In 1968, Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., asked residents of the United States a prescient, urgent, and timely question: Where do we go from here–chaos or community? Since King’s death, more than 1 million Americans have been killed violently here at home, including tens of thousands of children. Behind these shameful numbers are small individual faces and individuals’ feelings. We must stop this suffering; we must work together to see that the violence against children is stopped, that schools are turned back into places of nurturing and learning, rather than the war zones which some of them have become. We will not be able to deal with the violence in the United States until we learn to deal with the basic ethic of how we resolve disputes and to place an emphasis on peace in the way we relate to one another.
On May 16, 1995, a student was arrested at the Fritsche Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for possession of a gun, which was found in her locker. Students, parents, and teachers alike were stunned. The girl had been a straight-A student, who just one day prior had handed an honorary banner to Reverend Desmond Tutu as part of a peace-promoting rally. Upon leaving the rally, the student was assaulted by a fellow student, and allegedly brought the gun to school the next day in self-defense. This was but one of many violent incidents reported in U.S. schools in the last 20 years. What is notable about Fritsche Middle School is its positive and unified response to the incident: The school responded by incorporating peace education into its curriculum in 1996.
Peace education refers to a social movement within education that seeks to counter all forms of violence and promote peace. Violence is defined by peace educators as “any physical, psychological or structural action that is dehumanizing or intentionally harms another.” Peace education involves peace-promoting curriculum, alternative teaching structures, and the creation of a nonviolent learning environment. Peace educators seek to help students to identify violence in their lives and their surroundings, to recognize the sources of such violence, and to equip students to demonstrate nonviolent responses to conflict. Furthermore, peace education involves a more cooperative model of learning, moving away from traditional “top-down” approaches of teaching and instead promoting partnerships in learning.
Peace education was spawned as a response to a global decline in education and an increase in school violence, which has characterized the period from the 1980s to the present. The purpose of peace education is to counter violence of all forms. Pioneers in peace education, such as Maria Montessori, for whom Montessori Schools were named, believed that failure to recognize the disempowering effects of traditional models of education simply exacerbated the violence in schools. Montessori developed her ideas around peace education in the post-World War II era of the 1950s, calling it “the best way to counteract the hatred of fascism.” The need for peace education has grown ever more pressing with the passage of time. According to the Children’s Defense Fund (1991), children today are exposed to more violence than at any previous time, yet a failure on the part of educators to identify the prevalence of violence in the lives of students limits the influence of peace education.
Nonetheless, many schools throughout the United States and around the globe are taking measures to implement peace education. A curriculum that formerly gave mention to violent historical events without making mention of nonviolent conflict resolution is now emphasizing the work and ideas of peace makers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, David Henry Thoreau, Mother Theresa, Cesar Chavez, Nel Noddings and bell hooks. Today, class discussions in many high schools include issues such as national disarmament, human rights, domestic violence, refugee relocation, economic inequalities, and ecological concerns. Furthermore, many schools–like the Fritsche Middle School in Milwaukee–are experimenting with different classroom approaches that are conducive to partnership and cooperation. Block scheduling is a revised system of class scheduling in which students attend fewer class periods, with each class spanning a longer period of time than the traditional 48-minute periods and each covering an integrative curriculum that incorporates reading, English, mathematics, language arts, social studies, and sciences. After implementing block scheduling, Fritsche Middle School reported improvement in standardized test scores, improved attendance, a decreased number of incident reports, and a drastic increase in community involvement on the part of students.
Many different peace education models are being successfully implemented today. A few example suffice to demonstrate their breadth:
- Afghan Sister Project at Carolina Friends School: The Carolina Friends School in North Carolina established a partnership with a school in Afghanistan, with children in the two schools becoming pen pals, writing journals of their day-to-day life for 10 days and then exchanging the journals to learn about one another’s lives, and making crafts to share with one another. The journal project included sending disposable cameras to Afghanistan, so that the children there could take photographs of their daily lives and send them back to the United States. In turn, U.S. students took photos of their daily lives and sent them to Afghanistan. Along with these international exchanges, the Carolina Friends School invited special guest speakers from Afghanistan to speak in their schools. Extracurricular community events were planned featuring music and food from Afghanistan, and parents, teachers and members of the community came together to learn. High school students hosted fundraising events and raised local awareness about the difficulties of accessing clean water in Afghanistan. The money that was raised went to repairing a broken water pump in an Afghan village. The reported effect on students and teachers involved in the project was increased engagement, a sense of contributing to peace efforts in a war-torn region of the world, and a connection across two very distinct cultures.
- Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP): The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program is an approach that places as much importance on the emotional quotient of students as on the intellectual quotient. The emotional quotient, or “emotional intelligence,” is measured according to five factors:
- Self-awareness, or the ability to recognize what one is feeling
- Self-control, or the ability to handle one’s emotions
- Self-motivation, or the ability to maintain drive in the face of frustration
- Empathy, or the ability to imagine and understand the emotions of others
- Social competency, or the ability to handle the emotions of others
Studies indicate that the emotional intelligence of American children has been in steady decline since the mid-1970s and, therefore, is correlated with a decline in school performance and an increase in school violence. Moreover, studies show that the emotional center of the brain–the cerebral cortex–is still actively developing until mid to late adolescence. On the basis of this information, the RCCP proposes that schools become centers of learning not only of academic material but also of critical life skills in emotional and social competency. Thus the fostering of self-control and self-regulation skills, social awareness and group participation skills, and social decision-making and problem-solving skills are incorporated into the curriculum of the program. Teachers in schools that have implemented RCCP report less violence in their classrooms, children’s spontaneous use of conflict resolution skills, improved self-esteem, and more caring and accepting behavior among students.
- Comer School Development Program (SDP): The Comer School Development Program is a three-tiered program, involving parents, teachers, and students. The first component of the program is a planning committee made up of parents and school staff, where decisions are made about school policies, school environment, and specific programs. The second component comprises a team of students and staff members including trained professionals, such as guidance counselors, developmental psychologists, and pediatricians, who determine socially and developmentally appropriate responses to issues facing students. The third component is a program designed to give parents specific and meaningful involvement in the school. The program specifies 12 areas of emphasis:
- Order and discipline
- Respect, trust, and kindness among students
- Caring and sensitivity on the part of school personnel
- Fair and equal treatment for all students
- Equal access to resources
- High expectations for student achievement
- Parental involvement
- Maintenance of the school building’s physical appearance
- Academic focus
- Collaborative decision making
- Productive school-community relations
- An absence of finger pointing (between students, teachers, parents, and members of the administration)
These 12 areas of emphasis are thoughtfully and cooperatively implemented by the three teams–the staff and parent committee, the student and professional staff team, and the parental team. Together and with the preceding emphases in mind, the teams work to enhance the environment within the school, to increase the level of support for students, and to find innovative ways to resolve conflicts. For example, in one school where SDP was implemented, it was found that many of the violent incidents at school took place after the final bell, when halls were crowded and students were rushing to go. The parental team of the SDP recommended that dismissal times for the various classes be staggered, so as to decrease congestion in the halls and reduce violent incidents. The school board agreed to a week’s trial period,which proved wildly successful and led to implementation of a permanent policy. This child-centered approach can be simply implemented in traditional school settings and has had a transformational effect on students, parents, and teachers alike, with particular effectiveness in schools in poverty-stricken urban areas.
- Haynes, N. (1996). Creating safe and caring school communities: Comer School Development Program. Schools, 3, 308-314.
- Lantieri, L., & Patti, J. (1996). Educating children in a violent society. Journal of Negro Education, 65(3), 356-368.
- Lin, J., Brantmeier, E., & Bruhn, C. (2008). Transforming education for peace. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
- Marion, M., Rousseau, J., & Gollin, K. (2009). Connecting our villages: The Afghan sister schools project at the Carolina Friends School. Peace & Change, 34(4), 548-570.
- Mortenson, G. (2009). Stones into schools: Promoting peace with books, not bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New York: Viking Press.