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Ethics in Action: Empowering Our Students to Repair the World

by Liz Paige, Director of Ethics and Community Initiatives

McGillis 3rd Grader sharing the ways they've been an ally.


At The McGillis School, we strive to inspire and prepare our learners for a lifetime of creating a better world. How do we do this?  Every teacher, staff person, administrator, as well as the students themselves, teach and model how to live ethically by making decisions and actions based on our shared values. Our community’s commitment to living ethically is embedded in all of our curriculum and underscored in our K-8 Ethics program.


Due to COVID-19, the School changed how often specialties occurred for students. For our Ethics Program, the new schedule of seeing two Lower School grades two or three times per week for a trimester and Middle School students once per week via Zoom and then in person throughout the year was a win for our program. In addition to building stronger student-teacher relationships, we were able to engage students in extensive discussions and studies focused on cultural diversity and traditions, anti-bias and anti-racism, understanding privilege, anti-bullying, and social justice. The response to the frequency of ethics education and the content of the program has been overwhelmingly positive.


“Over the past year, our son Henry was an at-home learner, so we had the remarkable privilege of being in the room during his Ethics classes,” wrote second grade parent Michael Young. “I was consistently moved by the character of the instruction around anti-bias, initially because of its critical social relevance.  But after a few weeks of the class, Lisa and I were deeply moved by the ways the class called Henry to action as he learned each week.  We’d grown used to him coming to us to talk about art or science or history, but now he was coming to share what he was learning about injustice and bias and the need to act with love and acceptance.  His Ethics class gave him the framework to understand that change is needed and that he could make that change. For us, it was remarkably meaningful to see him take on that charge and look for ways that he could act against things he knew were wrong.  His Ethics class gave him the scaffolding to move tikkun olam from an idea he heard us talk about to a way of seeing his role in the world. This was a beautiful transformation and something that really shows how ethics instruction makes McGillis different.”


“This year has taught us all to look for silver linings in difficult situations. One of these silver linings for me has been the opportunity to observe the Ethics curriculum over Zoom for 2nd and 4th grade, and then see the lessons taught integrated into my children's conversations with their parents and peers,” shared parent Darcie Gorman. 


“For example, hearing my 9-year-old say the words 'gender identity' is something that made me so proud. To know that he understands this concept, and that it can be fluid throughout life is a valuable lesson that I know will make him more inclusive and understanding of those who perhaps identify with a different gender than what their physical features determine,” Darcie explained. “My second grade daughter and I are in the process of figuring out how to celebrate her birthday in a COVID safe way. When she wanted to invite the whole class, I told her I wasn't sure if we could, to which she emphatically replied, ‘but MOM! I'm trying to be INCLUSIVE!’. We are so grateful for the Ethics education our children receive at McGillis. It is impressive that our young children know about the concepts of identity, racism, inclusivity, and so many more that will make them well-rounded, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent humans.”


Having more classes this year with students enabled us to try curricula with which we have been wanting to experiment. The Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Bias Building Blocks, a curriculum for K-5 students, and Empowering Students, Challenging Bias, for middle school students, provides the backbone of this year’s curriculum for students in grades 2, 4, 5, The Learning Center, and grades 7 and 8. Kindergarten studies focused on learning about our Jewish traditions and similar festivals from around the world. Ethics classes for grades 1 and 3 were guided by Pollyanna’s Racial Literacy Curriculum. And our 6th grade students focused on the Great Salt Lake, as the keystone to the great Salt Lake ecosystem, to engage in ethical discussions and action.


“Whether you are a fifth-grade student or a seasoned educator, you'll never want to miss an Ethics class.  I consider it to be a master class within our School's curriculum, a time for children to examine our history and for teachers to reexamine the way we were taught history, and for all of us to challenge the inequalities that still exist today,” explains faculty member Cassi Lanie. “The knowledge imparted in this class is a catalyst to make the world a better place with the right tools in our back pockets. Students are engaged in discussions that are topical and relevant, allowing them to think deeply and critically about their role in bettering our society.”



From learning about what causes skin color to understanding -isms and phobias, to identifying and understanding the roots of systemic racism, to being inspired by agents for change such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dolores Huerta, to creating PSAs about bullying and the importance of being an upstander and posters about environmental stewardship, leading our annual food drive, and collecting tzedakah to support anti-racism organizations, our students are learning how and why it is so important to put their values into action.