–submitted by Maggie Peterman; photos by Donna Beestman and John Bonsett-Veal
More than 200 students from 18 Dane County high schools were challenged to examine the decisions they make every day in a new way Friday, February 27, at the 15th annual Rotary Ethics Symposium at Monona Terrace.
With dramatic performances on edgy teenage issues – teenage pregnancy and a father confronting his adolescent son about drug use – members of the UW-Madison First Wave Hip Hop Theater, a cosmopolitan multicultural artistic program, set the stage for high school students.
And First Wave led the students through the R-O-T-A-R-Y Framework for Ethical Decision Making, which is a six-step process of thinking through a dilemma and making a decision.
Then the high schoolers went to work. They were confronted with two dilemmas: Hostile Messages and an Affirmative Action Proposal.
“It was fun to be able to discuss realistic problems,” said Desmond Lawrence, 17, a junior at Madison’s Memorial High School, following the workshop. “I like that they (Rotarians) want us to reach out to our own high schools to get these (workshops) going.”
Rotary members along with participants from Rotaract clubs at UW-Madison and Edgewood College led the workshops. Students learned the ground rules, which emphasized: “Treat every single person in the room with complete and unconditional respect.”
“I liked that whatever you had to say, you were going to be respected,” noted a student from Belleville High School. “It was nice to see that my friends had a serious side.”
“The coolest thing of all,” said a student from Monona Grove High School, “someone from my school and I, we had different opinions and we still like each other.”
The ROTARY Framework for Ethical Decision Making is as follows:
R = Recognize an ethical issue
O = Obtain information about the situation and others’ interests and perceptions
T = Test alternative actions from various perspectives
A= Act consistently with your best judgment
R = Reflect on your decision after acting
Y = Yield to your ethical judgments
Students dispersed into workshops to learn the practical application of the Rotary Framework. The sessions were designed to group together students from a variety of high schools.
“Once students were in the smaller groups, they were willing to delve into the issues,” said Sophie Chadli, 17, a senior at Madison’s Shabazz High School.
At first, many participants felt isolated. They later discovered a new-found freedom as they listened to each other and even gained the confidence to rethink their stand.
“When we were doing the panel on affirmative action, others’ opinions changed mine about certain things,” said Dominique Taylor, 16, a junior at Middleton’s Clark Street Community School. “Me and some other students want to inform our teachers about the process so we can start training and recommend (the Ethics Symposium) to other students.”
It was a new learning experience, most students agreed.
“I really enjoyed today,” said a student from Madison’s East High School. “It’s something that will stick with me. It’s a tradition that will keep on giving. I met lots of new people.”
The students’ willingness and enthusiasm to embrace a new experience impressed Rotary leaders.
Sarah Gempeler, 20, a junior at Edgewood College and a Rotaract member, grew up in Monroe, a south-central Wisconsin city of about 45,000 residents.
“It’s great to see how passionate these kids are about (relevant) issues,” Gempler said. “I grew up in a town where there wasn’t much diversity in our high school.”
A first-time volunteer for the symposium, Janet Piraino, a Rotary member and district director for a Wisconsin representative, praised the next generation of Wisconsin voters.
“This is my first time and I’m blown away by their ability to stand their ground,” she said. “There were students of color on both sides of an issue that spoke very passionately for their position. One African American girl spoke in opposition to affirmative action because she felt it didn’t honor equality.”
Discussions on controversial topics showed that students are listening and collecting information as they go about their daily lives, said Steve Johannsen, a Rotary member and Madison business advisor.
“The (affirmative action) statistics were eye-opening for all the students,” Johannsen said. “It gave them a much better feel for real community issues. The conversations were unbelievably insightful and respectful.”
Rotary leaders are willing to assist high schools students and faculty with developing an “Ethics in Action” project at their schools, said Stacy Nemeth, Chair, 2015 Rotary Ethics Symposium.
Monona Grove High School Principal Paul Brost led a discussion with judicious students from his 925-student school. Students were enthusiastic about working with trained facilitators – Rotaract students and Rotary leaders – to deliver the project to Monona Grove.
“People need help learning about ethical decisions, but we need someone to help facilitate our conversations,” noted a Monona Grove student who voted in favor of assistance from Rotaract students. “We’re too used to just listening and taking notes. We need a role model to help us get going.”
Throughout the discussion, Brost encouraged students to take a leadership role.
“I’m willing to preload the idea at a staff meeting,” he offered. “If it’s student-led, it’s up to you to take the lead and find a coach or a teacher willing to make it work. It needs to be bite-sized and meaningful.
“Part of our goal in school is to get kids to different leadership opportunities,” added Brost who has attended the conference 13 years. “Students always find this very worthwhile. It has high value for us.”
Rotary member, Donna Beestman, is a veteran participant at the Ethics Symposium. She praises students and school leaders for their dedication and applauds the annual work of the more than 50 Rotaract and Rotary volunteers.
“It’s like students go through a transformation in the course of four hours,” she said.