

There are number of interesting graphical representations using Excel that show performance in a way that will engage students–and students can dig back into the data.  Best of all, the excel files are available for download!

Here’s a link for the 2012 Olympic games from the UK Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/2012/jul/30/olympic-medals-visualised-guardian


Excel Visualization of Olympic Medal Count (through 2008, but includes prior Olympics–can compare years with results shown on globe): http://www.enterprise-dashboard.com/excel-visualization-of-olympic-medal-count/











Read more…

Olympics inter- and intra-country mysteries

Actress Ino Menegaki, acting as high priestess, holds the Olympic torch in a rehearsal for the lighting ceremony. The Olympic flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on Thursday, in a solemn ceremony filled with mystery and tradition that signals the final countdown to the start of this year’s summer Games in London. © AFP Aris Messinis

These are two mysteries about Cameroon and South Africa that emerged while I was writing an op-ed “Olympics gives opportunity to teach kids about global issues” (link coming).

Mystery 1: Cameroon’s greatest Olympian defects

Consider that Cameroon’s only individual gold medal winner ever, two time gold medalist in the triple jump Francoise Mbango Etone, will be representing France at the 2012 games.

Why would she switch countries?
Read more…

Olympics-Biography Exploration

Why does NBC’s Olympic page show these athletes are the most popular? (click on picture to enlarge it)



The purpose of this exercise is to help students explore athletes from other countries and use the athletes as a basis to better appreciating the life circumstances in those countries as well as help connect them to critical questions related to global issues.  Students will also pick up skills in navigating the web.

First using the NBC image, ask students why these athletes are pictured?  Note the countries they come from…which should be something the students notice. One athlete isn’t from the United States–why do they think he made the list?  Note the clothing advertisement of Ryan Lochte reinforces the same message (and he’s one of the most popular).   You can also notice sports that are listed and how that compares with all the sports at the Olympics and why other sports aren’t listed.  You can also see if the list has changed http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/index.html.  Presumably popular here is based on clicks.

You might then explore what it means to be popular?  How does that work at school?  How does it feel when you’re not popular?

Now segway into the activity.

How do you think an athlete who has worked hard, but hasn’t gotten that recognition would feel if you tied to learn about him or her and even rooted them on?

The Olympic page for the 2012 games has information on all the athletes which can be searched by the athlete’s surname, by country, or by sport.


Read more…

Olympics – Media Analysis

The London Olympics bring many opportunities to explore global issues.

The teacher might tape a portion of the Olympic coverage and can discuss what’s shown, emphasized, and what’s not. Alternatively, students can be asked to watch and record with a worksheet from home.  Or a newspaper/news outlet sports section could be used, either paper or on line.

Learning Objective: Make students more aware of the tendency of  American media outlets to focus primary on the United States.  This isn’t to detract from the United States athletes but to help students become more aware of the subtle impacts media can have more broadly on their lives and how they view others through the media.  The Olympics can be entry point to this wider discussion.

For instance, if your only interaction with a member of an ethnic minority group is through news depictions of them as criminals, how might that impact your view of them?

Other issues to consider include that media outlets pay substantial sums to cover the Olympics and they need an audience! They sell that audience to advertisers.  As such,  you can have students think about how they would plan their coverage of the Olympics.   You can see if they efforts end up reinforcing a focus on athletes from their country.
Read more…

Post Navigation