Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #18 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)

considered herself a pretty assertive young woman. She was sixteen but felt her confidence in both her values and her place in the world was stronger than most of her peers. That made Saturday night even more surprising and harder to deal with. She had gone to a party her parents agreed she could attend. In arranging a ride, her mother had called the parents of an acquaintance of Tina’s she knew from chorus. Chris lived nearby and Tina’s parents thought they could carpool. It was decided that Tina’s mother would drive the two of them to the party and Chris’s father would drive them home.

The problem arose at the end of the night when Chris’ dad arrived to pick them up. When Tina opened the passenger door of the car, the smell of alcohol washed over her. She got in and thanked Chris’s Dad for coming to get them. He seemed normal to Tina, but she wasn’t sure what a drunk driver looked like.

Tina was close to her parents and respected how often they told her never to get in the car with someone who was drinking. They also told her if she ever felt uncomfortable to call home and they would pick her up, no questions asked. But, what if the driver was a friend of her parents and an adult? She hadn’t ever considered that as a possibility and now that she was, she was halfway home smack in the middle of the problem.

Chris was acting like everything was fine. Tina felt very uncomfortable. All of her confidence had disappeared. She felt like a robot just going through the motions. What could she do? She felt like all the rules had changed and she had no options.

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

(this is for you)

This is a hard one. When one of my students approached me with this dilemma, she told me she had gone home and asked her mother’s advice and her mother was stumped. So, she was coming to me. This is a challenge on many levels. The fact that a young person thinks that ethical rules change when an adult is involved, even when his or her life is at stake, is sad. The fact that a key adult figure might agree is even more disappointing. That being said, Tina doesn’t have many options that will go over “smoothly” shall we say. To defy or question authority (especially when it is authority you are inclined to respect) is one of the hardest steps young adults have to take.

This case presents an opportunity to validate doing what one knows is the right or smart thing to do no matter what or who is involved. Young people need an army of adult role models around values. The reality is that most have a handful. Others are desperately searching for just one. It is so important that we make it okay for kids to take care of themselves. It is so important that they feel proud of every decision they make that does just that. Often, being emotionally assertive means disappointing someone you have a relationship with. I wish my students had more practice at this. I think it would serve them far better than a high score on the SAT’s.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.

  • What makes this dilemma so difficult?
  • Put yourself in Tina’s shoes. What would you do? Why?
  • What might have made Tina’s situation easier to deal with?
  • What do you think your parents would do if you asked to get out of the car and called your parents for a ride? Do you know anyone who would make that choice? Why or why not?
  • Describe a time you or someone you know questioned an adult you felt was making a choice that might impact you negatively.
  • Describe a time an adult in your life disappointed you? What happened? How did it change how you viewed him or her (if at all)?


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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