Teaching With Ethical Questions

Here are three books that I think will help teachers enliven any classroom. The first was published in 2001 and is out of print for the moment but its message desperately needs to be heard. It details how to teach with essential moral questions. The second is a relatively new book (published in 2012) and illustrates how dynamic a course can be that is centered on a moral issue. The third is easily available and gives a Buddhist perspective on morality, and the nature and causes of human suffering.


Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork by Katherine G. Simon. This book reminds me of what makes teaching real and learning inherently motivating. Morals: we often think of morals as in moralistic. But morals are what guide our behavior. When we think about reality and try to figure out what’s true, we are usually doing this so we can know how to act most appropriately. So the two questions, what is true and what is moral, are tied together. In fact, many of our most important questions have a moral dimension to them. How shall we live our lives? How should I earn a living? Should I go to college? Should we go to war? What is the best business strategy? Does thinking of my own self-interest help or damage society? Should I tell my mother the truth? How shall I relate to my best friend? Should we build the Keystone pipeline? All of these are moral questions and can excite student engagement. They are easily used to teach critical thinking skills. Kathy Simon spells out strategies for discussing, analyzing, gaining clarity on these often emotion packed questions.


High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community by philosophy professor Lawrence Blum, details a rigorous high school course he taught on race and racism. The book shows us how teachers can lead students deeply, sensitively and meaningfully into a burning issue of our time. After reading the book, you can no longer harbor the illusion that racism does not affect you. Classroom discussions are included so the reader is drawn into the class and can actually hear authentic student voices. We often think about how society should educate students. This book illustrates how students can educate society.


Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, by Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy. Why behave and think ethically? What makes an action ethical? What is the tie between ethics and clarity of mind, or unethical behavior and suffering? What are the traps society conditions in us that lead to suffering? For our own health and happiness, we need to understand these traps and free ourselves from them. In Buddhism, ethical understanding and action is tied to mental and emotional freedom. Without such freedom, the very continuance of human life on earth might be threatened. In a very clear and comprehensive manner, David Loy spells out the nature and causes of suffering and the Buddhist path for ending that suffering.


At a time when schools are often criticized for being boring, educationally deficient or just irrelevant, these books show how to change all of that. Excite students with meaningful learning that gives them insight into themselves, their world, and how to act to better that world.


An Interview on Out of Bounds

I was recently interviewed by Tish Pearlman, for the local NPR program Out of Bounds. Tish was an incisive and sensitive interviewer. I greatly appreciated how she heard and spoke to me. She started by asking how I became a teacher. I talked about this topic in an earlier blog. But in thinking about this question with Tish, I came to insights I didn’t realize before.


I went to college from 1965-1969, the heart of the sixties. It was a time of great upheaval, pain, challenge, but also meaning. There were many protest demonstrations. The idea of an involved citizenry demanding not only peace and justice but a meaningful life was, for many,  just in the bloodstream of the times. So when I had to think about a profession, that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to keep my ideals alive in my professional life.


And at first, teaching was not my primary choice. I had had some good-to-great teachers in public school, even more in college (even more since college). But public schools themselves were not inspiring to me. I did not at first appreciate what my schools had given me. Not until I was in the Peace Corps and actually taught.


I also didn’t have patience with myself. I thought I could be a success right away. Success meant standing out in some way, or having some label I could apply to myself, like an explorer, or a writer, poet, actor, director—the arts were the first area to stand out to me as meaningful. I really had no other idea of what I really wanted to do. I had no idea what success meant. What does it mean to be a success? For me, now, it’s not about having a lot of money or recognition. You could be successful with a project, but to be a success with your life, you first have to live for a while. And when you do live for more than three or four decades, everything, I think, shifts. It’s no longer money or fame that are important, it’s moments. Not just great moments that you could reflect back on, but how you have learned to live a moment. It’s not so much what you do, although that is important. It’s how.


But what makes a moment full and meaningful? I think it is the quality of presence and caring, what you can take in, what you feel touched by, the depth of your connection to others and this world. And your ability to act in ways guided by that care. So in the interview, I said I turned to teaching because I wanted a full and meaningful life, but there was so much more in that statement than I first thought.


