In this article, the author reflects on his experience as a member of the 2015-2016 Peace Teachers Program cohort. Learn more about the USIP Peace Teachers Program.

What a game changer it is to teach history not just as an academic pursuit, but with real-world peace building skills built in! What would happen, I wondered, if our American founding fathers and their British counterparts during the 1770s had been schooled in “active listening” and “mediation skills”? Might we have secured the rights and liberties of colonial citizens without having gone to war?

Our Grade 10 students at Atlanta International School typically conduct debates in which they argue from Patriot and Loyalist perspectives with the goal of crushing their opponent. This year, however, we deployed tools from the US Institute of Peace to revisit US Independence through dialogue rather than debate. The project was to combine history, theater arts and the skills of peace builders. Puppetry would engage the students’ creativity, enable them to empathize with key historical figures across the political spectrum, and deepen their historical perspective. The USIP Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators was the vehicle for learning active listening and mediation techniques. With these arrows in their quivers, the puppet mediators could enter divisive situations and help the rival colonists go beyond superficial positions to find deeper, often shared interests. 

Timothy McMahon’s students present a puppet show mediation between Loyalists and Patriots.
Timothy McMahon’s students present a puppet show mediation between Loyalists and Patriots.

The path to peace, however, was no walk in the park. Outraged puppets emerging from the students’ originally crafted scripts were ready to “up and do” anything. Here’s what one Loyalist had to say:

“I stand before you today to convince you that you should not listen to what the Rubbish Patriots say. Although some may take them seriously, these Sons of Liberty are an illegitimate band of fools who know nothing of what is truly best for America. This discombobulated organization has done nothing but commit savage acts, as they did when they threw 342 chests of tea overboard in their so-called ‘Boston Tea Party’! That’s 45 tons, all gone! These patriots are nothing but bottom-feeders, and should be treated as such!”

On the Patriot side, sentiments were no less strident. One puppet burst into song:

All I have to say is this…
Straight outta Boston, crazy boy named James
From the gang called Sons of liberty,
When I'm called on, I gotta get my liberty boy on,
if ya mess with me
The British are gonna hafta come and get me
Off yourself, that's how I'm going out
For my thirteen colonies boy.
The British start to mumble, they wanna rumble Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo.
Liberty boyz goin off on the British.
Don't make me act like that crazy fool
Me you can go toe to toe, no maybe
I'm knockin the British out tha box, daily
yo weekly, monthly and yearly
until them dumb British king see clearly
that I'm down with the capital C-P-T
Boy you can't mess with me
So when I'm in your hood, you better duck! James is crazy as the Howe broz.
As I leave, believe I'm stompin but when I come back, boy, I'm comin straight outta Boston.


These were some rough puppets, but the mediators were up to the task. By the time it was over they had fashioned a “bro fest” between Patriots and Loyalists! With help from the great folks at USIP, our next generation is designing the future – with creative and wonderful paths to peace.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Learn more about USIP’s resources for educators and students.