Could. Should. Would. Those three words are the essence of making ethical decisions as taught to local elementary school students participating in what are called Ethics Days at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
“If there is a difference between what we think we should do versus what we would do, that’s where the ethical dilemma is and that’s where we have to make our woulds closer to our shoulds,” says Rodef Shalom member Melissa Sporn.
She is president of the McLean-based Safe Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization that has been sponsoring Sixth Grade Ethics Days for the past 15 years, with Rodef Shalom providing its space for the past five years.
The Safe Community Coalition, whose mission, according to Sporn, is to help children, teens and young adults make good decisions, was funded for its first 10 years by a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration but is now privately funded.
Approximately 1,200 sixth graders from 11 public elementary schools and one private elementary school in the McLean and Langley areas of Fairfax County participate in the program. Two schools at a time are scheduled for the half-day seminar on ethics and decision making.
Having the largest Jewish congregation in Virginia host the event offers an opportunity for the diverse student population, representing many ethnicities and religions, including observant Muslims, to experience a synagogue setting in a positive way, according to Sporn.
“One of the nice aspects of the programming is that the first person they experience is somebody from the temple, typically a clergy member who introduces them to the temple, who welcomes them and does a little piece on ethics and religion and the fact that all major religions have an ethical foundation — and Judaism is not dissimilar in that way, and that our Torah basically is a teaching of ethics,” says Sporn.
Rodef Shalom member Marcus Simon, a Democrat who represents Falls Church in the House of Delegates, is an example of a public official who has attended an event and joined in the discussion. The Safe Community Coalition invites state legislators, law enforcement personnel, small business owners and other local leaders to talk about overcoming ethical challenges at the seminars.
The ethical dilemmas exercise using the could, should, would model is one of two activities the kids partake in, the other being a “cross the line” activity in which students walk across a line if they agree with a statement. For example, students are asked to cross the line if they agree with seeing trash on the ground and picking it up or seeing somebody bullied and intervening. Afterward, they discuss what it means to be a person of integrity.
Following the seminar, the students are asked to write essays about what inspired them during the program and what they learned. Sporn says they get wonderful responses.
“Most of the kids write about their experience and how powerful it was and how they really learned about ethical decision making and how they hope to use it,” says Sporn. “Some write about ethical choices they’ve had to make in the past and whether they made the right choice or a choice that they aren’t as proud of that they learned from, and that this program reinforced that.”