gleeful ethics

September 2, 2011

community work

I teach ethics at the local primary school. It’s a volunteer gig.

Sometimes I resent it as it consumes a little bit of my mental health time (day off) each week. There’s no break when you live with kids and you work with kids. I’m always thinking about kids and different ways of being with kids.

Teaching ethics is a new thing here. After the white fellas came here and got their survival needs sorted (instead of chasing the black fellas away, they should have asked them how they had managed to survive here for 60,000 years) the churches set up schools. When the white fellas got a bit more organised and started forming governments, they wrestled the schools from the churches on the proviso that religion be taught to children in schools. It was cast in stone. Over the years it was determined that children could opt out of scripture and go to ‘non-scripture’ which was basically punishment for not attending scripture.

A few years ago, some progressive and brave parents started to rally for an alternative to non-scripture. They proposed ethics classes. The battle was huge. Epic. The churches were outraged. But it got through, and legislation was passed late last year, just before a change of State government.

So fast forward a few months, and I was trained and approved as an ethics teacher. My tutor for the ethics training was a woman who grew up in New York, has Jewish cultural heritage, has a PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, and is now living in Australia. All that knowledge and experience, I learnt so much and I was eager to get started.

I’ve been teaching ethics since April. Initially the students were amazed. They were allowed to discuss and give their opinion, and talk about how they felt about things, and change their minds about what they thought they thought.

These are kids that are full of possibility, promise, and confidence. The students in my ethics class are all in the choir. They are all in the dance group. They are all in the band. They are all great at sports. They all get awards for academics. It’s a small school of about 180 students, they have a lot of opportunities to participate in a wide range of activities. Totally different to the kids I am used to working with who can give you every reason why they can’t succeed at anything.

But as everyone who runs groups knows, after ‘forming’ comes ‘storming’ (Tuckman). The students started losing the plot during the lessons. There is one attention seeker who distracts the whole group. They all got a bit silly.

I was starting to wonder whether I should continue. I need my mental health time and if the kids didn’t want to learn ethics I could be at home sipping tea from a very large mug.

Last week during the lesson, the kids burst out into song. Half the lesson time was consumed by their impromptu performance. I didn’t try to stop them, they were enjoying themselves so much. I knew it had been a busy week for them, and they were still excited about singing at the Sydney Opera House. I just hoped that the Principal didn’t walk in on us.

I went home, and thought about it. I’ve studied education. I work within a psychotherapeutic framework. I’ve watched Glee (lol). I’m not comfortable with performance. Oh sure, I lead the songs at playgroup and have done process drama with littlies, but this is one step beyond. But I don’t need to be the expert, the kids are clearly the experts in this situation, I just need to tie in what they are doing to the topic.

When I saw some of the kids at the end of the day (to pick up my own kids from school) I told them they could spend the last ten minutes of the forty minute lesson performing a song, poem, etc related to the topic we are currently discussing – homelessness. They were excited. One girl asked if they could write a song. “Absolutely” I said.

This morning when I met up with the ethics class,  I told them that we need to do ethics otherwise they might as well go back to non-scripture, but true to my word the last ten minutes could be spent on performance which is related to the topic we are discussing. The students were engaged for the thirty minutes of the lesson, and then we had what they called “Glee Time”.

They hadn’t prepared anything for their performance so it was all impromptu. Despite this, their performances which were a combination of dance, song, and drama, included a lot of the elements we had covered, gave more food for thought, and were a good lead-in to next week’s lesson on stereotypes of homeless people. It was brilliant. One girl made up a short piece where she kept repeating her story of being homeless and hungry and lonely to everyone she met. I’m not sure she was fully cognisant of what she had created, it was so spontaneous, so I pointed out to the group that people who have suffered have a need to repeat their story until they really feel they have been heard.

The students were so excited by what they had done, they asked if they could put a piece together on the theme of homelessness to perform in front of the school at assembly.

Interesting, eh?
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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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12 Comments on “gleeful ethics”

  1. InsideJourneys Says:

    How exciting for the students and you!
    When i started reading about you teaching ethics to school kids, I thought, WOW, progressive! It’s still progressive and an interesting compromise to non-scripture.
    Sounds like this might be a fun class. At least, I hope so.


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Marcia

      It’s definitely getting interesting. Each new group is a different journey.

      I think that’s why I like groupwork so much. I learn as much as the participants.


  2. ElizOF Says:

    Brilliant Hakea! The fact that you let them tap into their creativity and tie it in with the lesson is one of the best teaching methodologies used. They won’t forget anything and the lessons will continue to thrive in their hearts. Kudos to you for going with the flow. 😉


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Eliz

      It’s everything they teach you about being a good teacher at university, but it’s a challenge to relinquish control and allow the kids to run with it. Especially in a medium (performance) that I’m not that confident in. And especially as I am a volunteer in this environment.

      But I’m always criticising teachers for not handing over artistic control to kids, for being too prescriptive, so I had to walk the talk!


  3. janektcs Says:

    That sounds wonderful!
    I’m always interested in how scary it can seem the moment before I give the kids more opportunity to lead the way– and how easy and satisfying it is when I actually do it!


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Jane

      Good to see ya again!

      There was a book title years ago “Feel the fear and do it anyway” which kind of sums it up. There’s always the worry that you don’t quite know where it is all going to end up.

      If the kids wanted to do artworks on the topic I would embrace it as that is within my comfort zone. It is good to be stretched though.

      Thanks for your comment.


  4. phrogmom Says:

    wow, this is really interesting! my hubs would LOVE this gig. he has a degree in philosophy and is all about discussing ethics. it sounds like you have some amazing students as well! i hope it continues to go well! i myself am not a performance person, but i do love glee. 🙂 excellent work!


  5. Yulia Says:

    Wow Hakea, it is so wonderful, i just found out you are a teacher 🙂 That’s good! Teaching ethics to children is very important 🙂
    Some more, it is a very good opportunity to teach children life values​​, including ethics. Well done!



    • hakea Says:

      Thanks Yulia.

      We have a good curriculum and I really like that the kids get to decide for themselves the answers to the dilemmas I pose. I don’t tell them what is right or wrong, but through discussion with peers they start to think about all of the shades of grey.


  6. Instant Mama Says:

    Wow, how neat! As a teacher (whose extent of teaching right now is limited to homework and a semi-formal pre-k curriculum), I can really appreciate you scrapping some of the lesson plan in favor of doing something more relevant and meaningful to the children. Great work!


    • hakea Says:

      Thanks Instant Mama.

      It has been an interesting process. The piece that the students are preparing has gone way over the top and includes a chorus line. I sometimes make a comment but basically leave them to it. Now, some of the students are saying that they need to make it more of a dramatic piece. They argue, discuss, create, suggest, perform.

      I wish that I had video-recorded their first attempt at creating a piece, when it was spontaneous, simple, and poignant. But, it’s all about the process, right?


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