Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #10 of an ongoing series of discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. The situations presented are very real and are changed monthly. Please try them out with your students and share your results with us. You can find the complete archive of dilemmas here.

(present this to your students)

Mary is an eighth grader and, until recently, pretty popular at school. Lately, she started finding notes in her locker and in her backpack that were really upsetting. The notes were unsigned and mean. They said things like: “ We don’t like how you’re treading on our territory.” “ You act like a slut.” And even, “ You better watch out because we’re watching you…”

Mary had no idea who might be sending the notes but she had an idea why. In the last few months she had started accepting invitations to high school parties. She had also fooled around with a couple of sophomore guys. She had a feeling that the notes were from some of the high school girls. She knew how gossip got around and how mean other people said the sophomore girls were.

What was she supposed to do? Almost every day this week she received a note. She felt angry, scared, and hurt. She showed the notes to two of her friends. One of them said that whoever is sending them was probably just jealous and she should just ignore them. The other friend said she should show them to a teacher.

Mary felt like there was no good choice. If she tried to ignore the notes she was afraid they would just continue, and she was not only scared, she was mad. She wanted them to stop. But if she turned in the notes, she was sure the whole school would find out and she would probably have to name names as to who she thought was sending them. If the gossip was bad now, wouldn’t’ it be worse then?

What should Mary do?

For an archive of dilemmas, click here.


(this is for you)

The combination of school gossip and how teen girls deal with communication has filled a small library of self-help books. While a few of them are pretty good and can be helpful to those of us who teach or work with kids, none of them help “Mary” in this situation.

The last time I dealt with this issue, I had a hard time making sure that I was validating and empowering my Mary. The challenge with bullying and gossip is that, while it is a community problem, adults can’t powerhouse in, make that lofty point and then exit without realizing that Mary is going to bear the brunt of how the “community problem” is handled.  We can’t get up in arms, use Mary’s terrible and personal situation as an example to the community, and then leave her to bear the consequences. I think that young teens understand this fact before they can articulate it well.

So, the trick in talking about this case with students is to validate those who are genuinely concerned about Mary’s welfare if she goes to the teacher. If we help those concerned students articulate what they are really worried about, then we can show them that going to an adult is the right thing to do, that this is primarily about Mary, and that the adults need to honor what is best for her but that it is, indeed, a community issue. No one wants to be in a community where people are allowed to threaten someone else.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.)

  • What do you think Mary should do?
  • Would you do the same thing?
  • What do you think would happen to someone in your school who was in Mary’s situation? (I.e. would she get backlash for hooking up with older guys? Would people gossip about her?)
  • How does gossip play a role in your school, in your community?
  • Have you ever been in a situation similar to Mary’s? How was it resolved?
  • Why do you think people gossip? Have you ever gossiped about someone? Why do you think you did?


SHARE YOUR RESULTS WITH US. How did your students resolve this dilemma? Did anything surprising happen? Tell us about your discussion and we may publish your comments. Click here to send us an email.


For some very helpful articles about conducting productive, lively, meaningful classroom discussions (including Socratic method), click here.


For an archive of dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVDs that will give your students a lot to think about, talk about, and write about, visit Live Wire Media.


haris (KAIR-iss) Denison, founder of Prajna Consulting, is an expert in Community Involvement, Human Development, and Ethics.  She has built her experience primarily by working with schools and non-profits for the past 15 years.

After initially teaching middle and high school English and Creative Writing, Charis began to develop curricula and publish articles related to social justice, ethics, human development, community involvement, and experiential education.  She has received national recognition for her work in those fields, as well as for her community-based work with American teens and Tibetan refugees in Central Asia.

Charis co-wrote Tolerance for Others, a middle school human development text, with Leni Wildflower.  She currently works as the national Service-Learning consultant for both the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and the Durango Institute for Co-Curricular Education.

Charis also teaches at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, and runs Prajna Consulting.  Through Prajna she consults with schools, parents, students, and businesses both organizationally and individually.  Charis also facilitates workshops and speaks on a wide variety of topics.

Charis can be reached at:


Live Wire Media, our sister site, offers award-winning, research-based video DVDs, curriculum modules, interactive software, and other helpful tools.

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