Most high school students will tell you they are not thrilled to go back to school after Christmas vacation. This year the Vinalhaven High School staff found a way to ease back into the swing of things by holding a week-long exploration of ethics.

Ethics Week ran January 4-8 and included a viewing of the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” a two-day residency by artist Robert Shetterly and art projects, among other things.

Regular classes did not meet during Ethics Week. Instead, students met in various groups with teachers for discussions and activities. One of the first activities was an introduction to global ethics with a viewing of the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” about the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

“Students were really affected by this movie,” said French teacher Susan Philbrook. “It really got them thinking about things that happen outside the U.S. It definitely opened up some eyes to world conflicts.” Junior Catherine Haley confirmed Philbrook’s statement, pointing out that she had never heard of the Rwandan Genocide. “I really liked the movie,” she said. “I thought it was really intense and interesting.”

Margaret Qualey is a school board member and a parent to two high school students. She “absolutely thought it was a fabulous week. It was very interesting to hear the responses to the movie,” she said. “It was pretty amazing how quiet [the students] were. A lot of them didn’t know the word ‘genocide.'”

The “This I Believe” curriculum ( was another important part of Ethics Week. It is based on the 1950s radio show of the same name hosted by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Students and teachers participated in discussions and writing activities from this curriculum throughout the week. According to Philbrook, one activity required students to separate themselves into groups based on whether they agreed or disagreed with a given statement. They then had time to discuss the statement within their groups, and finally the groups shared their reasoning with each other. This was done 12 to 15 times, after which each student chose one statement to write about.

Topics covered in discussions throughout the week included school and personal issues such as sports, parents and partying, as well as community issues such as the recent situation regarding noise generated by Vinalhaven’s new wind turbines and the regulations requiring lobstermen to use sinking rope to help protect right whales.

By the end of the week each student composed his or her own “This I Believe” monologue and recorded it on iMovie. The completed monologues will be shown publicly later in the year.

A highlight of the week was a two-day residency by artist Robert Shetterly, author of “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” The book is a collection of 50 portraits of great Americans-not necessarily famous-and a quote by each one. Shetterly gave two presentations, one to the high school and one to the community, about his work and his portraits. He brought some of the original portraits to show, including one of Mainer Samantha Smith, who, in 1983 at the age of 10, became known around the world when she wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, then leader of the Soviet Union.

Qualey attended the community presentation and “found it fascinating.” She was particularly pleased with Shetterly’s use of examples of regular people, such as Smith, who made a difference in the world.

Shetterly also led students in a project in which they each painted a self-portrait that included a personal belief statement, like those in Shetterly’s book.

 “It was really cool to see the whole high school painting,” said Philbrook. “We had a lot of students start off the week telling us they couldn’t paint, and now we have such beautiful completed portraits that they all worked so hard on.”

Haley, who is not an art student, found the painting to be her favorite activity of the week. “It was a little challenging, but fun,” she said. “I really liked being able to paint and relax.” She also enjoyed thinking about her quote. Haley chose “Live life to the fullest and travel” in Spanish because she is scheduled to leave on February 10 for a semester abroad in Costa Rica.

Overall, the Vinalhaven High School staff considered the week a success. “I think we saw a side of students that we don’t always get to see in the classroom,” said Philbrook. “The students were talking openly, and pretty passionately, about a variety of different topics. Many of our conversations didn’t have right or wrong answers and students were all over the board with opinions, but they all listened to each other and didn’t judge each other. I think it really showed a lot of maturity and intellect among our student body and this really gave me a sense of pride to be teaching here,” she said.

Ethics Week was funded with help from Partners in Island Education, the Maine Humanities Council, and The Maine Arts Commission.

Kris Osgood is a freelance writer who lives on Vinalhaven.