Dead. Archaic. Boring. Irrelevant. History for too long has been approached as a corpse or dusty old book. History’s root word is story. History’s grand narrative invites students to take an active role, walk in characters’ footsteps, understand the clues, causes and effects that shape history, and experience emotions and tensions as history unfolds in front of them.

As we take an active role, we begin to dive into history’s timeless plotlines that are relevant for today. A lust for wealth and power; intolerance of cultural differences; propensity for violence and warfare; spiritual yearning; a desire for freedom and autonomy; love and altruism; a drive towards knowledge and advancement; and question such as whether humans are good or evil, are threads that interweave throughout generations. To help history come alive, I am always searching for that extra character to make our story complete.

The United States Institute of Peace, their Peace Teachers Program, and their curriculum options have been the extra characters needed in our story this year. The first two themes in USIP’s Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, that conflict is inevitable and that violent conflict can be prevented, resonated with my students. We wrote about our experiences with both themes, and some students shared with their classmates. We discovered how close to home conflict is.

Names have been changed to protect students’ identities. Steven was so excited that his father was out of prison. With an exception of an occasional phone call, Steven and his father had not seen one another for some time. Within one month of being released, his father was killed and his brother a month after. Cindy, a student from Honduras, shared how she and her family came to America because an informant told her and her parents how gangs in her neighborhood were going to come to her house to kidnap her and her sister and sell them as sex slaves. Robert, a Syrian refugee, shared how he arrived at our high school after living in a refugee camp for two years with his family. What happens when history’s story hits close to home? You jump on the teachable moment!

So far the top teachable moment has to be our participation in USIP’s Peace Day Challenge for the International Day of Peace. As soon as I shared the vision for the Peace Day Challenge, each of my classes began to brainstorm. I was humbled by their suggestions. One suggestion common to every class was to use the power of words to spread peace throughout our school. Students agreed to share encouraging words to five people they did not know and to write encouraging notes to be taped to students’ lockers. Each class’ hope was to change the tone and demeanor of the school. 

I watched my students write encouraging notes. I witnessed a change in attitude in every class. I dreamed with one of my students as she asked, “Mr. Facione, just think if everyone in our school was inspired to do what we are preparing to do. What type of school would we have and how would the homes where students go back to change? 

What I am excited about next is to view “He named me Malala.” I shared the quote, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world,” in the beginning of the year. I share Malala’s story because my vision is for each of my students to be the one person who can change the world! 

My experience as a Peace Teacher with the United States Institute of Peace will continue to help me make history come alive and discover more Malalas in my teaching journey. I cannot wait to see what will happen next!

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

Learn more about the USIP Peace Teacher program.