Giving peace a chance in the classroom

As the US moves toward war, some teachers are offering their students extra instruction in the fine art of making peace.

As the United States inches closer to war with Iraq, some teachers are seizing the opportunity to capture student attention with history and geography classes that analyze the conflict.

For others, these tense times are the perfect moment to delve more deeply into "peace education."

At many schools, teachers informally probe student attitudes and provoke discussion. But some schools are experimenting with a variety of more structured approaches.

At Santa Fe High School, for instance, Karey Thorne teaches a semester-long course called "Peace Jam." The curriculum - which has been taught to about 13,000 students worldwide since it was developed six years ago in Denver - teaches students about both individual peacemakers and peaceable societies throughout history. It also highlights the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Ms. Thorne, southwest coordinator for Peace Jam, challenges her students by asking: "Is peace simply the absence of war? What else do you need?"

Personal connections

While most of her students are quick to condemn the push toward a US entrance into war, some are surprised to realize that concepts of war and peace apply to their own lives as well.

"When people get into angry positions and polarize one another, it doesn't matter whom they're against, President Bush or Saddam Hussein - they're warring," Thorne says.

"To create peace, you have to have peace in yourself."

During the course, Thorne introduces her students to the ideas of thinkers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. "King was not carrying any hostility, and that's why he was so powerful."

In last year's Peace Jam class, a student saw her personal life transformed by applying some of the concepts she was learning. "Mariana had always been in gangs," Thorne says. Ideas put forward in the class about a more peaceful way of living were at first startling to her.

"She couldn't believe it was possible not to react in anger when provoked, but then she tried it," Thorne says. "She didn't respond when girls in the gang began to harass her. It was like magic; suddenly Mariana realized that she could be in control."

A peaceful mix of cultures

At Hamilton High School in Memphis, Tenn., teacher Clementhia Poole includes Peace Jam in the school's literary-club activities. The focus is largely on introducing the teens to as many different cultures as possible. As a result, her students, most of them African-American, sponsored a multicultural luncheon with another high school. It featured songs, dances, and foods from 19 ethnic groups.

"Anything that offers cultural awareness will promote peace," Ms. Poole says, "because basically people are afraid of what they don't know."

Across the state, Kirk Lafone introduces Peace Jam activities into his social ethics class at the private Webb School of Knoxville, where the student body is largely upper-class and white. For these students, an aspect of "peace education" has been to look beyond their privileges.

Last year's class developed a project in a nearby low-income Appalachian town. "What we wanted to do was create relationships that were not based on charity, but on mutual respect," Lafone says.

For Michael Marciano, who teaches at St. Pius High School in Albuquerque, N.M., discussions of peace are more closely linked to religion.

Mr. Marciano teaches a course called "Social Gospel." The walls of his classroom bear pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.

He challenges students to consider how religious teaching holds up in the face of today's conflicts.

"Do you think Jesus was weak?" he asks when students insist that force must be used to confront a figure like Saddam Hussein.

"I want students to make evaluations based on what Jesus lived and taught, which may differ from the agenda of the US government."

'War and Peace' student conference

In New York, a leadership-development nonprofit called Global Kids sponsors six- to eight-week classroom programs in Brooklyn and Queens, to prompt students to think critically about war and peace.

On March 27, more than 600 middle school and high school students will attend a "War and Peace" conference in New York, sponsored by Global Kids.

Developed and administered entirely by Global Kids students, the conference will explore such topics as the effects of war, children and war, and post-conflict peacebuilding.

Students will also have a chance to ask about aspects of the conflict with Iraq that perplex them.

One student recently asked the deputy director of Global Kids, Evie Hantzopolous: "We're always being told that we should use conflict-resolution techniques rather than fight with one another. So how come our leaders can't do that?"

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