Peace talks

Students learn conflict resolution by engaging deeply in the study of the past and learning to apply its lessons to current events

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the girls in Juliette Zener's world-history classes, this should have been a routine year.

Not that the Newton Country Day School 10th-graders didn't show up on Sept. 11 for their first day of school lit with excitement, or that Ms. Zener and teaching fellow Abe George didn't care deeply about their material. But they had five centuries to cover in eight months. Ibn Battuta, Isaac Newton, the Crimean War - they didn't have time to waste, especially not on current events.

Then the planes hit, the towers fell, and Zener faced a decision.

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Under pressure to cover ground, she and Mr. George might simply have spent a few periods talking about Sept. 11 and then moved on. But instead, she reshuffled lesson plans to spend a class period every two weeks mediating a conversation about current events.

It's not what she might have done previously. But Zener had just

attended a workshop by Workable Peace, a conflict-resolution project in Cambridge, Mass., that changed her approach.

History - especially in high school - is often taught as a catalog of conquests and catastrophes: a dusty parade of shifting borders and inevitable bloodshed.

To David Fairman, that's exactly the wrong way to involve students with the forces and events that have shaped their world. A founder of Workable Peace, Mr. Fairman has another vision of how history can be taught, a way that engages students more deeply, both in the study of the past - and in the present and future of conflicts in their own communities. "There's lots to study besides all the horrible things that happen," he says. "There's maybe even more to be learned from the things that didn't happen, but could have."

No lack of response

For homework a month after the terrorist attacks, Zener's 10th-graders considered the question: "What should the US response to the Sept. 11 attacks be?" In class the next day, the girls have no problem jumping into the middle of such a tough political conundrum - even one that's already in some ways a moot point. They quickly rearrange their seats around the classroom according to their views.

Four are in favor of immediate US military retaliation, even if that means going it alone. Seven say military action is OK only if the US works with an international alliance. Four more are for flushing out Al Qaeda members and trying them as war criminals in international court. One, hesitating, admits she might be a pacifist.

Emily Simon says she supports US military action, because at least that means the country is doing something. "The pacifists, they seem too la-di-da, you know?" she says. "It makes me angry that they just want to sit around and, like, talk about their emotions."

"I think that the US should take action too," argues Elizabeth St. Victor, the reluctant pacifist, "but by going against [terrorist suspects] in criminal court. Going to attack another nation, I think is an inappropriate response, because it's beginning a cycle of killing other people."

"I don't think it's fair to us to give them trials and put them in our jails," Emily counters. "I don't know. I just want them away. Ewww." She makes a face. Around the room, more than a few people giggle. For a moment, even though these students are debating the country's hardest questions with sometimes startling maturity, it's clear that they're also kids - at least half of them sporting '80s-style neckties, shinguards, and field hockey skirts in anticipation of today's big game.

But Kathleen O'Brien, at the war crimes table, isn't deterred. "What about their right to have a trial?" she demands. "In America, that's a freedom, like your right to have a trial. If you're defending America, you have to defend what it stands for."

"Good point!" Elizabeth whispers.

"But they aren't Americans!" Emily says. "They don't get our same laws."

The steps of negotiation

Reasoned exchanges like this are what the Workable Peace project is aiming for, and these kids are at the first stage that participants in any negotiation face: explaining their interests, values, and emotions to one another.

After 10 years as a mediator, Fairman joined forces in 1997 with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind, president of the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge.

Since its founding, CBI's goal has been to mediate and study local, national, and international negotiations. But its longer-term project has been to figure out how, in all kinds of communities, to develop productive ways to manage and resolve conflicts. "It seemed to me that trying to train adults in leadership positions was second best," he says. "First best would be to get people to know more about this early on in their lives."

Fairman agreed: He suspected that mediating adult disputes might not be so frustrating if more of the participants had been exposed to the process of negotiation earlier in their lives. "The older I get, and the more that I see of adults dealing with conflict at the table," he says, "the more I wish that they had started younger, to learn more effective skills for managing conflicts that affect their own lives and their communities."

Let the games begin

But in order for kids to be receptive to those lessons, "they need to learn them outside the emotionally overwrought context of their own neighborhood," Susskind says. So he and Fairman designed the first Workable Peace roleplay for high-schoolers as a historical simulation. After teachers, schools, and students became familiar with the program's model, they reasoned, they could bring it to bear on their own situations.

To that end, project co-directors Fairman and Stacie Smith, and the Workable Peace team, developed seven role-playing games on conflicts spanning five continents and more than two millenniums.

Designed as independent units that can be woven into a teacher's regular curriculum, the games teach high school students about the malleability of historical moments. Student participants from the Boston area, and at schools in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Delaware, and Arizona, have stepped into character to renegotiate conflicts over marching season in Northern Ireland, the future of Hebron, and the Pullman strike.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Fairman and Smith also scrambled to assemble curriculum materials and lead a workshop for Boston-area teachers about what the US response should be. That was the workshop that fired up Zener.

In each initiative, be it a roleplay game or a supplemental session about current conflicts, the Workable Peace project focuses the bulk of its efforts on teacher training and resources. Susskind says the reason is simple: In any school, the project needs an informed and committed teacher to carry it out. And, since most states now have strict curriculum and standardized testing requirements, even a week spent on a role-play game is a major sacrifice for almost any teacher.

But the payoff is tremendous, Susskind says: "If you let a good high school history teacher see this stuff, they're not going to want to do anything else."

