The 1st grade teacher’s inspiration came in 1997, when she heard the Dalai Lama speak at a gathering of teenagers in Denver. As the Tibetan religious leader—whom the Chinese forced into exile in 1959—emphasized the importance of peaceful conflict resolution, Ellen Casey recognized a learning opportunity for her students.
“Peace, tolerance, and nonviolence should be a part of life when children are very young,” says Casey, who works at Steele Elementary School in Colorado Springs. She began teaching her students about the Dalai Lama—asking them, for example, whether they think he is angry that the Chinese invaded Tibet. The lesson: It’s OK to feel anger, but not to act on it.
Casey has since spent countless hours perfecting a curriculum—now in use across the United States and in other countries—that uses the lives of the Dalai Lama and six other Nobel Peace Laureates to teach students in grades 1-6 about tolerance and harmony.
One aim is to make sure her class understands that these world leaders were once kids just like them. The Dalai Lama, Irish peace activist Betty Williams, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu were all “naughty” children, Casey tells her class, yet each found ways to change the world for the better.
Casey brings a unique personal connection to the lessons. Through a nonprofit group called PeaceJam, which organized the conference where Casey heard the Dalai Lama speak, she has met five other peace laureates, including Williams, Tutu, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez.
Along with the personal story of each laureate, students learn about a different culture, history, geography, and ecology. They even pick up tidbits from the laureates’ native languages. When studying human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, the 1st graders learn how to say “hello” in Burmese—a feat that never fails to amaze their parents.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Nobel Idea