Peace Talks ; Students Learn Conflict Resolution by Engaging Deeply in the Study of the Past and Learning to Apply Its Lessons to Current Events

By Mary Wiltenburg writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Peace Talks ; Students Learn Conflict Resolution by Engaging Deeply in the Study of the Past and Learning to Apply Its Lessons to Current Events


Mary Wiltenburg writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For the girls in Juliette Zener's world-history classes, this should have been a routine year.

Not that the Newton Country Day School 10th-graders didn't show up on Sept. 11 for their first day of school lit with excitement, or that Ms. Zener and teaching fellow Abe George didn't care deeply about their material. But they had five centuries to cover in eight months. Ibn Battuta, Isaac Newton, the Crimean War - they didn't have time to waste, especially not on current events.

Then the planes hit, the towers fell, and Zener faced a decision.

Under pressure to cover ground, she and Mr. George might simply have spent a few periods talking about Sept. 11 and then moved on. But instead, she reshuffled lesson plans to spend a class period every two weeks mediating a conversation about current events.

It's not what she might have done previously. But Zener had just

attended a workshop by Workable Peace, a conflict-resolution project in Cambridge, Mass., that changed her approach.

History - especially in high school - is often taught as a catalog of conquests and catastrophes: a dusty parade of shifting borders and inevitable bloodshed.

To David Fairman, that's exactly the wrong way to involve students with the forces and events that have shaped their world. A founder of Workable Peace, Mr. Fairman has another vision of how history can be taught, a way that engages students more deeply, both in the study of the past - and in the present and future of conflicts in their own communities. "There's lots to study besides all the horrible things that happen," he says. "There's maybe even more to be learned from the things that didn't happen, but could have."

No lack of response

For homework a month after the terrorist attacks, Zener's 10th- graders considered the question: "What should the US response to the Sept. 11 attacks be?" In class the next day, the girls have no problem jumping into the middle of such a tough political conundrum - even one that's already in some ways a moot point. They quickly rearrange their seats around the classroom according to their views.

Four are in favor of immediate US military retaliation, even if that means going it alone. Seven say military action is OK only if the US works with an international alliance. Four more are for flushing out Al Qaeda members and trying them as war criminals in international court. One, hesitating, admits she might be a pacifist.

Emily Simon says she supports US military action, because at least that means the country is doing something. "The pacifists, they seem too la-di-da, you know?" she says. "It makes me angry that they just want to sit around and, like, talk about their emotions."

"I think that the US should take action too," argues Elizabeth St. Victor, the reluctant pacifist, "but by going against [terrorist suspects] in criminal court. Going to attack another nation, I think is an inappropriate response, because it's beginning a cycle of killing other people."

"I don't think it's fair to us to give them trials and put them in our jails," Emily counters. "I don't know. I just want them away. Ewww." She makes a face. Around the room, more than a few people giggle. For a moment, even though these students are debating the country's hardest questions with sometimes startling maturity, it's clear that they're also kids - at least half of them sporting '80s- style neckties, shinguards, and field hockey skirts in anticipation of today's big game.

But Kathleen O'Brien, at the war crimes table, isn't deterred. "What about their right to have a trial?" she demands. "In America, that's a freedom, like your right to have a trial. If you're defending America, you have to defend what it stands for."

"Good point!" Elizabeth whispers.

"But they aren't Americans!" Emily says. "They don't get our same laws.

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