Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #14 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)

Maya knew she was busted as soon as she saw the school’s Assistant Principal walking toward her. She was at her friend’s school dance and they had gone to a “pre-party” beforehand. Maya wasn’t a big partier but she had shared a couple of drinks with some of her friends and now was about to be busted. The Assistant Principal approached her and said that she looked like she was unsteady on her feet. Maya tried the think fast and replied that she had played in a soccer game that day and was sore. The Assistant Principal then asked for her name and what school she went to, and commented that she smelled alcohol on Maya’s breath. Maya told her what school she was from and that she had not been drinking. The Assistant Principal began to explain that she would have to call Maya’s school the next day with her suspicions but was interrupted by a group of students. As she turned to answer them, Maya slipped out the door of the school.

Maya was panicked. She was pretty sure the Assistant Principal would have no trouble finding out her name. Her friend came out to find her and told her to stay calm. Her friend explained that the Assistant Principal probably wouldn’t even call and that she couldn’t be busted because she didn’t break any rule on her own school campus. This might have calmed another seventeen year old down but not Maya. Both teachers and peers respected her at her school for her academics and her integrity.  She volunteered every weekend in her neighborhood Head Start program and was captain of the varsity soccer team. She felt like she would let so many people down if they found out what she had done. She already felt like she had let herself down. She had so far to fall. Why did she have to risk it all in such a stupid way?

Maya couldn’t believe this was happening. She felt like she was watching herself. She would do anything to take back those drinks now, but thinking like that was wasting time. If her parents found out, she could kiss her social life good bye. If her teachers found out, they would all look at her differently. Her friend’s advice was to do nothing and hope that Maya’s school wouldn’t get a call from the Assistant Principal. If she did, then she could either deny it, or come clean. But, there was no sense in turning herself in at this point. That seemed like a big gamble to Maya. Still panicked, Maya tried examining her choices and playing them out. For example, if she were to go talk to the Assistant Principal at her own school before she received the phone call, that action would be consistent with the character and integrity she showed her school community. That might lessen the consequences or, at least, alleviate the fear and guilt that was freaking her out. On the other hand, she had broken no school rules on her own campus or school sponsored event. Would she be creating drama where there might never be drama?  Maya was confused and overwhelmed. She needed to come up with an action plan before school tomorrow.

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

(this is for you)

This is the kind of dilemma that faculty and administrators secretly hate the most. It is so hard to watch a student with high morals, great academic standing, and who is loved by everyone get caught in a dumb choice. Those students take the situation harder than anyone else involved. By the time they have to face the music, they have already punished themselves severely. It is good to bring these cases to teenagers to discuss because a real choice is involved here. Maya is backed into a corner. However, she has several options. One process that is helpful is to continue using the method that Maya, herself, was using. As a whole group you might come up with several courses of action she might take. Then, you might break your students into small groups and have them play out what the consequences for Maya might be. Be sure to have students separate the external  consequences from the internal ones. For example, Maya could “easily” lie to her own dean if confronted after the phone tip. But, first could Maya lie to an administrator with whom she had a relationship based on mutual respect? And if she could, how would that affect her emotionally the rest of the year?

In cases like this I like to emphasize the notion of empathy. We are not talking about what we might do and how it would affect us in this case. We are talking about Maya. We need to climb inside her world to work through this process. What might it feel like to feel pride in your own character and then do something to compromise that pride? Then, it might be interesting to compare the choice students came up with for her with the one they might come up with for themselves.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.

I encourage facilitators to use the exercise in the above paragraph in addition to some of the following:

  • If you were Maya’s best friend and had her best interest at heart, what would you suggest she do?
  • If you were her parent, what do you think you would suggest she do?
  • What would she have to lose if she turned herself in?
  • What would she have to lose if she didn’t?
  • Have you or someone you know ever been in a similar situation to this? What happened and how did it turn out? Did you or that person feel regret or pride in the choice made?
  • Do any of you feel Maya is over reacting to this situation? Why or why not?


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 DVD’s 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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