Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #12 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)

Maria was worried about her good friend Pam. Pam was always talking about how fat she was and what she was trying to do about it. But the truth is that Pam was not at all fat. In fact, she was downright skinny. Since their freshmen year Pam had lost at least 15 pounds. Now, they were juniors and Maria was afraid that Pam had an eating disorder. Maria was also getting frustrated. Where were all the grown-ups? Who was watching out for Pam besides Maria and her friends?

Maria knew that someone from their school had talked to Pam’s parents last year, and that Pam’s mom had gotten angry about the school poking its nose into family business. Pam’s mom claimed that Pam had a dancer’s body and a high metabolism. That was last year. Now things were worse and Maria felt like she was literally watching her friend disappear.

Finally, one Monday afternoon Maria had had enough. As she watched Pam take three diet pills and eat four grapes for lunch she decided she had to do something. As helpless and scared as she felt now, how would it compare to how she would feel if Pam actually ended up in the hospital…or worse? Pam would be furious if she found out the Maria had talked to someone behind her back. So, Maria had two problems–should she tell someone how bad things were, and if so, whom should she go to?

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

(this is for you)

The issue of divided loyalty never gets old for pr- teens and teenagers. No matter how clear things might seem to us about when to speak up about a friend’s welfare, it is NEVER that clear to the friend involved. I was reminded of this when one of my students came into my class last week wearing a shirt that said, “Snitches get Stitches.”

This case study is a classic example of divided loyalty between one’s primary identity group and the group one seeks out for authority and moral leadership. Here it is so important to validate Maria’s plight. It is crucial to tell her clearly that she is, indeed, in what seems like an impossible position. And yet, any real friend doesn’t have a choice here. Maria must tell someone immediately about Pamela’s situation. I find that it is very helpful to have a short conversation about what the various consequences would really look like when played out.

This case also provides those of us who work with youth another opportunity to emphasize the importance of finding an adult that one trusts in a young person’s community or school. One exercise I do in my classes is have kids write about one adult in their life they respect or admire. Then, they write down three characteristics they respect or admire about that person. Then, finally, do they posses any or all of those characteristics? If not, what would they need to do or change to acquire those characteristics? This exercise can help young people realize that ethical or admirable behavior in the long run can sometimes be quite difficult in the short run.

Finally, young people cannot hear enough about what their role is regarding responsible behavior. Pamela’s well-being is NOT Maria’s responsibility. Her only responsibility is to hand off what she knows or is concerned about to an adult. That is it! Often, our kids feel overwhelmed by this sort of issue because they feel they need to own the entire situation.


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

  • Do you agree with Maria? Do you think she should tell someone about Pam?
  • If so, who do you think she should tell?
  • What do you think Maria should say if Pam asks her if she told someone?
  • Have you ever been in a position like this? What happened? Would you make the same choices if you were in that position again?


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 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:



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