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Teaching Kids to Make Moral Decisions

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A student tells a close friend that she plans to commit suicide -- and says that she trusts her friend not to tell anyone else. What should the friend do? Some elementary-aged students already have faced that kind of decision -- and the choices only get tougher as they get older. That's why Colorado attorney Michael Sabbeth is teaching an ethics framework to fifth graders -- to arm them with the confidence to make correct moral decisions. Included: Examples of the kinds of situations students discuss in the course.

Attorney Michael Sabbeth calls teaching an ethics course to elementary school students paying his cosmic debt.

Thirteen years ago, while recovering from surgery to implant an artificial heart valve, Sabbeth mentally mapped-out a course to help young people look more critically at the choices they face, analyze the consequences of those choices, and then make the right choice.

I became more introspective after my heart surgery," Sabbeth told Education World. I wanted to honor the skills and dedication of the doctors, nurses, and technicians who took care of me, and of those who created the artificial heart valve." Now, his ethics course is "like a coral reef; it keeps growing.

After proposing the idea to his childs teacher, and meeting with the principal and school psychologist, Sabbeth began teaching his course in February 1990. Starting with his childs first grade class at Cherry Hills Village Elementary School, outside of Denver, Colorado, Sabbeth followed his three children through the grade levels, teaching the course in each of their classes. Now, he has settled into teaching every week in John Mollicones fifth grade class at Cherry Hills. Although he has no formal curriculum for the course, Sabbeth is completing a manual, which he plans to publish, on how parents can talk to children about values, morality, ethical principles, and justice.

Sabbeth has taken his program to other schools besides Cherry Hills; he has spoken to as many as 500 classes since starting the course. He also has lectured at teacher training programs, and talked with firefighters about how to motivate people to practice fire safety.

Im teaching universal ethical principles, Sabbeth said. Its about how you motivate children to make better choices and make kids stronger, more confident.

He teaches you to think differently, added Alex, 10, one of this year's students. You think you are finished, then he teaches you to think more and get a better answer.


Sabbeth calls his course Sailing the Seven Cs, a reference to the seven skills involved in ethical decision-making. They are: conscience, character, competence, consequences, choices, compassion, and courage. Students also learn the importance of the four guiding principles of bio-medical ethics, which are autonomy, beneficence, justice, and sanctity of life.

Students need parental consent to participate in the course, and often parents come to hear the discussions themselves. Sabbeth said he does avoid highly controversial subjects, however.

Mr. Sabbeth taught us to be kind to people -- no matter what, Kelsey, 10 said. I could be nicer to my brother, even though he is mean to me. You have to show people how they should act.

Once students begin to understand the vocabulary, and how the concepts apply to ethical decision-making, they begin to discuss both hypothetical and actual situations. I ask, What ethical principles are involved? What else do you need to know? Sabbeth said about introducing situations to students. The point is to give them a structure, a skeleton to hang on to, measurements to use to judge morality. Then they can use them to measure situations.

Mr. Sabbeth really teaches a bunch of stuff about the future and how to think about one thing two different ways, and how to argue points, said Bethany, 10. He makes me think, so when I hear about war with Iraq [for example], I know there are two ways to look at it.


The starfish lady anecdote is a favorite among students: A woman finds live starfish washed up on a beach and begins tossing them back into the sea. A passing jogger stops and asks the woman why she is bothering, because she never will be able to save all the starfish. She says she doesnt care, because she knows she is making a difference, Katrina, 11, said of the womans actions. This course is so when were older, we can make the right choices too.

A grimmer situation students analyze is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman killed early one morning in full view of her Queens, New York, neighbors. As Genovese screamed for help, her attacker stabbed her, left, and returned twice more, stabbing her again and again. Area residents watched as if it were a movie. By the time the neighbors called police and officers arrived, Genovese was dead. No fewer than 38 people had watched at least one of the three attacks without intervening.

Sabbeth asks students why they think no one helped or called police, and what might have made onlookers respond differently.

People watched it because they were scared, Rachel, 11, told Education World when asked about the Genovese case. And then they made up excuses. Sabbeth shares stories like the one about Genovese, so if something bad happens we know what to do, Rachel continued. I would tell someone to stop if I saw someone doing something I did not think was right.

In another case, Sabbeth tells students about a girl who confided to a friend she planned to commit suicide -- but asked her friend not to tell anyone else. After thinking about it, the friend told an adult, and the adult intervened. Although the girl survived, she was outraged by her friend's betrayal.

One girl responded after hearing the story, In your heart, you know you always have a friend, according to Sabbeth.

We talk about choices and what is involved in making choices, Sabbeth continued. The students analyze choices and consequences. Sometimes, you only have difficult choices or bad choices; but ultimately, one choice is better than the others.

Communicating effectively and presenting evidence are other skills Sabbeth stresses -- and students are quick to put them to use.

When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer, Kasha, 11, said. I've learned how to argue a point with my parents.


The ethics lessons are helping students respect one another and respect differences, according to John Mollicone, the classs teacher. The course teaches kids how to think, and make decisions based on facts rather than on opinions. Since it started, Ive noticed fewer discipline problems among the fifth graders on the playground. To get more mileage out of the lessons, Mollicone also connects some of Sabbeths ideas to themes in novels students are reading.

Sabbeth is very aware of the influence he could have on students. Ive been asked, Whose values are you teaching? Sabbeth said. I concede immediately that any subject can be taught unethically. Im teaching universal ethical principles, but I teach very carefully; I view myself as the fiduciary of these kids.