Tag Archives: Classroom

Building Peace: Classroom Activities

The last week of the semester is always a bit of a challenge. Our second quarter grades were due last week and there’s little point in beginning something new that will be immediately interrupted by a three-week break.

For me, this week was the perfect time to do some work with peace and conflict resolution with my grade 10 students. As I’ve written before, I believe that building peace really ought to be the purpose of education and that we need to provide our students with a toolkit to build a better, more peaceful world. This year, I’ve tried to include those ideas in every topic we study.

In grade 10, we recently concluded a unit on genocide during which we discussed social enterprises, NGOs, and other organizations that are currently working to help affected communities move forward and improve the problems that have resulted from these atrocities. Spending a few days talking about peace and conflict seemed more than timely.

Below are three activities that I’ve developed and/or adapted from the United States Institute of Peace. You can download their Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators for free! These activities require students to talk with each other and move around, which is always helpful towards the end of a semester. They tend to work best with chattier groups, but even quieter students react pretty strongly.

Defining Peace
1. In pairs, ask students to come up with a definition of peace.

2. Each pairs partners with another pair, making a group of four. Ask the group to come up with a definition of peace that everyone can live with.

3. Two groups of four form a group of eight and repeat the exercise. (Split the groups of four as needed with a small class so that the whole class is ultimately in two large groups.)

4. Continue until the class is split into two groups and have each group write their final definition on the board.

5. The last part of this activity is to see whether the class can agree on a definition of peace, either by choosing one, combining the two options, editing, or writing something new entirely.

6. Debrief as a group about this process and how the definition changed and developed (or not!) as the groups changed. Compromise, learning from others, and agreeing with different ideas are usually the topics that come up. Some groups really enjoy the language structure component of this activity, as well.

Peace Scenarios
1. Ask students to keep in mind the whole-class definition of peace (or two definitions if the class couldn’t come to consensus). Create a continuum of peace along a wall with one side as 100% peace and the opposite as 100% not peace. The middle of the room is an even split between peace and not peace.

2. Present students with a variety of peace/not peace scenarios. They should place themselves where they fit along the continuum.

3. Page 31 of the high school toolkit from USIP has a list of scenarios representing personal, local, and international conflicts. I’ve found that Personal #2 (Your teacher accuses you of cheating on a paper, but you did not. You schedule a time after class to work out the
misunderstanding.) is great starting point and then I proceed from there in this order:

  • Personal #1 – You arrive at home and your mom has taken money off your dresser without asking. This frustrates you, but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to cause a fight.
  • Local #2 – A school holds a charity event to raise money to build schools in an area affected by a natural disaster.
  • Local #3 – A high school hires armed security guards to manage school violence.
  • International #3 – Humanitarian aid with medical supplies and fresh water reaches a community affected by conflict.
  • International #4 – Children in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp are not able to go to school for fear of violence if they leave the camp.
  • (optional) International #1 – There are 300,000 child soldiers involved in conflicts around the world.

4. Many of my students are language learners and we do pause to make sure that everyone understands both the content and concepts in each scenario. Students move according to their opinions, which is also an opportunity to share with a classmate. This is particularly helpful for language support. Then, I call on them at random to justify their views.

5. I usually start with the students at the far extremes and then choose one in the middle and one or two others before opening the floor for anyone to share. If a student moves during the activity, I ask why. Some students will purposely take the opposite perspective from the majority of the class just for the sake of discussion, which is always really fun. I also allow students to question each other.

Over the Line
This is a really quick activity that I generally preface simply by telling students that it is related to peace and conflict.

1. Divide the class into two groups and have them pair up with someone from the opposite group.

2. Tell students that you will hand out specific directions to each group and give each student the instruction sheet from page 38 of the USIP high school toolkit. The instructions are identical and read as follows: You will be sentenced to life in prison in exactly 3 minutes. Your only chance to escape is if you can get your opponent to cross over to your side and stay there before the time is up. Good luck. 

3. Students are not to look at the directions until the activity begins.

4. Tell students to stand facing each other and draw an invisible line across the floor between them. Remind students that each group has specific directions and that their task is to accomplish the goal using any means except physical violence. Announce that they have three minutes to complete the task.

