Editor’s Note: Teachers are at the forefront of dealing with conflict and bullying that arises from difference—whether political, racial, religious, or physical. Today, Frosina Kiprijanovska, a primary school teacher in the Republic of Macedonia, shares strategies that can be used to deal with any type of conflict in the classroom.
Most of us aren’t strangers to the idea of conflict—whether it is constructed around race, ethnicity, religion, or something else, almost everybody has been impacted by it. And while its effects are no doubt troubling in any context, their presence is possibly most acutely unwelcome and thoroughly damaging when they surface in the classroom.
I never had the intention of becoming a teacher. Growing up in the Republic of Macedonia, in the capital of Skopje near the often contentious borders of Albania and Kosovo, I was introduced to conflict at a very young age: I was witness, on a near-daily basis, to students breaking out into bouts of violence along ethnic lines.
It was through volunteering with youth through a peace-building organisation called Generations For Peace that I first recognised my passion for teaching—if I wanted to do something to address conflict around my home, the place where youth spend a majority of their time seemed like the right place to start. Ethnic-driven conflict transcended families and communities and made its way into not just the education system, but also each classroom. Any teacher you ask will likely have a story from their own classroom about students struggling to overcome conflict at some scale.
For those who, like me, are constantly looking for ways to bring unity to their students, I’ve found five strategies that can help unify the classroom, regardless of the nature of the conflict you’re seeking to overcome.
1. Emphasize similarities in the classroom, not differences.
I admit that this might seem generic at first; however, it is truly the most important place to start—and while it might seem like an obvious point, translating an apparent necessity into a tangible activity is easier said than done.
I have learned that if my motivation with every task, every lesson, every project stems from this general concept, I am able to engage students in more creative ways that blur the lines they may think exist between them. This, of course, will look different depending on the context of the conflict you’re facing.
It starts from asking, “What do these students have in common?” Or, perhaps even more simply, “What do almost all youth or even all people have in common?” One answer I found was the idea of celebration. What cultures don’t have celebrations, and what children don’t love celebrating? I asked the students to describe what they knew about other people’s celebrations—birthdays, holidays, traditions, anything they could think of. As we went around, slowly it became clear that, even if all of our celebrations are not the same, they bring about similar emotions: joy, happiness, excitement. They promote similar concepts: doing good for someone else, thinking about others first. They share similar results: reminding people of what is most important, bringing people together. Recognizing this in the celebrations of others solidifies the idea of commonality and, subsequently, inclusion between students.
2. Engage students in active learning—not just auditory learning
It turns out, this is more than just a good way for students to retain information. We all know lessons that utilize more aspects of a child’s mind tend to sink in more deeply, but what I had failed to consider was that these types of lessons also have the ability to tear down barriers between groups of people.
Activities built around just auditory learning or even visual learning, while certainly important, have more power to further divide students—especially in the Republic of Macedonia, where students are often taught in different languages and have reached varying cognitive levels in each. Active or kinaesthetic learning brings them together more easily—both mentally and physically.
I once had my students make some art for me. I gave them very little instruction, except that they should think about and draw what they thought their ideal world or society looked like. They were all surprised when their pieces of art shared more similarities than they did differences. Smiling stick figures, big trees, sunny skies—it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your skin color is, which day of the week you celebrate your faith. We all tend to have similar ideas about what the world would best look like, and giving my students a way to communicate this using art helped them see the similarities they all share.
3. Exchange Experiences with Different Role Models
Students, whether they would have you believe it or not, look to adults for examples of how to act, what to think, and why to think it. We are role models for them in the classroom and, as I learned recently, outside of it, as well.
A colleague and I come from what many would see as opposing backgrounds, and the differences between us do not impact our friendship in the ways some would expect, including our students. Many were surprised when we first led activities together, but it seemed to inspire them to realize that they can play and work together too, even if they have been told by their communities that someone of the “other” background (whatever that might look like in your situation) might be dangerous or bad.
Even outside of more official activities, we have begun to intentionally make our interactions available for the students to witness. Simply watching us engage in conversation with one another has taught them that they can experience friendship and unity instead of conflict with people who might not look, think, or act exactly as they do.
4. Empower students with special tasks that promote self confidence
Assigning various leadership roles in the classroom not only increases student performance, it also increases confidence and the motivation to be an example. It is of course not difficult to draw a line between being an example and overcoming classroom conflict: if more students perceive that they have unique responsibility, it creates a network between students for three reasons. (1) Students who feel confident in themselves are less likely to bully or create conflict. (2) With multiple leadership positions that change frequently to include everybody, all students can witness first-hand how others from different backgrounds can play important roles in leadership. (3) Varying positions in leadership allow for heightened personal and face-to-face interaction between all students, giving more opportunity to form friendships.
We’ve all heard of the “line leader,” the student that stands at the front of his or her classmates when walking from one place to another, but there are more ways to give students leadership in the classroom: have a student help out when distributing assignments, have another collect them, have a student be a “line follower,” ensuring nobody gets left behind. There are dozens of simple tasks that will make students feel empowered and important, all while increasing their awareness, understanding and, interactions with students from all backgrounds within your classroom.
5. Explore extracurricular activities that emphasise unity.
I have saved this for last because it is one of the most unique methods I have found (and one of my personal favorites to carry out). The idea was first introduced to me as a volunteer with Generations For Peace, helping to lead sport- and arts-based activities for students outside the classroom. Since I’ve discussed arts briefly above, I will focus on sports here.
While I originally thought sports might bring about heightened tensions for students dealing with conflict along divisive lines, it turns out that, when enacted in the right way, it actually brings solidarity and unity. I have been able to promote this in multiple ways. The first is simply through team sports, creating teams that have a mix of students from various backgrounds—by bringing them together on a single team, their differences in ethnicity (or religion, or race, or any other characteristic) slowly fade and their power as a team increases.
Additionally, you can create variations on traditional sports games that address issues of division or conflict. For example: try playing a game of volleyball, where one person has to stay seated on a chair to give them a sense of what it might be like to have a physical disability. This opens students’ eyes to the fact that there is nothing wrong with being different, and that it is up to them to do all that they can to include everyone—regardless of background or ability.
Bringing unity to a classroom in a community of conflict is never easy: it requires patience, passion, and persistence. But using tools that seem obvious or that you might already use for a different purpose with the explicit intention of tearing down barriers and building up bridges between students will help you to do just that. Classroom unity is not impossible to achieve, and it is so worth pursuing.
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