As the new school year begins, I continue to share the overarching goal of my favorite historian and educator, Howard Zinn: “I had a modest goal when I became a teacher… I wanted to change the world.”
To act in a world whose problems seem overwhelming requires being able to use the powers of critical and creative thinking and compassionate and inclusive care. Employing these tools, adults and youth alike can effectively and conscientiously solve problems big and small, global and local. When students treat each other compassionately, accept each other’s mistakes with grace, curiously and respectfully engage with the wider world, and are thoughtful in all senses of the word, I feel uplifted. I believe in the power of learning to think, care, and act, and that belief drives me to be the best teacher I can be.
So how do I approach the classroom in September after more than thirty years of teaching? How will I keep my teaching fresh, innovative, and relevant? How will I remember my character, multicultural, global, social-justice, and peace teaching priorities? I set goals for myself as a teacher, colleague, and family member.
I teach in a suburban middle school setting. I have a homeroom and advisory, and I teach English, history, and various electives. My school has sufficient materials and support to allow my goals to be flexible and expansive. Perhaps they are relevant to a variety of teaching situations as well.
1. Empower students to understand and use their capacity to change the world for the better—from their classroom interactions to their action in the community and wider world.
- Continue to experiment in all classes with Freirean teaching strategies in which students construct their own knowledge. Work to enhance students’ ability to think, care, act—for their own growth and the greater good.
- Make classroom inviting, warm, and fun: bulletin boards, class atmosphere, projects led by students, willingness to take tangents, etc.
- Interact with students in a way that makes them feel nurtured and challenged, safe and able to take risks. Laugh with them. Be “slow to chide and quick to bless.” Share my mistakes, and model learning from them.
- Build teamwork with colleagues and undertake experiments together.
2. Communicate caringly and effectively with advisee students and families. Be “slow to chide and quick to bless.”
- Touch base daily with advisees and have individual conferences with each advisee once per trimester at recess or lunch.
- Help parents embrace and enhance their roles in their children’s learning and development as people. Share personal examples.
- Email advisee families at least once per month with updates and anecdotes about advisory discussions and school life. Include pictures.
3. HISTORY CLASSES: Convey to students that history is the story of choices made by ordinary people, every day.
- Emphasize the “bright-spot,” peace aspects of cultures rather than focusing on wars: literature, science, agriculture, trade, family structure, arts, religion, etc.
- Help students weave their own connections and among cultures studied.
- Emphasize empathy. Encourage them to wonder, “What would it have been like to have been those people?”
- Encourage them to ask “What if?” questions about history.
4. ENGLISH CLASSES: Convey to students that reading literature and writing personal narratives are ways to communicate the similarities and differences that bind us as a classroom and human family.
- Make the classroom safe for students to explore their feelings and insights and to share them without fear of ridicule.
- Help students imagine a future in which they want to live, dealing with specifics raised by such novels as The Giver and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry as well as current local and global events about which they are concerned or curious.
- Help students appreciate their similarities and differences from characters in literature and classmates. Emphasize empathy. Encourage them to wonder, “What is it like to be that person?”
- Help them weave connections between themselves and others in the classroom and global communities through writing, talking, reading, and listening.
5. Convey rationales and resources for character, global, and peace education to colleagues, peer teachers, and pre-service teachers via book, blog, workshops, and webpage.
- Update blog twice per month.
- Present teacher workshops each year, locally, nationally, and internationally.
- Develop and present teaching workshops and university class.
6. Balance personal, school, and professional life in a healthful and mindful manner.
- Spend 5/6th of creative/constructive time in school teaching, interacting, and developing innovations with students, colleagues, and families.
- Limit computer tech trouble-shooting and minutia-work on hardware/software issues to 1/6th of creative/constructive time in school.
- Schedule daily and/or weekly trips to connect with family members.
- Spend time in nature daily. Walk daily.
- Take care of inner life: breathe and smile.
The expertise I have gained and the willingness to experiment I have developed are aspects of my teaching that I now share with other teachers in local, national, and international workshops and in my book, blog, and article writing. These aspects revolve around skills and beliefs held by many veteran teachers: the power of students’ own thoughts and interests, the importance of building relationships, the need to involve families, the ability to teach and reach every child. But a different drummer beats in my heart each day as I head to my classroom: the necessity I feel for being (like Dr. King) “a drum major for peace.”
