By Alix Mammina
A Skype call with a secretary of state, a 5K run for human rights, and an anti-gun-violence march in Chicago—these are just a few of the highlights from four teachers’ year of peace.
The 2016-17 United States Institute of Peace (USIP) cohort of Peace Teachers met in person for the first time at the USIP headquarters in Washington July 10 to share their experiences with teaching global peacebuilding skills to teens and pre-teens across the country.
The Peace Teachers program is one of several education initiatives offered by USIP, a nonpartisan institute seeking to prevent and reduce violent conflict around the world. For the second year now, the program has connected a small group of middle and high school teachers with the training, resources, and support necessary to bring concepts of peace and conflict resolution to the classroom.
The program is conducted exclusively online, with teachers in the cohort participating in virtual meetings, mentoring sessions with former Peace Teachers, and professional development. Teachers both in and outside of the program can use USIP’s free online classroom resources, which include lesson plans, study guides, and simulations, and the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, a comprehensive guide for teaching international peacebuilding and conflict management.
Hailing from Dallas, Chicago, and small towns in North Carolina and New York, the four 2016 Peace Teachers designed lesson plans that were uniquely suited for their classes and communities—but all shared a common goal of empowering their students to take action and promote peace.
Lori Raybold, a 9th and 10th grade English teacher in Hamburg, N.Y., incorporated peacebuilding in her classes by having students analyze conflict styles in literary works like Romeo and Juliet and The Lord of the Flies.
“I realized that both in the real world and in the fictional world, the heart of every story is conflict,” Raybold said during her presentation. “We discussed how characters might have approached conflicts differently, and what options for resolution they had that they might not have considered.”
When teaching about civil and global wars in her AP U.S. History class, Latricia Davis took a similar approach. The Dallas high school teacher challenged her students to consider how historical conflicts could have been resolved more peacefully, and helped them identify peacebuilding movements that took place during wars.
One of Davis’ main goals for the year was to inspire her students to become active global citizens. Each week, her students led discussions about current events from around the world—sometimes leading to class-long conversations on weighty subjects, like the Islamic State group’s brutal attacks against civilians in Mosul.
“I believe in teaching my kids at a global level,” Davis said during the panel discussion. “Because we are such a global society and because we are so connected, our students need to know what’s going on in the world.”
Each Peace Teacher noted that as the year progressed, their students became more animated and involved in discussions about current events and global issues. Matt Cone, a high school social studies teacher in Carrboro, N.C., fueled his students’ enthusiasm by connecting them with the peacebuilders they read about in class. He gave his students what he called a “realistic portrait of activism” as they engaged in critical conversations, both in-person and over the phone, with hundreds of activists from across the globe—and even Skyped with former Secretary of State John Kerry to ask him questions about the rise of populism and “fake news.”
“My students were asking critical questions, they were getting excited about people’s potential to change the world, and they were thinking about how they too could design plans that were capable of changing the world,” Cone said during his presentation.
In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Cone noted that teachers who are interested in peacebuilding can start by bringing experts into the classroom. “Reach out to whoever has influence—journalists, professors, activists—and contact them for interviews,” Cone said. “In most cases, they are excited to have the opportunity to discuss their work and tell their stories.”
For some of the teachers, service learning was a key aspect in their peacebuilding lessons. Davis’ students participated in the Dallas 5K Run for Human Rights, while Rhonda Scullark’s 6th and 7th graders took part in the Chicago I Am For Peace March. Scullark’s students even took to the streets near their Chicago charter school, encouraging passersby to participate in their Peace Day Challenge and sharing their peacebuilding knowledge.
At the close of the event, the Peace Teachers encouraged the audience of other educators, journalists, and USIP colleagues to embrace teachable moments and incorporate peacebuilding into their everyday lives.
“Teaching my kids these lessons now can prepare them to be the next ambassadors and leaders working to achieve peace—not just in Chicago, not just in their communities, but around the world,” Scullark said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.