Submitted by Carole Trone; photos by Margaret Murphy
“Oh, I like your pin!” exclaimed Sun Prairie High School student Thomas Collins. Thomas had interrupted his own polite response to my question about why he had signed up for this year’s Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium. Thomas and more than 200 other fellow high school juniors from 23 area high schools gathered on Friday, February 16, 2018, for the 18th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium, underwritten by the Madison Rotary Foundation. Thomas and fellow classmate Jacob Monforte readily confirmed that Rotary was a familiar organization to them as they rattled off different community events that they had participated in. The Ethics Symposium, however, drew their particular interest. They jumped at the chance to sign up because it was important to them to learn “the right way to react.” Conversations with many other students that day confirmed that these young people were seeking guidance. No strangers to difficult situations, Friday’s gathering of students from across the Madison area embraced the opportunity to learn more about ethics and from each other.
This year’s Rotary Ethics Symposium chair was Dave Scher, who coordinated the day’s program with the help of 20 fellow Rotarians and the Rotary office staff. For the planning committee, this day was the culmination of months of discussions about the most effective ways to share the Rotary ethical framework through scenarios that were ethically complex and would resonate with high school students. The thoughtful planning paid off. Members of the Edgewood College Theatre Group started the morning by acting out three different ethical dilemmas: 1) a group classroom project where one student slacked off; 2) a dilemma about whether a sports team should kneel during the national anthem; and 3) reporting a felony conviction on a college application form. Many different students shared their responses and judgments to follow-up questions skillfully posed by members of the Edgewood College Theatre Group. Notably, not every comment uniformly confirmed the same judgments, but every comment was met with respect by the large group of peers. Unconditional respect was one of several discussion ground rules outlined in the program and stressed by the Rotary facilitators, and students readily complied.
Students buzzed with conversation as they left this large gathering and regrouped for the next three sessions. For the remainder of the morning, students gathered in smaller groups of about 18-20 students for about 55 minutes per session to explore and discuss three different dilemmas: 1) a sexting scenario; 2) a student-teacher equality ratio policy; and 3) the ethics of taxing soda and sugary drinks. Students worked through the dimensions of each dilemma by applying the Rotary framework for Ethical Decision-Making:
Recognize an Ethical Issue
Obtain Information about the situation
Test Alternative Actions
Reflect on your Decision After Acting
Yield on your Ethical Judgments
The planning committee strategically assigned students to specific sessions in order to connect as many different students from different schools as possible. “Mixing it up” proved to bring one of the most valued dimensions of the day. Megan Andrews of Middleton High School shared that this was her second year of participating because of scheduling conflict for a junior who was unable to attend last year. Megan sought out the chance to attend this year because she found the mix of other ideas from other students to be so insightful. Other students I talked to also felt that the new connection to students from other schools was a highlight of the day. These students craved the chance to learn more about other schools and students who were so close and yet completely unknown to them. One Monona Grove High School student marveled that it was the Symposium that actually connected her to a rich conversation with a La Follette student, “and we’re just down the road from each other!”
Building stronger relationships in our community is at the core of Rotary and so it’s not surprising that the Ethics Symposium has attracted many faithful Rotarian volunteers over the years. Rotary member Karla Thennes laughed when I asked her why she volunteered. “Well, last year a member of my Porchlight board suggested that I participate, but after that first year I didn’t need any nudging. The kids are amazing! I don’t remember being challenged like this when I was in school. The students who gather here are leaders—you see a real overlap between the students here at the Symposium and the students who are awarded Rotary scholarships.”
Fellow Rotarian Stacy Nemeth agreed. Stacy has volunteered for at least the past eight years of the Symposium, adding that “it’s my favorite Rotarian day of the year.” Stacy has chaired the committee in the past and served this year as a session facilitator with Karla. It’s a big time commitment on a weekday, but with rewards that are so much greater. “You hear so many negatives about today’s youth but then you come here and realize that we’re all going to be fine with these students in charge.” Stacy also observed that it’s a one-day event that returns so much throughout Dane County. “These students go back to their schools with this new knowledge and they share it with their classmates. It’s such a valuable and unique contribution that Rotary brings to the schools.”
Lunchtime conversations confirmed Stacy’s point. Students from several participating high schools noted that they had no opportunities to have these kinds of discussions in their busy school lives. They valued the time to reflect and also the time to talk and learn from each other. Rotarian Michelle McGrath’s post-lunch invitation for students to share what they learned readily confirmed how much students gained from the day. Dozens of students shared comments like, “I learned that there’s a lot more to consider than your gut,” and “Sometimes what is easy to do is not always right.” With cell phones in remarkably little use at any point during the day, it was clear that students were hungry for this kind of engagement.
For more photos, visit our club’s Facebook page.