Paxeducare’s Blog

What We Learned: lessons from a high school’s first peace course by Dr. Phil Harak
July 18, 2013, 2:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Dear Readers: I invited Dr. Phil Harak, a teacher at South Windsor High School in Connecticut, to submit his article, first published in “The Peace Chronicle”, the newsletter of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Spring-Summer 2013. MLM

I recently finished teaching our high school’s first peace course, titled, “Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-First Century.”  I am an English teacher in a public high school near Hartford, CT, where I have worked since 1989. I have always wanted to write and teach such a course, but it was not until recently that I was successful in getting it approved, because of substantial student interest in a “peace studies” course, my emphasis on practical skills building such as peer mediation and anti-bullying methods, and because I could demonstrate that students would be taught a large number of the federal and state mandated Language Arts skills. After reviewing a number of existing curricula and reading several books, and consulting with numerous experts in the field, such as my own brother, Fr. Simon Harak, S.J., Colman McCarthy, Fr. Charles McCarthy, and former MA Pax Christi Board member and Peace Educator, Michael True, I had some good ideas from which to base my course. I then “tested” my ideas with my wife, Margaret, who is also an excellent educator. She encouraged me to continually focus on engaging activities that would be both fun and educational.  I never looked forward more to teaching a course, and I would like to share the essence of what I had hoped to accomplish, and some of what my students and I learned after that inaugural year.

I know from my own work as a peace builder and social justice educator that it is critically important that all voices have equal opportunity to be heard. When addressing a conflict, discussion needs to focus on the problem and solution from all sides, not in attacking the people involved. Good educators seek to know their students, and to learn their students’ culture. As I was learning about my students, I reviewed what I knew of their—of our—culture. Clearly, both popular culture and our unilateral, bellicose international policy imposes the same approach to opposing, or alternate voices: there is no need to negotiate; we shout down, ignore, or eliminate those in opposition with our way, which is the only way. But here is the insidious “trickle down” effect of that approach in traditional educational practices: When those in absolute institutional power—educators and administrators—who “know what’s best,” interact with the powerless students, the manifesting dynamic consists of the teacher filling up the student with what the teacher determines is the important knowledge. Social inequities of power get reproduced in the classroom, and students learn their subordinate place. But that dynamic presents a conflict for me. I believe that violence begins when we begin to treat others as “things,” even if it is for what the powerful determine to be “for their own good.”  I knew I could not conduct a conflict resolution course in that way, since the pedagogical means would be in opposition with the ends, which I envisioned would be one of liberation through critical examinatin. More on my teaching and learning process a little later. For this course, I decided to include the students and all of their viewpoints from the start.

So on the first class day, I asked students what they wanted to explore: what were questions and topics about conflicts, peace, and violence that they thought were important. I communicated to them that we all needed to be “curriculum” for each other, learning from and teaching each other. I invited them to always explore new ideas, and taught them how to recognize resistance to new ideas. Here are a few of their questions from the first day in class, in their own words:  What is peace? How do you achieve peace? Is peace the opposite of conflict? Why are people not peaceful? Is peace more than just tolerance? Is peace different for every person? Where does peace start? How do you bring peace to your surroundings/community? The first thing I learned, on Day 1, was that these 11th and 12th grade young people and I shared many of the same questions.

I continued asking them what they wanted to study and to do throughout the course, and included that in each unit, and to account for what they had learned and how the learning could be applied to real life situations. I would coach them by providing resources, and let them explore options that they probably did not know existed (end of the course evaluations confirmed my suspicion here; most students told me they “had no idea” there were effective alternatives to the power of violence).  I then adapted my flexible course outline of four units to include most of their questions, allowing space to explore new ones as they arose. Briefly, the course began with a self-examination of values and beliefs about violence and nonviolence, and then gradually progressed to include skillful ways of listening; understanding, addressing, and managing conflicts in our own circle; and finally, a study of effective practitioners of nonviolent action in American society. We read and viewed a wide variety of texts, and we all kept a journal, in which we logged our thoughts, feelings, reflections, and actions.

After much research of both Christian and non-Christian sources, I designed the course in ways that mirrored those of the successful nonviolent thinkers and activists. That meant that the focus always had to be on one’s self throughout. Not in a narcissistic, unhealthy way, but as the person for whom we are ultimately responsible in all interactions. I have learned that successful peacemakers balance a strong prayer/spiritual life with a critical but supportive community. So, with specific student input for the kind of classroom they needed to best learn, we sought to create a safe learning community in the classroom.

And that leads to this next important reflection. I knew that of equal importance with the content students would learn would be the process by which they would learn it. I will next share that process, and what we all learned from that approach.

I wanted to provide an educational opportunity that encouraged students to explore alternatives to the culturally reinforced “status quo” of violence, vengeance, and dehumanization. But I did not want them to merely parrot back my values. Traditional approaches would dictate a teacher-centered course, with lectures now updated with glitzy Powerpoint presentations.  But I believe that if I preached my values to this captive audience, I would be inhibiting their own discovery and their own liberation. I would also be violating an important tenet in my educational philosophy (even if I was sure it was for their own, and for society’s good!) Moreover, if I only lectured them, and even if I sold them on the benefits of nonviolent conflict resolution, those teacher-centered means would be the same ones that have been already used to indoctrinate them. That type of noncritical ingestion and enculturation is what perpetuates our current condition of perpetual warfare. Rather, I wanted them to examine themselves throughout the course, looking for their agreement, disagreement, emotional and learning edges. Through their frequent activities and projects, I wanted them to learn by doing—and even through their failures to do what they had hoped to accomplish. Only then would they be able to freely choose nonviolence. Wise teachers and parents understand that true choice fosters ownership and promotes authenticity.

