One day last week, I was sitting in undergraduate classes at George Mason University in preparation for writing my peace and conflict studies textbook with the class’s instructor, Doug Irvin-Erickson. The next day, I attended my seven year old grandson’s first grade play which was a musical based on Lynne Cherry’s book, The Great Kapok Tree.
Both events drove home the importance of peace education, a topic that has not been on my radar screen enough in recent years. It should have been and will be as we write the book and then in how we focus our work afterward.
The members of both classes had spent some time discussing how and where their own personal views had evolved and not surprisingly ended up talking about their families, teachers, and others. As often happens in peace and conflict studies classes, the discussion also touched on careers. This time, however, I missed an obvious professional path—K-12 teaching.
The importance of teaching got driven home the next morning when I watched Kiril and is classmates retell Cherry’s tale about a group of animals who convince a logger not to cut down a kapok tree in the Amazon rain forest because their lives depend on the entire ecosystem.
Apparently, the book has been dramatized many times, and our grandson’s school has been presenting its version of it for at least the last five years. Here is a version by a group of children who would now be in the sixth grade (Alas, no version of my grandson’s rendition has made it to YouTube yet). In it are two lines that I’ll share with Doug’s classes tomorrow that also mark a major and heartening change in the way kids learn about peace today.
What happens tomorrow depends on what happens today.
All living things depend on each other.
The play was a breath of fresh air because it showed me how much our field has evolved–in this case in an area I have not paid much attention to because I don’t get to spend much time with elementary school students and teachers. When I first got active in peacebuilding in the 1980s, there were lots of organizations that tried to reach out to young children. But as was the case with most of our activities in those days, groups like Educators for Social Responsibility focused on helping kids understand things like the threat of nuclear war.
In 2014, it renamed itself Engaging Schools. It focuses less on peace education and the problems that give rise to it. Instead, as its mission statement suggests, it concentrates on finding ways to empower children in general:
We help schools to cultivate the habits of learning that are essential to student success both in and out of the classroom. These habits of learning incorporate critical noncognitive factors, such as academic mindsets and behaviors, and social and emotional competencies that have been shown to have a significant impact on academic success and healthy development.
In short, instead of focusing on the dangers facing our work, Engaging Schools and other such organizations are helping students see what they can do to change themselves and the world.
Our book will explore the ways that peacebuilding has evolved over the 35 years since organizations like Educators for Social Responsibility were founded. Part of that evolution includes a shift away from focusing on the problem that George Lopez referred to as teaching “Gloom and Doom 101” in his presidential address to the first meeting of the Peace Studies Association in the late 1980s. Today, more and more of us spend our time on what people can do to build peace both globally and in the microcosms of their daily lives.
Now, we know we have a lot of homework to do ourselves because neither of us knows that much about what is happening in classrooms around this country and around the world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.