Monday, December 7, 2009

Teaching Against Misogyny

Misogyny is a theme that appears again and again in my classroom. (I raise it sometimes; sometimes it rears its own ugly head.) We recently finished the Freedom Writer’s Diary, in which some students shared their painful experiences of rape and sexual abuse. The reactions of my young students to this is fascinating. Many of the young men in particular state that they’d become violently angry if someone abused a mother or sister of theirs. I can see them shaking their heads and almost growling as we read. The young women sometimes do the same. And of course, some of my own students have written about their experiences of rape, abuse or even prostitution.

The journal of one of my young women, who is happily not here any more, wrote about having sex with strange men who “offered” her food and shelter. At this point in her life, she was sleeping on park benches. Was she raped? Or was this consensual? I certainly can’t see a thing consensual about it given her life circumstances and age. Just like being a racist doesn’t have to mean you’ve got a pointy white hood for lynching, sexism doesn’t have to mean you beat up women. They both can be much more subtle than that.

How then do we teach against misogyny? How do we make it visible in the Hobbesian world of random, family or gang violence? How do I tell my students misogyny is wrong when I’ve seen other adults here snicker along with the kids at the music video portrayals of women? One recent conversation with my students really drove this home. In a couple of poems we were reading, the young women who wrote them expressed the desire to be taken seriously for their ideas and mind. Some students expressed the view that that’s great except in the ‘hood. There, men are and should be in charge, the argument went. That’s just how it is. Life is too dangerous otherwise. Even more depressingly, it was two of my girls expressing this view! I was reminded once again that part of “reforming” schools is developing communities. All too often efforts at reforming methodology, holding teachers accountable or reducing school violence happen in isolation from or in the absence of community development initiatives. Unless they harmonize, school reform will fail.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peace Education and the Tragedy at Ft. Hood

Also published on Dr. Marc Gopin's blog.

Can peace education help to prevent the violent loss of life, such as we all witnessed recently at Ft. Hood? I believe that it is an essential piece of the puzzle. People offer various explanations regarding why a soldier murdered fellow soldiers. Some are pointing to Maj. Hassan’s Islamic identity or possible extremist views. Others point to his impending deployment to Iraq or sense of humiliation and social isolation. Since we know that very few behaviors are motivated by just one cause, I think it’s likely that all of these dynamics interacted.

Why do I think that peace education could have prevented such a violent act? At its core, peace education nurtures two vital skills, which are problem solving and relationship-building. Peace education also challenges stereotypes and resists the easy, pat explanation for someone’s behavior. It fosters people who view themselves as part of a whole, and centers on the values of equality and tolerance. In this way, it is the ultimate “anti-extremist” education. Had Maj. Hassan had the opportunity to participate in peace education at some point during his schooling, it’s possible that he would have not been able to dehumanize his victims as he did.

I don’t wish to minimize the possibility of mental illness here; it’s real and requires a mental health professional. If such details emerge about Maj. Hassan, they should be taken seriously. But students of peace education (and I consider myself still a student, even as I’m also a teacher) learn and practice nonviolent communication and should be able to articulate the cultural and historical narratives of various identity groups. They should also be able to articulate the narrative of their own national and social background so that their own cultural assumptions become visible to them. When successful, of course, this results in at least the beginnings of intercultural understanding.

We (the human race) repeatedly make the mistake of thinking that “basic” skills like cross-cultural communication, building relationships or problem solving are either not that relevant or something that people pick up along the way. Or if they don’t pick it up, they’re not going to. Peace education to me is so powerful precisely because it challenges this mistake; these skills can and must be taught.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


People of diifferent faiths often testify as to why they believe what they believe. This is my conflict resolution "testimonial". They say the personal is the political. Perhaps in the work we were "meant" to do, the personal is the professional as well. I invite you to share your testimony too!

