Tag Archives: School

Peace through Writing

As usual, I’ve been thinking about peace a lot, particularly in the wake of recent school shootings in the US. This has provoked a great deal of discussion among students and staff at school, much of which has included shaking heads and heavy sighs. Again?

Over the weekend, I got an email from one of the instructors from my undergrad education program begging us to protect our students by rejecting Trump’s call to arms. It’s astounding that she even felt the need to write that email; it’s astounding that there are actually people who believe this to be a good idea. I had a conversation with a sixteen-year-old student about it, but I haven’t met an educator who agrees with this approach.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing in cafés over the last several weeks, setting aside a few hours after my run on a weekend morning to sit over coffee and puzzle through whatever ideas come to mind. I’m working on an extended project about peace in schools as an attempt to provide an actionable framework for how to better our world. We desperately need a better world.

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View from Drury Lane, one of my favorite haunts.

This is the longest independent project I’ve worked on since I was a student and my time to write is one of joy. I look forward to my hours in a comfortable space with coffee, perhaps some music, and the privacy that comes from being in a room full of strangers. As a writer who is not pressed for time (among the reasons why I have a day job and have not monetized this blog), I do the following to maintain momentum and excitement:

  1. Set aside a time to write and stick to it. I’m flexible about whether this work happens on Saturday or Sunday, but I won’t skip a week. Instead, I schedule other weekend events around it.
  2. At the end of the allotted time, stop writing. If you’re stuck and struggling, you have until next week to get unstuck. If you’re on a roll and inspired, take a couple quick notes and then you’ll be excited to start again next week.
  3. Find somewhere comfortable, preferably away from the rest of the week and the rest of your life. Being interrupted is hugely distracting and it takes significant time to get back on track. That’s why I find it helpful to leave my apartment or, at the very least, to sit outside where I’m separated from my daily surroundings.
  4. If you have an exercise routine, stick to it and fit the writing in around it. My brain works better (and I’m better at sitting still) once my body has warmed up. For others, the brain needs to be active before the body can be active. Know thyself.
  5. Write first, edit later. Say what you have to say and then worry about how you’re saying it.

These ideas are informed by personal experience and the guidance of people far wiser than I. On Writing by Stephen King, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami all provide philosophies on writing from people with experience, credibility, and successful writing careers. And all three are excellent reads!

Much of my writing in the past has been escapist; a friend called me prolific during my first few months in New York. I write to explain the world to myself and to others, but also out of a sense of desperation and a desire to leave a meaningful imprint on the world. There’s so much to say and far too little time to say it. Yesterday I woke up to the news that the father of a friend’s friend had passed away. Life is fleeting. There’s a sense of running out of time that keeps me on edge.

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I passed this mural on the wall of a guesthouse when I was walking to Artistry a few weeks ago. Pretty, right?

My best work is urgent but detached. It requires me to leave passion, rage, and other strong emotions aside for a moment and look at what I’m trying to say through the eyes of those who are not in my heart or in my mind, not feeling what I’m feeling or thinking what I’m thinking. That’s where the feeling of clarity and exhaustion comes from when I decide that I’ve done enough editing and can move on. But I’m not there right now. I’m still in the writing stage of my current project, still feeling the excitement of writing and the need to write.

There’s a mug on my desk at work, though, that reminds me to slow down. It’s very plain, cream colored with black writing:

peace. it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. it means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. (unknown)

 

How to Improve the World while Surfing the Internet

Do people even say “surfing the Internet” anymore?

Regardless of what we call it, we certainly do a lot of it! Lucky for us, the folks over at Tab for a Cause have developed a browser extension that donates to a charity of your choice every time you open a new tab. As part of our school’s Valentine’s Day campaign to do something nice for someone else, I started encouraging my students to being using Tab for a Cause. It’s an easy way to do good while simply doing all of the things you already do.

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Interested? Click here to get started. After creating a username, you can sign in on any device and the number of hearts that you earn (one tab = one heart) will sync across devices. I’ve been using Tab for a Cause for a while now and my stats page looks like this:

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Thanks for helping us make the world a better, more peaceful place.

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.