Using Lessons From Global Conflict, These Teachers Broker Peace in Their Communities

By Sarah Schwartz — July 13, 2018 3 min read
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Teaching international conflict resolution empowers students to become leaders in their own communities, say three high school educators who have spent the past school year teaching peacebuilding through social studies and foreign language courses.

The teachers, part of a 2017-18 cohort doing professional development with the United States Institute of Peace, spoke on a panel here Tuesday. Each year, a small group of middle and high school teachers from across the country receive training, support, and curricular resources from USIP to weave lessons about peace and conflict resolution throughout their instruction. These “Peace Teachers” also meet virtually with USIP staff and their fellow awardees over the course of the school year.

USIP’s peace-teaching toolkit asks teachers to consider how conflict is resolved and peace brokered around the world. This year, though, as school shootings and police violence made headlines, several of the teachers focused inward—using the skills taught through the program to address conflict in their own schools and neighborhoods.

It can be frustrating for high schoolers to learn about how conflict resolution can settle high-stakes international disputes—and then not see those strategies applied to problems in their own communities, said Ezra Shearer, a peace teacher at Sentinel High School in Missoula, Mont., in an interview with Education Week after the panel.

But it also motivates his students to be “agents of change,” he said.

See also: These Teachers Are Bringing Global Peace-Building Skills to the Classroom

Amy Cameron, a peace teacher at Grandview High School in Missouri, tasked her students with creating an “effective peacebuilder project"—a campaign of awareness or a solution to a problem. Some students attempted to tackle international issues, but one group turned their focus to their city.

Cameron’s students, who are mostly black and Latino, cited conflict with law enforcement as one of the greatest challenges to peace in their school and community.

“They decided that they wanted to go down and talk to the [school resource officers] at the school,” said Cameron. “They wanted to talk about how they could broker a peace between the neighborhood kids and the police department.”

At meetings with the school resource officers and later, the city police department, students said they felt that the police targeted them because of their race, but also ignored serious crimes—like murder or robberies—in their neighborhoods, said Cameron. In response, the officers said it was difficult to solve crimes when neighborhood residents were hesitant to talk with them or provide information, she said.

The meetings weren’t an immediate solution to tensions between students of color and city enforcement. But the dialogue allowed the two groups to “meet on neutral ground,” said Cameron.

Navigating ‘Politically Charged Conversations’

Maria Zelaya, a Spanish teacher at Eastside High School in Gainesville, Fla., at first used the toolkit to teach about child soldiers in El Salvador and Colombia.

Students were eager to learn about how nations could weather conflict and find resolution, she said. “But more important is to have peace in our own school.”

Eastside High has three educational programs, said Zelaya: an International Baccalaureate program, a culinary arts track, and general education. When students from across her Spanish classes in all three programs met together for activities on the International Day of Peace, a United Nations-designated holiday on Sept. 21, they wanted to talk about the divides among their peers in these three programs.

“We’re all students in the same high school, but we don’t see each other, we don’t talk to each other,” Zelaya said her students told her.

One of her students suggested that classes in all three groups come together to paint a peace mural, a project that Zelaya facilitated.

See also: Five Strategies for Overcoming Conflict and Bullying in the Classroom (Opinion)

In today’s politically polarized landscape, the peace-teaching toolkit pushed students to investigate issues from different perspectives, said Shearer.

These skills became especially relevant after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“These kids grow up with guns,” said Shearer, of students at his Montana high school. Using the listening and dialogue skills they developed discussing international conflict, he and his students talked about the different sides of the gun-control debate.

“The nuance helps disarm what would be politically charged conversations,” he said.

Photo of Peace Teachers courtesy of USIP.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.