(This article was first published in the May-June 2018 issue of Teacher Plus, a magazine for educators. It was commissioned by B. Shalini.)
When I introduce myself as a peace educator, I am often greeted with puzzled and inquisitive looks. People wonder what that description really means. Do I lecture on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa? Am I a meditation instructor? Does my job involve getting children to maintain pin-drop silence in the classroom? I know this may sound amusing but I am not joking. It really happens. What do you think being a peace educator might mean? Go ahead, make a guess.
I have a slightly different answer every time but my focus stays on the thought that peace is not a subject but an outlook. It is, undoubtedly, beneficial to learn about significant historical personalities who led non-violent movements or steered processes of reconciliation. There is wisdom to be gleaned from their struggles, and there are mistakes to avoid repeating. However, I tend to emphasize more on how peace can be a choice, a motivation and a goal here and now. Do you think peace can be a legitimate area of enquiry in your classroom? Feel free to email me your thoughts at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you.
The scholar-practitioner divide in our country is so wide that one is likely to come across this question: Can peace education be initiated by school teachers who have not had formal training in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and human rights? Yes. Training equips you with tools, resources, and approaches but courses in these subjects are rarely offered at Indian universities and teacher training institutes, so a lot depends upon the individual efforts of teachers.
In some contexts, school heads are visionary enough to take the lead in introducing peace education in their schools. In other situations, they are too nervous to take on what they perceive as political because it may lead to trouble with the parent body or local leaders. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you been instructed to avoid discussing a particular topic with your students because it may provoke a backlash?
There are various definitions of peace education and a vast body of literature on this field but a deep dive is outside the scope of this article. It would suffice to say that the underlying emphasis in peace education is on understanding violence, and exploring alternatives to violence. It is vital to remember that violence is not restricted to physical harm but also includes psychological harm, emotional abuse, discrimination, exclusion, denial of opportunities, exploitation, criminalization of identities, etc. Violence is part of our everyday reality.
What are the recent examples of violence that have come up for discussion in your classroom? It could be a physical fight between students in your school, a terror attack or rape case that students read about in the newspaper, or a historical event they are studying as part of the curriculum. How did students feel about violent and non-violent approaches to resolving conflicts? Whose side were they on? Did their learning material include enough information about the impact of violence on the marginalized sections of society, or did it mainly valorize the victorious?
Expanding the view of what constitutes violence is an integral part of peace education. It is through awareness-raising, reflection, discussion, reading and exposure to unfamiliar experiences that one begins to see patterns and structures which are designed to be violent towards some groups, and not others. One becomes conscious of one’s privilege, and one’s role in maintaining hierarchies that strip others of their dignity. One works hard to unlearn stereotypes. One tries to investigate if the classroom is a safe and welcoming space for all the students in there. One becomes more engaged with local issues. One creates opportunities for dialogue between divergent viewpoints. One communicates disagreement with empathy. One humbly acknowledges errors of judgement. Do you engage in such reflective practice about your own teaching?
Peace education is about breaking down walls and building bridges but that is not always a feel-good process. It involves being open to critical feedback from students, and reshaping the dynamics of interaction in a way that all children feel empowered to speak without any fear of being targeted for their race, religion, caste, sex, disability, gender, language or sexual orientation. In the bargain, one can learn to examine and question systems of authority that one has grown to trust without any shred of doubt — for instance, family, religion, government, and media.
This critical exercise can be deeply unsettling even if it is rewarding in the long run. Beyond the classroom, think of the other spaces where power dynamics play out, and where peace can be a choice — the playground, the library, the school bus, the parent-teacher meeting, the morning assembly, the annual day, the sports day, excursions and field trips, school elections, etc. Peace, you see, is not all about being blissed out. It calls for a profound acceptance of the connections we have with the world we are part of. As one grows more aware of these connections, it is difficult to look the other way when injustice takes place.
