Building Peace: Reflecting on Conversations in the Classroom

This post is the fourth in a series of posts where I’ve explored the importance of peace in the classroom and how we are working (or need to work) to cultivate peace with students. Previous posts discussed peace as the purpose of education, ways we view and need to reframe masculinity and femininity, and words that we use with and around young people.

Back in April, I read Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War by Nel Noddings as part of an ongoing personal mission to become more conscious of how I discuss peace and war with my students. I’d been interested in the Freedom Schools movement and restorative justice since graduate school and was looking to enhance my understanding of what peace means in a classroom context where, as a social studies and humanities teacher, I spent a lot of time talking about war. In most curricula, conflict and war are central themes. Noddings highlights that our history textbooks are often organized chronologically around wars, our literature glorifies warriors, and we emphasize competition, power, and patriotism as we attempt to tell the stories of who we are and how we got here. It should come as no surprise that our society is less peaceful than we would like, and less peaceful than it should be.

Three particular instances in my classroom have stood out to me as essential examples of why we need to rethink how we talk about peace and war in the classroom.

Today in History
Since the day I began teaching, I’ve kept a Today in History section of my whiteboard where I post a fun fact about something that happened in history. I almost always use the History website section devoted to this particular feature to get my fact of the day. When I can, I use a fact that relates to something my students are learning or have learned. When I can’t, I try to find something they’ll connect to or find particularly compelling.

As I’ve become more focused on discussing peace rather than war (i.e. we’re currently studying the Civil War’s social, political, and economic impacts on the United States rather than what happened militarily during the war), however, it’s become harder to use the History website to find facts for my students. History categorizes its daily factoids into seventeen sections, six of which are devoted to the major wars that the US has fought. If I skip all of those, I’m down to eleven options. I don’t want to include crime or disasters, so that’s nine options. Automotive, Hollywood, and Sports don’t seem relevant enough, and my students are generally unfamiliar with anything pertaining to Music, Literary, and Old West. That means I have three options: Lead Story, General Interest, and Presidential. There have been some years where I don’t teach American history, which means Presidential is out, too.

Not a lot of choice when I want my students constantly confronted with collaborative, constructive, global events.

Dissatisfied with History’s options, I’ve started turning more regularly to On This Day, which reaches far more broadly in providing three categories (Miscellaneous, Music, Birthdays) and upwards of thirty events in each category. It’s not that some days are historically busier than others, as any avid news reader knows. Instead, it’s that History curates information to a population fed stories of war, patriotism, and nationalism. These are divisive ideas and not what I want in front of my students on a daily basis.

At the end of the last school year, my tenth graders sat in a circle and we discussed ISIS. One of their ongoing class assignments was a current events report that asked them not only to find an event and summarize it, but also to consider it in a local, national, and global context, as well as consider whether the event would have been handled or approached differently in different time periods.

Understandably, ISIS was constantly a topic in their write-ups. Students submitted their assignments via GoogleDocs, which allowed us to have digital conversations about what they’d written. Many students expressed anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and uncertainty about the stability of the world and about their own futures. I commented back to them in the most positive ways that I could, encouraging them to consider solutions that were diplomatic, dialogic, and international. More than one student replied to my comments explaining that they found these suggestions unrealistic.

That’s when I decided to have an open conversation as a class instead of repeating myself to individual students. Together, we chose our first discussion question: How can we peacefully resolve global conflict?

My students were creative thinkers and suggested everything from global partnerships of young people to add a new voice to increased efforts towards volunteering for organizations that raise money to aid developing countries.

And then came the second discussion question: What should we do about ISIS?

Almost unanimously, all of my tenth grade students in two class periods suggested war, economic sanctions, bombing, and providing the UN with an army.

I called the discussion to a halt and pointed out the inconsistencies between what they’d just said about global conflict and how they suggested responding to ISIS. My students countered with statistics of death and destruction, which have unfortunately become common knowledge. When I brought up anti-radicalization programs like this one in Denmark, most students said that the problem is that there aren’t enough resources and there isn’t enough time. I suggested community building to stop radicalization and pointed to several of the many examples that exist. Students were frustrated, again pointing to the numbers. This would take generations, they said. We don’t have generations.

We might not have generations, but the “solutions” that we’ve tried – economic sanctions, airstrikes, increased access to arms – to stop ISIS aren’t working either. Again, peace is not nearly as much a part of our discourse as war. And this is a problem.

Farmers and Artisans
Just last week I introduced my sixth graders to the concept of civilizations. We started by making a flowchart of how civilizations form. When we began discussing the job specialization that results from increased food supply (as a result of settling and farming rather than being nomadic hunter-gatherers), the following conversation (edited to highlight main points) took place:

Me: Let’s assume this half of the class are farmers and growing all the food we need for our civilization.
Farmer half of class: Woohoo!
Me: The other half are artisans.
Artisans: Woohoo!
Me: So the artisans don’t farm and the farmers don’t make anything (As I’m saying this, the kids start pointing fingers and laughing and saying things like “You’re gonna starve!”) But our civilization has to come together.
Farmers: They’re gonna steal all our food!
Me: No, something else has to happen because we all need to survive so we have to work together.
Artisans: Oh, we’ll trade.
Me: Exactly.
Farmers: Oh.
Me: So then we have a civilization of great artisans . . .
Artisans: Yay!
Me: . . . and great farmers . . .
Farmers: Yay!
Me: . . . and we’re so successful that lots of other people come join our civilization.
Farmers: So THEY steal all our food!
Me: . . .

After class, I reflected on this conversation. What was going on here? My students came across extremely aggressively and competitively but then recognized the interdependence that existed between the two groups. I thought we’d had a breakthrough. We’d peacefully resolved a conflict that my students thought they saw . . . but then headed straight back to conflict when faced with an outside group. I understood that my students saw the outside group as a threat, even though I hadn’t explicitly framed it that way. That certainly has not been a thread of discussion in my classroom, which suggests a narrative of conflict and competition in their previous experiences. How much of this comes from schooling?

Ending Friday afternoon like this was uncomfortable and I’m looking forward to Monday so we can discuss the role of government figures in early civilizations. I’m curious to know whether they’ll see government as a leader in justice or a dispenser of punitive measures necessary to maintain order. In either case, I need to clearly articulate the goal of peace if I want my students to begin thinking in that framework. Peace is rarely an explicit discussion in our schools and I firmly believe that it needs to be.

Why It Matters
We do not live in a peaceful world. But we can. We need to begin to talk about peace and actively work on it instead of devolving into conflict. Peace will undoubtedly improve the world for all who inhabit it, which is why peacebuilding should be a central component in education. We need to agree to create an educational climate that develops world citizens who actively work to end suffering, creating a better and more peaceful world for all.

We will not find the solution to problems of violence, alienation, ignorance, and unhappiness in increasing our security, imposing more tests, punishing schools for their failure to produce 100 percent proficiency, or demanding that teachers be knowledgeable in the subjects they teach. Instead, we must allow teachers and students to interact as whole persons, and we must develop policies that treat the school as a whole community. – Nel Noddings

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