In this article, the author reflects on her experience as a member of the 2015-2016 Peace Teachers Program cohort. Learn more about the USIP Peace Teachers Program.
This school year, I started posting my students’ words as quotes on my wall, especially those that supported peace and nonviolence. One of students’ quotes that made it up on my “Social Studies Students for Social Justice” bulletin board, wrote, “Racism is NOT natural because no one can be born racist. You can only learn to be racist.” I was extremely moved when reading her reflection, which was written after a discussion of a chapter in Zinn’s, “A Young People’s History of the United States.” In my social studies classroom you will often overhear conversations about sensitive and timely topics such as racism. This 13-year-old could recognize that so much of the hatred around us—the discrimination, the you-name-it-phobia regarding religions, skin color, languages, countries of origin—is all simply learned. It is also a reminder that the other end of the spectrum—love, kindness, gratitude, tolerance, nonviolence, and peace—is also learned.
Looking back at major news stories covered in 2015, it is easy to feel grim and hopeless about the state of the relations of people in our country and the world. At the same time, it is also the year that I’ve felt the most empowered and hopeful as a peace educator because I’ve met so many incredible individuals who are all teaching peace to youth. This summer I had the opportunity to travel in India with a team of teachers to learn in-depth about the history and philosophy of nonviolence and how it can be applied in classrooms. Shortly after, I began participating in the yearlong cohort with the U.S. Institute of Peace Teachers program. At the midpoint of the program, I am reflecting on how much I have learned from my fellow teacher participants and from the USIP’s Global Peacebuilding Center. This opportunity has connected me with like-minded individuals and allowed me to see how teachers are building peace in creative ways and using lessons from the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators.
Through these professional opportunities, and my own experience teaching formal “peace classes,” I’ve come to the realization that you don’t need a “peace class” to teach peace. I’ve recognized more and more that peace can and should be infused into every content area—not just be a stand-alone peace class—and I’ve had success with this by significantly shifting the way I teach my traditional history class. These past two years, I’ve incorporated peace education and peace pedagogy into my 8th grade American history class so thoroughly that students in the beginning of the year mistakenly believed that it was a peace class (a good mistake in my opinion). It makes one wonder if the only history they’ve ever known is a history of violence. In preparing for teaching peace in my history class, the one thing I focused on was teaching my students to think critically and consciously by providing them with multiple perspectives. Traditional school textbooks or curriculum materials require students to study various conflicts that have occurred throughout history but often fail to provide accounts from various perspectives and information about those who resisted war and led peace and nonviolent movements. When students are not exposed to those stories, they fall into the mindset that violent conflict and war is the only option left for individuals or countries to create change in society. Helping students develop the ability to learn the perspectives of others also builds empathy and emotional competency.
Both Gandhi and King emphasized in their respective movements that the people must not hate their oppressors but try to understand their perspectives. King said, “...I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” People separate themselves, blame and hate the unknown, and harm those they perceive to have hurt them directly or indirectly. If students take the time to get to know one another, and learn each other’s perspectives, and empathize with one another, they are better equipped to build peace in our country and our world.
As my middle school student understands clearly, racism and discrimination are learned, but so are love, tolerance and peace. Despite the fact that some politicians and community members shout out prejudiced, intolerant, and bigoted comments, I am hopeful because there are future peacebuilders who are learning kindness, tolerance, empathy, and peace in schools across the country.
Watch Monica's visit with her class to USIP for a day filled with fun activities exploring key themes and skills in conflict management and peacebuilding here.
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.