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‘Peace Teachers’ Chronicle Year of Bringing Conflict-Resolution to the Classroom

By Candace Huntington

Amid dismal headlines depicting conflict and violence around the world, the idea of peace can seem distant and impractical. But a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) panel on July 10 showed how American teachers across the country are bringing peacebuilding and conflict-resolution into the classroom.

Mandated by Congress in 1984, USIP works with local partners in conflict zones across the globe to provide support and resources for effective peacebuilding.

“We look at what is behind the headlines,” said USIP President Nancy Lindborg. “I think all of us are inundated by scenes of despair and conflict around the world. Part of what we try to do is to illuminate that behind those headlines, there are people working every day to make peace possible, especially in very difficult places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Though much of its work is done abroad, USIP also focuses on public education within the U.S. through initiatives like the Peace Teachers Program.

The Peace Teachers Program, launched in 2015, is a year-long professional development program designed for middle and high school educators who want to develop and incorporate global peacebuilding themes and skills into their classrooms.

The July 10 panel featured three of the four Peace Teachers who were selected for the 2017-18 academic year. The high school teachers from Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Florida have worked with USIP over the last year to bring issues of international conflict into their classrooms so that their students could become the next generation of peace-builders.

Joanne Ledham-Ackerman, left, a writer and longtime member of USIP’s International Advisory Council, moderated the July 10 discussion. (Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace)

Each teacher faced different challenges throughout the year. Students in Amy Cameron’s classroom at Grandview High School, just outside Kansas City in Missouri, had little knowledge of international issues. “Our students have a very narrow lens of the world,” Cameron said. “They live in an area where many of them will never leave. They often saw their lives as being insignificant, and some of them have felt defeated.”

While learning about conflict and violence around the world, the students recognized conflict in their own lives and communities. Grandview High School’s student body is diverse, with a majority of African American students and a rising population of Hispanic students. Yet Cameron’s students are particularly underprivileged; nearly 90 percent of the student population is on free and reduced lunch.

“The violent images they see every day are just part of their lives. I myself have been to four funerals of my students who have been killed. This is totally unacceptable. In the beginning, my students felt like they had no voice and that there was nothing they could do. At the very beginning of this curriculum, they said racism would always exist, that there is nothing they could do and that’s how their lives were meant to be. A lot of my male students said they probably won’t live to be 21.”

Cameron and the rest of the Peace Teachers had an immense task ahead of them. The question they asked their students is one that many world leaders struggle to answer: How can we be effective peace-builders? The students first looked at historical conflicts, such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. They identified individuals who have worked to resolve major world conflicts, such as Nobel Peace Prize winners, and used them as role models throughout the year. By the end of the class, Cameron noticed that her students had a broader understanding of international violence and peacebuilding and were able to devise their own solutions to conflict, even if it was just within their own community.

“When we integrated the peace-builders curriculum, they understood that conflict exists everywhere. We put pushpins in the map on all the countries that were currently in conflict, and it filled the map. But the difference is, it didn’t have to lead to violence,” noted Cameron.

Maria Zaleya, a teacher at East Side High School in Gainesville, Florida, found that introducing the peacebuilding curriculum to her Spanish class fundamentally changed the way she approached teaching.

The Peace Teachers included Ezra Shearer, left, Maria Zelaya, center, and Amy Cameron, right, who discussed their year of teaching the USIP’s conflict and peacebuilding curriculum in their respective classrooms. (Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace)

“At the beginning of my teaching career, the goal of my Spanish classes was to teach the students the language as well as the culture of the Spanish-speaking countries. That’s the objective of most Spanish language classes. USIP has changed the way I look at teaching a foreign language class. My class is no longer just a language class; it’s global issues, social justice and peacebuilding class, using Spanish as a communication tool,” she said.

East Side High School faced a different challenge than Grandview. The school had three distinct programs, and the students felt that this divided the student body.

“The students’ main concern was the lack of unity among the three programs we have at our school, and how they need to work together to achieve their goals. My challenge now was not just to bring the peacebuilding curriculum into my classes, but also find ways to bring those three groups from our school together,” Zaleya said.

Using historical conflicts in El Salvador and Colombia as case studies, the students learned about international conflict and the complexities of achieving peace. The students were able to use what they learned to address the lack of unity within their own school. With the help of USIP partners and their teachers, the students in Zaleya’s class painted a mural representing all the factions of their school to symbolize their unity.

“My students learned about peace and conflict and peacebuilding efforts in other countries. But we went from putting all these ideas about peace and conflict from the global to the local, and found the need to change our own community,” said Zaleya.

While most students across the U.S. learn about conflict in school, few curricula focus specifically on peace. USIP’s Peace Teachers Program is unique in the sense that, while it uses examples of conflict as a starting point, it emphasizes the possibility and practicality of peace at home and abroad.

“We as teachers are there to guide our students, give them facts and teach in different subject areas,” said Zaleya, “but we must guide them when they come with their own ideas for change.”

Candace Huntington is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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