Peaceable classrooms. Schools teach how to mediate or negotiate differences

IT'S a long way from clapping erasers after school for bad behavior. Mediation and negotiation have become watchwords for many United States educators. With school violence on the rise, teachers are turning to innovative ways to maintain classroom harmony. The Cambridge school system has been teaching a pilot class in mediation to a portion of its high school freshmen for several years. The class may soon become a schoolwide requirement. In addition to the class, John Silva, director of safety and security in the Cambridge school system, runs a mediation program that uses both teachers and students as mediators.

In three years, Mr. Silva's ``Just Agreement Through Mediation'' program has trained 20 students and 15 teachers to act as mediators in classroom and schoolyard clashes at the city's 2,600-student Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

The mediation program helps by ``pulling [students] out of the hallways where the peer pressure is ... and giving them an opportunity to sit down and think maturely,'' Silva says.

Only two of 180 cases mediated were not resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Cases involved students teachers, administrators, and even parents. Given the school's inner-city setting and the 70 nationalities in the student body, Silva says the program's success is remarkable. He credits it to the students' perception that the process is fair.

Tough kids, especially, don't respond well to disciplinary actions, the veteran administrator says. Ultimatums are seen as a threat and an opportunity to rebel.

Clarence Gaynor, one of the program's two coordinators, explains that the mediation efforts began ``in a reaction mode'' but have become preventive in scope.

``We need to unload the extra baggage we bring to school sometimes ... and get back to the business of learning and education,'' Mr. Gaynor says.

The suspension rate at the Cambridge school has decreased since the mediation project began. Although several factors may be involved, Silva and his mediators can claim at least partial credit for the reduction in problems. For one thing, the mediation program works at resolving conflict before it breaks out in violence or disruptions that end in suspension.

Many teachers want to learn how to use and teach conflict-resolution skills. About 30 teachers and administrators from across the country attended a workshop last summer sponsored by Boston area Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR). The workshop, run by former teachers William Kreidler and Stephen Weimar, shows participants how to enlist students - from kindergarten to 12th grade - as peacemakers in the classroom.

Mr. Kreidler began teaching in the Boston public schools in 1974, ``a banner year for conflict.'' That was the year Boston schools were desegregated and racial tension was at its height. He says, ``I had to deal with conflict in order to get to the reading and the writing and the math.''

What began as survival skills for himself grew when he realized how eager his second-graders were to learn peacemaking skills - and how easily they applied them. Kreidler says peacemaking skills ``give kids a framework to look at their community and even international conflicts,'' in an objective way.

The techniques aim to reduce the number of arguments and fights in school by encouraging children to see things from the other kid's point of view; then to resolve the disputes that do break out through negotiation or mediation.

Kreidler uses simple activities that can be taken back to the classroom. At one workshop two teachers role-played a dispute between a mother and her 11-year-old son. To hoots and howls from the rest of the group, ``Tom'' scowled and avoided eye contact with his mother, while ``Mom'' defended her position to the hilt with a mother-knows-best attitude. Eventually a compromise was reached, giving ``Tom'' a raise in his allowance if he gave ``Mom'' some additional help and did all his chores regularly.

``The field of conflict resolution cuts across the political spectrum,'' attracting teachers of all ages and teaching styles, Kreidler says. In the past year, the Boston ESR chapter, staffed primarily by full-time teachers, has given about 50 teacher workshops in conflict-resolution theory. The feedback has been excellent, he says.

A student mediator speaks from experience

Eva Braz, a sophomore at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, took the school's mediation class last year. Then she and her classmates were invited to become school mediators. Half a dozen did. She has since mediated four disputes.

Eva says that when students are given a choice between suspension and mediation, ``All of them want to go to mediation; no one wants to get suspended.''

But disputants also know, she says, that ``if we don't get an agreement or if they don't want to talk, we send them back to the housemasters,'' where they are encouraged to try again to reach a mediated agreement. If they do not, they face suspension.

Eva says role playing in mediation class was helpful. She learned to explain the rules of mediation, ask questions, and find out what the individuals involved want to get out of the mediation session: ``Do you want to be friends, or just say hi in the hallway, or not speak to one another?'' she asks participants at the beginning of each session.

Her involvement in the mediation program has paid off in other ways too. ``Sometimes when I have problems myself, I think about [what I've learned]. It helps me out too.''

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