Conflict is always about a relationship gone wrong. Conflict resolution is therefore more than a conglomerate of different social sciences. It draws on political science, international relations, sociology and psychology, yes, but from these ingredients something new emerges. I am an evangelist for conflict resolution because of this “something new”. If human beings are ever going to actually learn to transform conflicts so that they are productive and creative, rather than destructive, leaders and communities who have sometimes been through the worst of traumas must be helped to see possibilities they could not see before. Along with the traditional academic expertise IR , history and political science offer, conflict resolution is grounded in a set of values that are essential for a sustainable solution to conflicts. These values include peace, nonviolence, justice and equality. Students of conflict resolution emerge with an ability to imagine, problem solve collaboratively and communicate. They learn the dynamics and processes which both escalate and deescalate a conflict. Nothing is more empowering than knowledge about yourself, and so understanding what is happening both personally and sociologically when we’re involved in a conflict enables us to realize a number of crucial things that seem obvious when a community is not involved in especially a violent conflict but which are easily forgotten in the moment. 1. The rage that is often a part of especially violent ethno-political conflicts is also experienced by the other party. 2. There are in fact reasonably identifiable and predictable processes that communities/nations in conflict go through. 3. Nearly every act of violence in history has been justified as defensive. 4. Conflict specialists can actually identify physical and neurological effects of conflict on both individuals and communities. This means that, however slowly and painfully, great social traumas such as genocide can be healed. Without this healing—and it is all too often neglected by governments who can view conflict resolution as merely political settlement—the conflict will almost certainly become historical memory and emerge again. I believe that this cycle can be broken, but it must first be made visible and then understood. This is the essence of conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution can be transformative in a way that traditional disciplines are not (without detracting from them) because it connects individuals to policies, institutions and social groups. In more academic language, it links structure and agency and then also empowers students with the communication and collaborative problem solving skills needed to create a new solution. Students of conflict resolution learn to view themselves—and crucially, the “enemy”—differently. This is perhaps the most difficult and valuable knowledge. With this knowledge, the anger, fear and trauma can become more “faceable” and this opens new social and psychological and spiritual space for solutions never before attempted.

My project then is to use my gift of teaching in the service of those experiencing violent conflict, especially those most disempowered, as they seek to find a way to finally resolve it. We do not have nearly enough opportunities for interested students to learn how it is that conflicts work exactly—to discover what happens to them and their community when they are entrapped in a conflict that they likely understand is costly to them—and practice the skills needed to not just de-escalate but transform the social system which was at the root of the conflict to begin with. Equipped with the knowledge and values of conflict resolution, community, national and international leaders can generate not just a new solution to an intractable problem but a new way of viewing the conflict and those who have been involved in it. I am a global citizen who has known to her core since she first visited Moscow, capital of the “Evil Empire” at the age of 12, or picked up The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time at the age of 10, that it is possible for people to reach across seemingly vast divides. In fact, the more deadly our weapons become, the more urgent the need to equip leaders with the knowledge and values of conflict resolution. Some dismiss this as fantasy but this is where experiential learning—showing rather than telling—comes in. The best teaching leads the student to believe she has discovered the knowledge for herself, as if she has always known it. I have studied with, led development community programs with and taught middle school-through to-graduate students from former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Columbia, Mongolia, El Salvador, Zimbabwe and the “war-zone neighborhoods” of my own country such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. So when I say I know people can in fact reach across the most terrible of gulfs, this is not speculation. No responsible conflict resolution expert would suggest it is guaranteed or easy, but I believe in the liberation of knowing it is possible. From that social and spiritual space, conflict resolution helps equip students with the specifics of communication, problem solving, group identity formation and empathy needed to actually realize the possibility.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Indicators of Peace