5. After three minutes, ask students who thinks they accomplished the task. (The solution is for the partners to trade places.) There is usually at least one group who read their instructions to each other, realized they were the same, and figured out the solution. Ask this group how they went through this process and why they chose to share their instructions. Ask a few other groups about their experiences.

6. Debrief as a class about how this activity relates to peace and conflict. Ideas that come up generally include trust, considering different points of view, compromise, and communication.


This is the type of work that I love doing and I was really glad to do these activities with my grade 10s this week, especially coming off of our unit on genocide. The classroom can be a powerful place if we’re willing to have conversations about difficult topics. I believe that this work is essential if we aim to improve our world.

I’ve used these activities for several years in grades 9 and 10 and would love to hear how they work for you in your classrooms! If you have your own peace and conflict activities to share, please do so. I’d love to learn from you.

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

Anxiety
And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.


Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

Forward

On the phone this morning, my mum pointed out that I haven’t blogged in a while. I haven’t written in my journal as often as usual, either. I started thinking about why that might be, and I feel that nothing I have to say is important compared to all of the hate the world is experiencing. My grade 10 students write up current events reports every two weeks, and some of them have already come in.

As the world is aware, it has not been a good two weeks.

My students are genuinely concerned, not just about Paris but also about Nigeria, Lebanon, ISIS, and the debate over refugees in the US. They’re concerned about potential evacuation drills, and they’re concerned about why there’s been so much violence in the world lately. One of them told me, “I wanted to find a current event that’s not about war. But I can’t.”

As I listen to student concerns, look over news articles in class, validate fears, and explain what/who/why ISIS is, I have also come to terms with my own unease. I realized this while journaling just a few minutes ago, and I thought it would be a good time for a post.

What frustrates me, and always has, is hate. Hate is not something I understand, not when it’s directed at a specific group of people (and I mean people, not monsters like ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Nazis). I understand fear, though I don’t always agree with it. However, I don’t understand the underlying racism, the hate, that accompanies fear. How is it that we don’t know better? Where did we, as educators, go wrong? Where did we, as people, as humans, go wrong? I’d expect that if asked, everyone in the people category (again, excluding monsters and their affiliates) would claim to want peace.

But we know that wanting peace isn’t enough. Peace doesn’t happen overnight. Peace needs time. It needs to be built. It needs to be strong so that it lasts.

As a student and a teacher of history, I know that peace is fragile. Peacebuilding itself is fragile. Peace is scary for some, I think, because it means letting go. It means admitting fallacy. It means apologizing when you’re in the wrong, when you’ve hurt others. It means compromise.

The way I see it, peace is the only way forward. And if we can’t build peace as a world right now for whatever reason (and I do understand the obstacles) maybe we can start by building peace within and among ourselves. We do that with children. We say things like, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” (And we smile indulgently when cheeky kids respond with, “But two negatives make a positive!”) We tell children that “hands are not for hitting” and that it’s important to be nice to our friends. Sharing is caring, right? We teach children that everyone is unique and we teach the acceptance of difference. We teach about different cultures, different customs, and the importance of the Golden Rule. We teach friendship and respect and fairness and trustworthiness. We teach about taking risks and about trying again. We teach about perspectives and beliefs and opinions. We teach about hope for the future.

We teach children how to stop, listen, reflect, apologize, shake hands, and move forward. We teach children how to live.

As an educator, I am not in a position to negotiate world peace, and I do not envy those who are. But I do believe that it the responsibility of every person to create a better world. I became a teacher because I firmly believe that every person can play a role in doing so. In my classroom, we build peace. We communicate. We debate. We reflect. We listen and respond to one another as people, regardless of our differences. We highlight those differences to understand them, and we ask questions when we are uncertain. In my classroom, my students are safe. They are learning how to create a peaceful environment, and what it means to be a member of a community.

It is those lessons that I believe the world needs. Bombs aren’t going to stop us from hurting.

Peace, even in the smallest of ways, is our way forward.