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Elementary Ethics Moves into the Classroom - 2003-03-03

Peer pressure, bullying, cheating - these typical schoolyard stresses test a child's moral and ethical fiber. To help children grapple with these issues, many schools incorporate character education into the curriculum. Often, these lessons come from classroom slogans and informal discussions. But in Colorado, one elementary school provides a formal ethics class for children as young as six.

After the 10-year-olds in this 5th grade class greet their teacher, they gather around a parent volunteer for their weekly lesson in ethics.

"I don't think they're too young, and I've been teaching these classes, the same subjects to first graders," says Denver attorney Michael Sabbeth, who has been teaching ethics at Cherry Creek Hills Elementary School for over a decade, ever since his oldest child was in first grade here.

He worked with school administrators and psychologists to develop his ethics curriculum, and says that while a six-year-old may not grasp this subject with the understanding of a Harvard graduate student, children still benefit from these discussions. "They want to learn. They want to be challenged," he says. "They want to know and they want to think. And as much as anything they want to be respected. And they want to be heard, and they want to be acknowledged."

Whether he's teaching first or fifth graders, Mr. Sabbeth strives to make the lessons understandable, while exercising the children's reasoning powers. For instance, he's introduced concepts such as autonomy and the sanctity of life to this 5th grade class. His students also talk about a list of seven ethical principals that all begin with the letter, "C."

Student: "Like the seven C's, that's what Mr. Sabbeth calls them. It's about character, choices, compassion, consequence, courage and com-pen-tence?"
Sabbeth: "Competence."

There's also conscience, and Mr. Sabbeth is helping these children develop a personal conscience through examples such as the true story of New Yorker, Kitty Genovese. "Kitty Genovese, when like, in 1964, she got attacked and nobody helped her, and we talked about how someone should have called or helped her," says a student.

The children explain that Kitty Genovese's attacker was able to stab her to death because of her neighbors' fear of getting involved. "She was screaming for help and no one came to help her at all," says one of the students.

They say Kitty Genovese's neighbors lacked the competence, compassion and courage to protect what they're learning is the "sanctity" of life. "Well, sanctity of life is like saying if you hurt somebody, you know, that's being cruel, like you know, about Kitty Genovese, the story, that's mean because they didn't help her at all," says a student.

But the children are also learning that it's possible to be ethical without putting themselves in danger.

"It means to protect yourself from danger and to help other people!

For instance, Mr. Sabbeth suggests that tossing a floating object to a drowning man could be an ethical decision, since this action can often save someone struggling in the water. But if that doesn't help, should a child jump in?

Sabbeth: "What kind of person should do that? Not a child, right, Adam?"
Student: "Someone who is experienced with swimming, and knows what they're doing."
Sabbeth: "Yes, yes. Trained! Yes!"

So racing to get a lifeguard would be both an ethical and safe choice for a child. In the same way, it would have endangered a child to confront Kitty's attacker alone. But a youngster could have been safe and helpful by quickly phoning the police, instead of waiting for half an hour, as Kitty Genovese's neighbors did. "We wouldn't have gone out there and helped her, but maybe we would have called the police," says one girl. "Cause they got there in two minutes, but by the time they got there, she was dead."

While the children love to talk about these stories, Mr. Sabbeth encourages them to remember a larger goal.

Student: "To make choices?"
Sabbeth: "Well, sure, ultimately to teach you how to make better choices. Yeah. Okay."

To give the kids more practice understanding the consequences of the choices they make, Mr. Sabbeth shares a story about a woman who comes upon thousands of starfish, washed up on the sand. She realizes that the starfish will die unless they're returned to the sea. As she starts throwing as many as she can back into the ocean, a jogger comes along and questions her. "He says, 'Why bother? You can't save 'em all. What difference does it make?' And she says, 'Well, it makes a difference to the ones I save.' Okay. What's the story about?," Mr. Sabbeth asks.

The children lean forward in their seats, hands waving.

Student: "What if those starfish were people, and some person walked up and said, what are you doing?"
Sabbeth: "What story does this remind you of? What did we read recently, you little angels? Which one?"

Some kids mention Hans Christian Anderson's story of the little match girl, and how she might not have frozen to death if even one person had bought a match, so that she could return home with money and avoid a beating. Mr. Sabbeth congratulates them for understanding that buying one single match is like saving one starfishit still might make a difference. Then a boy tentatively raises his hand.

Student: "It's almost like September 11, like, if you think about the firemen, they obviously couldn't save everyone in the whole building."
Sabbeth: "Oh, fabulous, Nick."
Student: "But the ones that they save, they get to live."
Sabbeth: "That is absolutely brilliant, Nicky. Good job. That's one of the best comments all year."

When Mr. Sabbeth's hour with these students ends, he goes back to work as a trial attorney, the kids head to art class, and their teacher reflects on the value of ethics instruction. "I want them to be good thinkers, and I also want them to be good leaders that have a strong moral base. And I think this is where it's going to come from."

Over the years, Michael Sabbeth has reached more than 500 students through his ethics classes. He plans to continue his volunteer work as he completes a book about how to teach moral principles to children.