I've been thinking lately of definitions of peace, and how a particular community, nation, or school might know if they are making progress. In my review of the initiatives many school systems have made to create "peaceful schools", what many of them seem to mean is not what I would consider peaceful, but rather "safe". That is obviously a critical component of peace. I'll never forget the young man who came through my classroom here in the Detention Home after having gotten himself "a piece". (For those of us who need the translation, that's a gun.) As I recall the conversation I had with him, he'd told his dad he didn't feel safe walking to school or at school. (He lived in DC.) Dad apparently told him to "man up" (remind me to post on gender identity and peace sometime soon). So the kid armed himself, and landed in a prison classroom, writing about what had happened to him and how the prolonged illness and death of his mother from cancer had been the beginning of the end of it all for him. (Could this have been prevented if we had universal health care?) He did his time with us, got released and soon was re-arrested. He'd shot someone. Peace and security are inextricably linked. In a workshop of Johan Galtung's that I attended, he observed that conservatives often tend to start with security, believing it will result in peace, and that liberals tend to take the reverse approach.

What does this mean for schools trying to become "peaceful"? Clearly, as the above story suggests, there will not be peaceful schools without peaceful communities. You can't fix one in isolation from the other, in my view. Yet I also return to the classic conflict resolution definitions of positive and negative peace. Negative peace is the absence of violence. Positive peace is far more difficult to define and achieve. It involves the existence of just and equitable social, political and economic systems. It suggests the active presence of respect, inclusion and tolerance. Peace education, I believe, is the missing ingredient. We can (and must) "do" gang interventions, counsel kids against drugs, and model respect for diversity. But this is only half of what is possible, in my view. Experiential, interdisciplinary curriculum can empower kids (and teachers) to recognize and change the structurally violent systems in their communities (which are a large part of what causes kids to end up in a Detention Home to begin with). Being explicit about peace as a value is another important part of the recipe. This is often where political "push back" occurs, as it remains for too many such a subversive concept. It means facing our own national daemons, as MLK explained so eloquently in "Beyond Vietnam". He raises the question of how we can preach peace to our children while waging war on another country, in a clear demonstration of the sociocultural belief that yes, violence does solve problems. If that's where we are, let's at least be clear about it! This is why I argue that peace education is so necessary, despite (understandable) charges of bias.
No worries--we're already teaching war.

So what then might some indicators of a school system becoming more peaceful be, especially in light of the link between peaceful communities and schools?

I'd suggest we might consider some of the following:
1. the presence of some sort of democratic method (this includes the kids) for making school policy
2. interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum
3. the presence of multilingualism
4. a culture of community service and activism
5. a culture of classrooms "without walls" where partnerships with other schools and communities are the norm, not just "enrichment"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Live Blogging: International Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As a conflict analyst and peace educator, I have long thought and written about the links between language, peace and power. Language, of course, is dynamic, social and contested. Elites can use it to exclude; non-elites sometimes use it to resist being defined by elites and reclaim identities. Hence perhaps the most powerful moment I experienced at the International Studies' Association Conference (co-sponsored by the ABRI, Brazil's International Relations Association), was seeing a discussant challenge his panel to restate their papers in "plain, everyday language". (The discussant may not want his name here, so I will not add it.) Using direct language sounds like such a simple thing, but as any academic presenter knows, it is anything but easy. Dense and sterile language can be a suit of armor which keeps others at arm's length. I've done my best not to use it, either teaching or writing. Only my students and readers, of course, can judge if I've been successful at this. When the Discussant made this request, to their credit, both presenters rose to the challenge and their ideas immediately became more powerful and clear. I was reminded of, believe it or not, a journalism class I took back in undergrad (at Mary Washington College), taught by a working local journalist. He gave us a stat that has stayed with me since: writers start to lose their readers when they get to more than 10-12 words a sentence. "Write to express," he told us, "not to impress." If you're not communicating, you're wrong.

This brings me to another delight of this conference, which was meeting an historian and scholar, Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East who has forgotten more about the region than most of us will ever know. I even had the pleasure of a dinner and some local music with him and another new colleague. I know of Juan, of course, frankly not because he teaches at the U. of Michigan, but because he's written for and his blog. This brings me to my other point, one which I hear repeated quite a lot but don't see enough action on: peace workers must do outreach to the public. Elections, as we like to observe in DC, have results, which means that information is critical. Juan, I think, does a wonderful job of reaching people because he says it clearly and directly, and therefore helps people bridge history and the present. In a democracy, policy analysis really should be for all. After all, this is a government BY the people. This equality of access to the power of knowledge is the heartbeat of peace education. I'm arguing for what one might call a democracy of language.