At present, "it's no secret" that history is often badly taught in US high schools, Susskind says - especially in poor public schools. "People don't like to talk about that, but nobody is surprised."

That's the way it's been in this country for decades, Ms. Smith, a former teacher, argues. Fierce in her feelings about the necessity of school reform, she says she remembers sitting through boring history classes, wondering: "Why am I learning this, again?"

"Why do we study history?" she asks now. "We study it because we can be better people in the present and in the future if we understand what happened in the past.

"When that works, it's incredible," she continues. "I've seen students actually say, 'Oh! That's why the schools are segregated the way they are. That's why I grew up in this neighborhood.' " That kind of immediate connection with history, Smith says, can prompt students to use its lessons.

And not all of history's lessons are about where world leaders went wrong, Fairman points out. For example, while many classes spend barely a period on the formation of the United Nations, that was, he says, "a seminal event in human history that deserves more understanding and scrutiny - as does how international practices and laws have bounded and contained conflict since then."

Act locally

Ultimately, the goal of Workable Peace is "to show students not 'Oh, if you'd been there...' or, 'If only people had been smarter, it would've been different,' " Fairman says. "Just that it could have gone another way - and people like them could help, one day, decide how it goes."

Susskind feels Workable Peace has a ways to go in that regard. Even with carefully conceived handouts and materials, exhaustive teacher preparation, and the program's strong support, very few schools have taken the next step with the role-playing and brought the lessons students learn there to bear on differences in their own neighborhoods.

"Schools and teachers are scared to death of talking about racial and ethnic conflicts in their own communities," he says. "They're afraid parents will get upset, afraid the community will not be content, afraid that they won't be able to control it. At some point, that's got to be the next step."

History teacher Christopher Kim believes his classes, at least, have begun taking steps in that direction. Mr. Kim has been using Workable Peace roleplay in his classes for the past three years, first at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, then at Newton South High School, both in Massachusetts.

He says the games have helped his students start to think of their own lives as unfolding histories. "Things are nonnegotiable for teenagers all the time," he says. "They're used to things being definite: parents telling them what to do, school laying on all these rules. When they go through a roleplay, they learn that everything is negotiable: It just depends on how you approach it."

After his students have done role-play exercises, Kim says, they've been more likely to talk in class about arguments they've had with peers or parents, and to apply their new awareness to these conflicts. "I think that there's a growing maturity about how they see themselves in the world [afterwards]," he says. "They begin to see how different people are, how easy misunderstanding is - and that that's what causes the struggles."

Zener says she, too, has seen former students come into their own during roleplay. But it's too soon to say how the framework will go over with this year's classes. The discussion about the US response to terror is cut short by the end of the period; nine hands are in the air when Zener says it's time to wind up.

As the bell rings and the scramble to get to lunch begins, Brittany Borders, from the pacifist end of the table, huffs across the room. "No fair," she complains, a little slyly. "Got me all riled up!"

Send e-mail to wiltenburgm@csps.com.

There is no separate peace

When you're 8, peacemaking can start with some big feet in the corner. That's the setup mediator Lawrence Susskind and his daughter's third-grade teacher came up with for teaching rudimentary conflict-resolution skills.

When students squabbled, the teacher called them over to the corner, had them stand on the pairs of feet that face each other, and read aloud three rules posted on the wall. First: Listen, don't just talk. Each kid had to hear the other out, then echo back his or her view of the problem. Second: Think of something good for your classmate and good for you. The students suggested how to resolve the dispute, and when they'd settled on one proposal, the teacher read the third rule: Shake hands before you leave. Then the kids went back to running around.

After a couple weeks of introducing the idea in class, Susskind says, when two kids started to argue, one would say to the other, "Let's go over to the feet." That's because "they knew what the rules of conflict resolution were in that circumstance, but they didn't know what they were in the middle of the classroom." Or maybe those students did know the rules of engagement among their peers - rules that rely more on toughness than thoughtfulness - and had to leave that group before they felt free to break them.

While it was Susskind's goal that students take initiative to resolve differences, he says the fact that they had to remove themselves from their peers to do it was a shortcoming of the exercise. He has the same frustration with Workable Peace, the high school program he founded. "Why should students have to go anywhere" to safely apply their negotiating skills? he asks. "At some point, the next step is for them to feel comfortable enough with the rules to use them right out in the middle of the room."

Standing in the 'bad guy's' shoes

It's not like on TV, mediator David Fairman says. In the real wars, summits, and struggles that he's studied or been a part of, there are no cackling bad guys - no conflicts in which a group says, "Yes, we are evil and bad, and we want to conquer and terrorize. Let's go!" Conflict, he thinks, is both more interesting and more insidious than that.

"People do horrible things," he says, "thinking the whole time that they are justified through self-defense, through some threat to their people, through past injustices - the long litany of excuses that people use to do violence to each other."

For students who have grown up believing that right and wrong are inflexible ideas, and for educators with strong personal views about the conflicts they're teaching, the ability to examine both sides of a dispute in a balanced way may be difficult to achieve.

But, says former teacher Stacie Smith, co-director of the Workable Peace project, it's worth the struggle to set aside personal feelings about the conflicts she's researching and teaching teachers about.

"Every once in a while, I have my outbreaks of 'But that's not fair!' " she says. "What I keep coming back to is that I believe this is the best way" to teach young people that they can effect change in the world more powerfully with words than with weapons.

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