We live in a world in which the prevailing paradigm is that war is inevitable and that much violence is acceptable. I want to introduce students, colleagues, and families to the well-supported notion that peacebuilding is possible and effective: in our daily interactions in class and at play, in our homes and communities, and among nations of the world. I want students to experience becoming peacebuilders in their peer groups. I want to introduce them to historical and current events in which active nonviolence overcame injustice and violence. I want to empower them to use such techniques to change the world for the better.
Where does this drum-major-for-peace mentality originate?
There were the tiny photographs (fading even in my childhood) that he shot in Italy in World War II. In my memory, I hear the stories, often funny, of how he and a buddy jumped into a pigpen under orders to take cover, of stringing wire on a telephone pole as his jeep buddies sped away under German fire. My father told these stories over and over again, and they always ended with his loud belly laughs, as if he were trying to persuade us that the war had been fun.
But, I also hear the screaming. My father screamed in his sleep often, sometimes nightly.
“He fought the war every night for sixty years,” Mom replied, and turned away. He wasn’t alone. Millions of veterans of combat, soldier and civilian alike, are living with the demons of war both in their daily lives and in their nightmares. And every day, in numerous countries around the world, more men, women, and children are becoming living and dead casualties of war, military and civilian alike.
As a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a teacher (and now a grandmother), I question why we allow this as a global society. I have not raised my two sons to kill other mothers’ sons. I am not teaching my students so they can kill the students of other teachers. In my classroom, I want to create a culture of peace, and it my sincere hope that my students will be among those who build a peaceful future.
Committed to teaching for peace and justice, I envision peace education as an umbrella, encompassing education’s best efforts to empower youth to change the world for the better: critical and creative thinking education, civics education, character and moral education, multicultural and antibias education, gender-equity education, conflict resolution and antiviolence education, social justice and global education, service learning, environmental education, and 21st century education to name major strands of teaching for the greater good.
How does this “umbrella” look in my classroom? I use a teaching approach that empowers youth:
• to think critically and creatively about historical, current, and future issues,
• to care about classmates and neighbors as well as the global community,
• to act—locally and globally—for the greater good.
I ask students to develop what scholar Noam Chomsky calls “intellectual self defense” when facing information in textbooks, primary sources, and newspapers; when evaluating information conveyed by teachers, parents, politicians, and others in authority; and when consuming every kind of online media message. Students also use imagination and creative thinking about the past, present, and future to help envision and create the future in which they want to live. Creative thinking in history and literature projects also allows students to imagine how others feel and helps them step into the metaphorical shoes of their classmates and international peers. Thus, my classroom is often noisy, with students working in pairs or groups to critically and creatively think together. I partner students with different learning styles and strengths to help them learn to appreciate different ways of tackling projects and problems. Formal and informal debates happen often, and students learn that I value their opinions—even if they differ from mine. Cooperative learning happens daily.
First, I encourage students to respect, care for, and appreciate the people around them, from family to peers and teachers. Knowing how to make others feel safe and welcome is a prerequisite for living and working effectively and collegially with others—in and out of the classroom. Second, I help students widen their circles of care to include people in their neighborhood, country, and wider world. Thus, in my classroom, we spend time getting to know each other deeply, through sharing personal writing and photographs, through projects about our families and backgrounds, by listening to each other, and by making our classroom a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them together. We pay attention to language. We use put-ups, not put-downs. I stop class to reset the tone of our conversations when necessary. We also widen our world by discussing current global events, reading global poetry, studying global trade, and even exchanging poetry and dreams with students across the world.
Goal setting can be inspiring. It can keep us honest. Have a great year in your classroom by taking time to set the direction you want your teaching to be headed. Selected resources are below. These link to many other useful social justice, peace, character, multicultural, and social-action education resources.
- Zinn Education Project
- Rethinking Schools
- Teaching Tolerance
- Teach for Peace
- Emily Farrell's blog post on teaching English