I emphasize these points, which have after all often been made by others, because peace and conflict resolution remains a new and often misunderstood, stereotyped field. This means we need to focused on excellent outreach all the more. I'm reminded of a conversation with a friend and colleague as we shared our mutual frustration at the lack of interest we perceived in outreach to the media. Yet this is how a national conversation shifts--talking to people we've never talked to before. I chose the field of conflict resolution because of its commitment to a set of values I hold, one of them being greater social equality. Let's use every avenue available to us to speak out! To do this, we need to say it plain.

To get us all started, here's a great link: Peace Media

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Letter from Mr. Elie Wiesel

Teacher's Note: Upon finishing Night, I assigned my students to write a letter thanking a local Holocaust survivor for his visit to us. Two young men asked me if they could instead write to Elie Wiesel. I said of course! Below is Mr. Wiesel's letter back to them.

Dear (student names):

Thank you for your kind letter. I always enjoy hearing from young people, and your letter was no exception.

I am moved to learn of the effect that my memoir, Night, had on you. As a writer, nothing is more important. From your words, it is obvious that you are very sensitive to the darkness of which I wrote.

If Night has helped you better understand the tragedies of the past, I am grateful. It is my belief that one who hears a witness becomes a witness in turn. May you use your knowledge and understanding to educate those who are unaware.

Keep learning and reading, more and more.

With best wishes to you,

Elie Wiesel

Friday, April 24, 2009

Curiosity and Imagination

Einstein is quoted on bookmarks, coffee mugs and t-shirts as saying that imagination is more important than knowledge. I'd refine that (are you allowed to refine Einstein?) to say that the two reinforce each other. Rather unexpectedly, one of the most powerful writing prompts I've given yet this year simply began, "I've always been curious about...." Students were invited to continue the sentence from there. What responses! They wrote about wondering how big the universe really was, how different races emerged, the origins of different languages, why the continents are the size and shape they are, and how viruses survive. Some of them also took a more personal track, wondering about what would happen on an upcoming court date or why a loved one left. When possible, I found articles on subjects the students had expressed curiosity about. I had had another activity planned that day, after the writing prompt, but we didn't even get to it with some classes! Almost every student wanted to share, and the debate about their writings extended into the rest of the class period. It was a powerful reminder that our minds are, in fact, hard wired to learn. This should be natural (which is not the same as saying it's also not work).

I tried a similar activity to inspire some curiosity about a favorite short story of mine, Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergernon". I invited students to imagine what life might be like in the year 2081, the year in which Vonnegut sets his story. They imagined that we'd have cell phones implanted in our brains and have the ability to travel to a place just by thinking of it. They imagined that we'd have a female president by then, though I was most interested to hear that they didn't think we'd have a Muslim or Hispanic president. Such a simple little exercise, but even with my older students here, say seventeen or eighteen, every hand was in the air to imagine.

The question becomes, does this result in actual learning? That is, does the quality of curiosity and the ability to imagine result in a set of knowledge, skills or values which will serve them in their out-of-school lives? I must argue that yes, it certainly does and is a necessary skill in some very practical, concrete ways. Every leap forward in medicine, technology, education or other fields started in someone's imagination. Elise Boulding, in The Hidden Side of History, has even argued that the ability to imagine creatively actually protects democracy! Asar Nafisi has argued something similar in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Business leaders often talk about the need for creative thinkers as well. Especially with students for whom our educational system has failed, beginning with curiosity, a natural human trait for most of us, is an essential step for engaging students who too often don't see any connection between the classroom and their lives. The curriculum development and educational leadership question then becomes, how can we design learning experiences that begin with being curious about something.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Kids Are the Curriculum

To understand many educators’ concerns with an exclusive focus on high-stakes, standardized testing, imagine a piano teacher who gave his students worksheets on the keyboard, and the history of the piano, but never asked his students to play.