ACTIVITY FOR STUDENTS
Write the following statements on the blackboard, or flash them on a smart board. Alternatively, give them to your students as handouts. Ask them to pick out or mark those statements which, according to them, describe instances of violence. Depending on the age and maturity of your students, feel free to alter these statements in keeping with your context.
- A woman refused to buy a new toy for her daughter. They bought several toys recently, and some of the packages are still lying unopened at home.
2. A couple was denied entry to a shopping mall. They were asked to leave because their clothes were shabby.
3. A security guard was asked to put in an additional three hours of work but his employer did not provide any compensation for the extra time and labour.
4. A gay man was evicted from his apartment because the landlord did not approve of his sexual orientation.
5. A young journalist had to leave her job because her husband and in-laws refused to help with childcare. The child is two years old, and the family cannot afford professional daycare facilities.
6. A child did not submit his class assignment within the stipulated time. The teacher slapped him hard, and he began to cry.
7. An old woman requested a wheelchair at the airport but she was made to wait for 30 minutes before she eventually got one.
8. The trustees of a school do not allow students to bring non-vegetarian food from home for their lunch break.
9. A girl who used to be academically successful is now forbidden from going to school when she has her periods every month. Her grades have been affected as a result of this.
10. Students on a university campus were beaten with wooden sticks when they asked some challenging questions about corruption in the administration.
Once your students have made their selections, go over each statement. Ask them whether they consider it to be an instance of violence or not. Invite multiple responses so that there can be a healthy discussion. The objective of this activity is not to arrive at definitive answers but to challenge and broaden our understanding of what constitutes violence so that we can begin to recognize it in our lives, and take steps to address it.
QUIZ: WHO GOT THE NOBEL?
The word grid below contains the names of 15 Nobel Peace Prize winners from different countries of the world. Ask your students to find these names.
The objective behind this activity is not simply to recognize who these individuals are but also to learn about their work. This web link will serve as a good start-off point for a research assignment, if you decide to initiate one: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace Here are a few guiding questions that you could use: What is the Nobel Peace Prize? Why is it awarded, and to whom? What do the prize winners receive? Who makes the decision to award a prize to a particular individual or organization? Who, according to you, should be awarded the next Nobel Peace Prize? Why should they get it?
RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS
National Focus Group Position Paper on Education for Peace
This paper published by India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training in 2006 offers a good introduction to how peace education can be envisioned as part of the school curriculum. It highlights the rationale behind educating for peace, maps out opportunities for peace education in school-based learning, and draws attention to some critical issues that cannot be glossed over while thinking of skills and values.
Reading to Embrace Diversity
Published by Postcards for Peace in 2017, this interview with journalist Pooja Pillai will be particularly useful for language and literature teachers. She talks about how exposure to diverse reading material can help cultivate empathy in readers. As they read books by and about people who are different from them, they strengthen their capacity to resist racism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other kinds of violence. They learn to honour a variety of stories and viewpoints.
Teachers As Allies: Unlearning Heterosexism in Indian Schools
This blog post provides guidelines for teachers who want to take concrete steps towards eliminating violence directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on their campuses. Published by the Education for Peace Initiative of the Prajnya Trust in 2018, it is adapted from the Gay-Straight Student Alliance Handbook written for Canadian teachers, which does contain ideas and strategies that are relevant to Indian contexts. It shows how a human rights-friendly culture in schools cannot exist without addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Textbooks for Sustainable Development: A Guide to Embedding
Published by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development in 2017, this is a guidebook written for textbook writers who are keen on embedding ideas of peace, social justice, global citizenship and sustainable development into textbooks for English, mathematics, geography and social studies. It can also be used by teachers looking for fresh ways to reorient their teaching of textbook material that is bland and unresponsive to socio-political concerns.
Talking Peace in the English Language Classroom
This article, published by the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers in 2014, aims to challenge the idea that English language classrooms are meant only for the decontextualized teaching of skills such as listening, speaking, reading and writing. Through examples of hands-on activities with students, it shows how English teachers can have robust conversations about peacebuilding and conflict transformation.