I also didn’t realize that what I was feeling in the 60’s was the remains of my adolescence. The drive for meaning, to test and expand boundaries, to be courageous, creative and engage with the world, as Daniel Siegel and others have pointed out, is central to adolescence. And my ability to feel this drive as a teacher enabled my teaching, enabled me to bring that meaning into the classroom.


So ask your students these questions. What does success mean to you? What do you want the individual moments of your life to feel like? What do you want your relationships to be like? How do you want to influence your world?




Have a great Thanksgiving. I might take a vacation for the holiday but will return.


Here is the information for the interview:

The Out of Bounds Radio Show with Tish Pearlman


Sat Nov 29 at 3:30 pm: WEOS-FM (90.3 & 89.5 Geneva region)

Live Stream: WEOS.org

 Sun Nov 30 at 11:30am: WSKG-FM 89.3 Binghamton, 90.9 Ithaca 91.7 Cooperstown/Oneonta,

91.1 Corning/Elmira, 88.7 Hornell/Alfred) Live Stream: Wskg.org


*Photo: South_Bend_Voice_-_2014_People’s_Climate_March_crowd_with_banner.jpg


Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.


So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.


If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.


Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.


It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.


However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?


So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)


Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?


Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?


Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?


I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?


When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?

Political Speech

Last week, I wrote about using essential moral questions to teach students how to be aware of the suffering which can result from lies and inauthentic speech. Today, even though the midterm US elections are over, I’d like to speak about political speech. I think most teachers recognize that it is our duty to educate students to be responsible citizens. One aspect of acting as a responsible citizen is taking part in democratic decision-making. To vote, you need to not only be informed on the candidates and issues, but to critically examine those issues. What are different ways to discuss politics and examine political speech in the classroom?


Some teachers think that in a public school, politics, like religion, should not be discussed. They are afraid that, since teachers have their own political views, these views will inevitably make their way into the classroom. One proposed solution is that teachers honestly state their political party affiliation, if any. I totally agree with honesty, but I don’t think this solves the problem. A teacher or any person is not a Democrat, Republican, Independent or otherwise. The views they hold are just views they held in the past and might hold in the present, and can change like anything else. The Declaration of Independence says that all people (men) are created equal in terms of inalienable political rights, but all viewpoints are not equal. They need to be examined independently of the people who hold them. They can be true or false, confused or clear. Of course, most issues have no one right answer and some issues are just too complex to fully understand what is the best solution. What do you do then? For one thing, recognize the limits of your understanding.


We all know that political discussions easily become intractable debates or intellectual wars. Instead of looking to increase their understanding, many look for ways to win the war. So, I will re-state my question: What are different ways to discuss and examine political speech in a manner that encourages openness, aims at increasing understanding, respects and critically examines diverse viewpoints?


If you like debates, ask students to take on a viewpoint they previously disagreed with. For another, teach a vocabulary of critical reasoning. Teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.  Teach about fallacies of reasoning and how to spot them. Analyze: What is a fact and how is it different from an opinion or theory? I know that many teachers argue that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates but themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.


I would also teach mindful awareness, so students can recognize when they are beginning to feel threatened or anxious and then can act to lessen that anxiety and increase the clarity of their thought process.  Ask students early in the year, after already having some practice with mindfulness: What are the sensations that  arise when you feel threatened or anxious about someone else’s viewpoint? Or you hear a fact that opposes one of your own? What do you feel? Where? Just take a moment to close your eyes and just feel the sensations. Just notice. There’s nothing you have to do. Is your breath calm or agitated, slow or fast, or maybe something in-between? Just feel yourself breathe in. Then breathe out, and let the breath go, let the tension go, and let your body settle down. Just breathe in and out. Let your focus return to the breath. Now, was there a moment that you felt calmer? Are there places where you’re feeling more relaxed? What does it feel like when you’re relaxed and quiet? When you’re open in how you feel and look at the world? Can you imagine listening with a sense of inner peace to someone who you disagree with? Just sit with the sense that you could hear someone speaking a viewpoint that you disagree with, and you hear it calmly, fully, without feeling threatened. Afterwards, ask students to share the sensations they identified of feeling threatened, and then of feeling relaxed. In this way, they learn from others how to more fully identify their sensations and more easily be able to let them go.


I recommend actually bringing into class speeches by politicians (maybe with no names attached) and have students analyze them using the following questions:

  1. Is the argument valid? Does the position taken by the speaker follow logically or naturally from the statements or facts offered as supportive evidence? Is the reasoning a form of a formal or informal fallacy?
  2. Is the argument sound, meaning based on evidence that is reliably verified and truthful as well as valid? Research, and not just with online fact-check sites but sources with diverse viewpoints, the facts and statements offered as supportive evidence. Are the supposed facts really facts?
  3. What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?
    1. Intent: Is the statement consistent with other and previous statements? Is the speaker changing his or her position with each audience? Is there evidence that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
    2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?


The citizens of the US and of many nations today are not only very divided but confused about many issues. There is too much information that is highly relevant, even crucial to the lives of most people, which is misunderstood. It is our job as teachers to do what we can to improve that situation.

Teaching With Questions: Should I Tell the Truth?

Should you always try to tell the truth? Such essential moral questions liven up a class. Imagine student engagement and responses when you ask this question in a classroom.


One student, let’s call him Dylan, responds: “What is the truth?”

Can you say more? I’m not sure if  you are diverting us from the question or saying the question can’t be answered.

Dylan: “Ok; maybe it’s a diversion. But I also mean it. My truth is not always your truth.”

Then you’re asking an awfully big question. For now, let’s refer to your own truth.  Can you know what that is?

Another student, Carlotta, jumps in: “He’s asking about lies. You know your own lies.”

Dylan: “But what’s a lie? Sometimes I don’t know when I’m lying. What’s a lie isn’t any easier to know then what’s true.”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student, Sage, replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is opposite of the truth.”

Carlotta: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale.”

I agree. I think they depend on each other. By ‘truth,’ in this case, do we mean something we think of as real?  If so, why not tell the truth?


Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.


What happens if you don’t tell the truth?

Dylan: “Nothing happens, unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Carlotta: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

Sage: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”


When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being; it’s a relationship. Speech is not just self-expression. And it’s always in a context, in a situation. When you speak, you create both a sense of whom you’re speaking to and a sense of who’s speaking. Without that sense of yourself and of the other person, you can’t say anything. Even when you’re out in the woods, by yourself, and you scream just to scream, you have others in mind that you’re screaming at—or for. Words emerge from formulating yourself in a particular situation. So, if you lie, what are you saying about yourself?


Part of the central teaching in Buddhism is the Eight-Fold Path to ending suffering. The steps in the path are right view, thought or intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are divided into three categories: wisdom/understanding, ethics, and meditation. Speech follows intent or thought and is the first step under ethics. Ethics has to do with how you act, how you live your life, how you influence others. In Buddhism, it is made clear that how you speak influences not only others but yourself. There is not only an ethical component to speech, but a way towards awakening, enlightenment or, in modern terms, mental health. I think this is a tremendously useful approach. Depending on your intention, for example, whether you lie to help others or you do it to advance yourself at the cost of others, when speech is a lie, suffering is the result.


How do you suffer when you lie? Sage and Carlotta said it. When you lie, you create a fictional self that is weak, “off” or wrong, lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? Does the lie make it easier to hurt both yourself and others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community?


So, what kind of speech leads to the end of suffering? To answer that question, you must feel what’s true in yourself. Speech that recognizes what’s true in you and others leads to the end of suffering. When you’re open and fully acknowledge who you are, how does that feel? And what else ends suffering? How does it feel when you’re kind? When I’m open and kind, I feel strong, because I feel capable of taking in whatever I’m facing. As I format how I relate to others, I form how I feel about my own life. So the speech that ends suffering is kind and open, compassionate and loving. I think that such speech is also what turns a cold classroom into a welcoming community.