What ails American schools and what to do about it has been a national conversation for decades now. In the maze of standardized tests, teacher accountability, metal detectors and school take-overs, we must take care that our efforts to ensure accountability are not counterproductive. Curriculum that is stripped of any connection to real community problems and to the lives of the students will not raise test scores, result in authentic learning, increase teacher retention or more result in more peaceful schools. Nor will it prepare our students to be the global leaders that our increasingly connected and competitive world will demand that they be. The key to successful curriculum reform is designing curriculum around a community’s most pressing challenges, rather than reducing it to multiple choice questions. Such curriculum reform also empowers especially at-risk students to address the violence and inequities which impact them and to understand the relevance of their classes to their lives. The kids become the curriculum.

What does this look like in practice? Consider the opportunity in one of our most challenged school systems, Washington D.C. Reducing gang violence, AIDS and other public health threats, community food security, environmental degradation, and unemployment all remain entrenched challenges. As history’s greatest educators, such as Paolo Freire, Maria Montessori and John Dewey, might point out today, these problems themselves make great curriculum. Yet only rarely, especially in our most violent and troubled public schools, are students invited into such critical inquiry of their own lives and communities. Multidisciplinary projects in which students are invited to be young leaders in their communities, which make math, science, reading, writing and research come alive, are possible. I have seen this in my own writing and literature classroom in a Virginia Juvenile Detention home, where my students have used their writing to grapple with everything from domestic violence, gangs, addiction, homelessness on their streets, racism in their schools and the origins of genocide. Additionally, this approach to curriculum design directly addresses the needs of the very students that NCLB most intends to reach: the poorest rural, urban and minority students. The most effective reforms will be those that empower students to actively use the skills and knowledge we want them to gain in authentic ways, and empower teachers to assess them in authentic ways. Standardized assessments, while they do have their utility, cannot really measure the communication, collaboration and problem solving skills that the 21st century is going to demand if the U.S. is to remain competitive, let alone a global leader.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Carefully Taught

I couldn't be more energized by the discussion I have had with students today about racism, tolerance, and the origins of hate. It was one of those days where kids were still debating as I collected pencils, after class had ended.

After several concerned discussions with colleagues about some of the clear tension here between some of the African American students and the Hispanic students, several of us decided we needed to address the comments and behaviors directly. I have long argued for this being a part of every kid's classroom, everywhere, and so the discussion was a natural extension of the literature we read (currently 12 Angry Men), and the topics I suggest for writing.

Today's topic asked students to consider whether we have to be taught to hate, or if we come by it naturally. The evolution of their thinking over the course of the discussion was great to see. Many students initially answered that it's natural. One even wrote that there's "no choice". But when I prodded for examples, and asked follow up questions such as "Where'd those negative feelings come from?", students began listing everything from communities and schools to parents, the media and even U.S. foreign policy as ways in which kids are taught to hate. When one student mentioned Iraq as reasons why he feels the U.S. is hated by Arabs, I reminded them that Dr. King had written similar sentiments in his speech "Beyond Vietnam". King wondered how we can credibly tell kids to not solve problems by fighting when their country solves problems with bombs.

Quite rightly, I think, they also emphasized the role of envy in hatred. One student mentioned the inequalities of how students are sometimes treated in schools, a sure "hidden curriculum" if ever there was one. Another mentioned how, years ago in her kindergarten class, a classmate colored on her paper and the teacher instructed her to color on the other girl's paper, to be fair. An eye for an eye? I don't see how that's problem solving, myself. Cooperation and conflict resolution are not simply skills we absorb by day to day life. Nor are they skills teachers just intuit how to teach. It must be direct, explict and a part of every classroom.