But what of my own deeply-held values? How do I avoid “selling” to this captive audience of public high school students my own strong commitment to Christ’s clear teaching of nonviolent love of all, of endless forgiveness and mercy? First, by not preaching it, but by living it in each interaction.  Also, in the interest of providing the widest examination from which students could then personally choose their own path, I would use reason and emotion to argue the pro-violence viewpoints in discussion, encouraging critical examination by all students. Underneath this approach is my complete faith in the efficacy of Jesus’ teachings. Let the power of that Truth ultimately convert; do not force it. While students have learned about the power of violence in and out of schools, they now began to learn about other powers, as well, such as the power of empathetic listening (a skill we learned), the power of curiosity to prompt independent research (students conceived of and conducted some great projects), and the proven power of nonviolent actions in U.S. history. Kevin told me that learning about the Nashville sit-ins by Fisk University students and supporters in 1960 “changed my life. Such courage. I never knew something like that could really work.” Students told me that they learned that nonviolence took courage, and that it was not passiveness, as several had once thought. Some began to wonder if this kind of nonviolent power could truly be transformative. I like to think that these students were being exposed to the truth behind King’s statement, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” Transforming social structures was something this next educator, philosopher, and activist wrote much about.

My teaching and learning process were also informed by the writings of Paulo Freire, the progressive (and exiled) Brazilian educator. He believed that each person’s life task was to become fully humanized. This rang true to my desire to have students deeply consider the counter-cultural premise that all people, even those demonized and called “enemy” by us, our friends, or the State, are in fact humans first. He advocated for the use of education’s potential for extraordinary transformative powers by suggesting a new kind of literacy. The learning process to achieve it involved ongoing personal awareness with critical thought, and finally with reflective action (a close parallel to our Pax Christi’s prescribed course of research, prayer and action). The best sequence to achieve this transformative literacy is for students first to be taught to “read the word,” which is acquiring actual text literacy. Then, students need to learn to “read the world,” which is to develop a sociopolitical historical understanding of one’s own life conditions and broader society. After that, students could then choose to “write the world”; that is, change the world in ways that promote each person’s full humanization.

In closing, I will share some of what students—including this facilitator/student–produced and shared with each other.

Remembering Margaret’s encouragement, and understanding the power of learning by doing, I required my students to attempt some kind of action in any of the studied unit areas, and to report on what they learned from that project. They worked in groups around similar interests, and presented their findings to the class. I learned so much from my students last year. Peter, an extraordinarily gifted artist, wrote and illustrated a graphic novel about bullying and how to stop it. Mike, a tech whiz, wrote, directed, and starred in a short film about how others can readily join to help counteract the isolation bullied students feel. With a growing sense of empowerment and understanding about the value of truly listening to others, and more fully understanding a problem from others’ perspectives (rather than imposing an “expert’s” unilateral solution to a problem), senior students Rebecca, Kevin, and Nick decided to interview my sophomore class to ask them what they thought were the biggest obstacles to living a peaceful life in the school. I coached those young researchers about the basics of focus groups, and they reported back to our class a number of insights that probably would have been forgotten if merely read in a book. Later, Kevin wrote that as a result of listening to those sophomores, he changed the way he thought and later acted towards a younger student on his athletic team, having been sensitized to the thoughts and feelings of the “Other” who was unlike himself. “Before that experience,” he wrote, “I actually did make fun of that kid, I am ashamed to admit. But I stopped it.” John wrote a proposal to the Board of Education via the principal, recommending that each high school student be taught peer mediation and collaborative problem solving—practical techniques I taught this class. John wrote that in addition to helping resolve school conflicts, the “mediation skills … are invaluable and will be of use in many other areas of conflict, such as family conflicts…”

I was strongly reminded of this observation: that students who are encouraged to look at new ways of thinking and acting will activate their curiosity and passion to produce imaginative applications in their own lives. When high school students are empowered, they challenge the status quo in ways that question and countermand the myth that “violence (and by extension, war) is part of our nature, and therefore inevitable.”

Part of my final exam involved students going back to their questions on the first day. Someone asked then, Where does peace start? I took the final exam as well. I wrote in my journal that although culture and maybe human tendency encourages me to blame the Other for my internal state, my task is to keep the focus on myself—what I can control—and to honestly determine my part in contributing to a conflict, and then to do all I reasonably can to transform the conflict into compassionate and merciful ways of acting with myself and with those with whom I am in conflict. Jesus reminded us to be vigilant about ourselves, especially when condemning others, when He told us to “take the plank out of our own eye” before removing the saw dust from others’ (MT: 7:5). Broadly, I believe this admonition advises us to avoid hypocrisy by humbly and honestly doing our own inventory, most especially when in perceived conflict. The Dalai Lama once wrote that “Although attempting to bring world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” That belief was echoed by my student Nick, who shared with us that “peace comes from within, not without.”

I close with this reflection. Freire encouraged each of us to develop our own “praxis,” which requires us to choose to subscribe to a theory, to which we should fuse “action, reflection, the word, and the work.” Because students continually reflected on their feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and actions in this course, they were better equipped to act in praxis. And I must admit, it is my fervent hope that today’s students will write the world in ways that embrace the tenets of nonviolent peace and social justice for all.






Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: