As any educator will probably tell you, the year never goes exactly the way you plan it to go.  However, it is those unplanned teachable moments that I find matter the most.  As I went into the year, I knew I wanted to challenge my students to go beyond their comfort zone.  Teaching a mixture of all four grades can be dizzying at times, but each course (World Geography, AP U.S. History, and AP Human Geography) have offered up new opportunities this year to discuss the definition of peace and how to pursue it both in our small community and the larger world. 

The start of fall means introducing a new set of freshman to current events in World Geography in hopes of opening their eyes to new conversations about the world beyond our classroom.  Normally, the students are asked to pick an article from outside the U.S. each week to discuss briefly.  We devote maybe five minutes a week to talking about articles, as we are always rushing to catch up on this or that activity.  Yet, this year has presented several opportunities through open conversation of their articles to present on why certain conflicts occurred and how different peace techniques were or could have been used.  The eagerness to learn and ask “why did the people not protest?” or “why does such violence occur?” leads us on many a Friday to looking at the root of conflicts and the ways people try to achieve peace in such situations.  Recently, one student presented an article about ISIL killing innocent people in Mosul and stated, “I wonder why ISIL would do something so rash and unjustified like murdering 40 innocent people.”  This statement shifted our focus from notes on Europe that day.  (I should note that we are already behind in the course, but when they show an interest in wanting to understand the world, I have to embrace the moment).  So instead of lecturing on the regions of Europe, we did a modified version of Lesson 1.1 Part 2 in the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators – High School Version.  We used our earlier definitions of conflict and explored the use and impact of conflicts throughout history.  While the original intent of current events was to broaden the students’ knowledge of the world, it has turned into a drive for deeper understanding of how the world works and, more importantly, how they can work to change it. 

Since starting out on this venture with USIP, my eyes and view of teaching conflicts has shifted.  At the end of last year, I knew I wanted to shift away from focusing solely on the conflicts to including ways to actively promote peace in some way.  Lessons I’ve taught for years are now repositioned to alter the students’ avenue of thinking.  For example, in the AP U.S. course, whenever we examine the American Revolution or the Civil War, we always start with a list of reasons that led to war, and comparisons of the resources of each side and based on that information, who should win.  This year class went a little differently, since my students know about our involvement with USIP.  We went beyond what caused the war and such, to determining if there were groups who tried to promote peace?  If so, what did they do? How successful were they?  Research and discussion classes generally end with a reflective question, which in the past focused “when did the war become inevitable?”  But this time it did not seem right, so instead I asked my students to reflect on what conflict resolution methods could have changed the outcome. 

These unexpected teachable moments have produced changes in the way my students view and define peace, which has impacted how they see and talk about history and the world around them.

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

Click here to learn more about the USIP Peace Teacher program.