Thursday, April 16, 2009

War and Peace and Peacemaker Projects

Last week, we had one of the college liaisons here in Boston start an animated e-conversation about the lines that divide our values from our obligations. The circumstances that prompted the conversation were centered around a multi-aged Peacemaker Project to serve soldiers. It raises an important question: if we are in the service of supporting peacemakers, are projects that support the military incongruent with that mission?

The question elicited complicated feelings from many quarters, which would suggest that there are no easy answers. On the one hand, in an all-volunteer army the soldiers put in harm's way are disproportionately from low-income families - an imbalance which certainly seems unjust. By pitching a project that holds up soldiers as peacemakers, were we making ourselves indistinguishable from (or at least in cahoots with) a military recruiter? On the other hand, many of us know people in our lives who are or who have been soldiers and who make room for the complicated and sometimes contradictory values of safety and peacemaking. At the very least, surely we can agree that it must be hard, painful even, to be so far from home for so long.

The debate struck a chord with me. Two years ago, I confronted the same conflict with the third grade class I was teaching. Thinking about them - and about the Peacemaker Project we finally completed - I contributed this response to the debate:

I suspect that there has been a healthy conversation going on about this really important question, so my apologies if I repeat anything that’s been said or if I speak out of turn.

Two years ago, I worked with a third grade class that completed a Peacemaker Project remarkably similar to this one, so like you I struggled with my own conflicted feelings about war, peace, the military, social justice, and a host of other issues about which you’ve all been far more articulate than me. I remember vividly the class session in which we were brainstorming ideas about ‘who to help’ when one student suggested ‘soldiers’ – and my visceral instinct to find a reason not to add it to the list.

Honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t follow that instinct. The project we completed wound up feeling good to me (and, I think, to all of us). That’s not to say that we simplified or made less tangled any of the many intersecting issues that you raise about military recruitment, poverty, gangs, and violence on a host of scales. Really, though, untangling that was never within the scope of what we could accomplish together. It was much more about finding the small parcel of common ground upon which we could all stand comfortably. Here are a few stray thoughts on this question that came out of that project:

· Words and ideas are more relative than I realized. That is, when that first student said ‘soldiers,’ it triggered for me a host of thoughts about the war and militarism that felt very uncomfortable. But for him, it meant his older brother. And for some of his classmates, it meant fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins. The same relativity was true when it came to ‘helping soldiers’: for some, it meant fighting the ‘bad guys’ (however they defined that or understood it, rightly or wrongly), but for others it was less narrowly defined. I saw our job as helping to create an expansive and compassionate definition of ‘helping soldiers.’

· We needed to find a way to trust the students. It was clear through the course of the conversation that the idea of ‘soldiers’ was much closer to home and more meaningful than any of the other constituencies we talked about – friends, police officers, school helpers. It would have been not only disingenuous but disrespectful – or so I thought – to pretend that their enthusiasm was in any way the wrong answer to the question ‘Who should we help?’ My job then became how to make it something that I could sincerely support. That was not an easy process, but it was my process and not one that I felt I needed to act out in front of the class.

· There are many people affected by war and conflict in our community – and many different levels of impact. Our initial reaction to the choice of soldiers was to find a way to link it to the community. After all, only some of the students had family in the military, but we all lived in Boston. How does having a family member overseas affect families here at home? So we committed some time to researching supports available to military families here at home and figuring out if there was a way to start with soldiers but bring it back to something local. The common ground was that there are families who are sad about having someone overseas and how we could help them.

· We thought about other perspectives in the process. We talked to organizations that support veterans who knew more about supporting soldiers and their families than we did, presented the process so far, and asked them what would be most useful. (It’s important to make sure that we complete projects that make a difference to others in a way that’s genuine and real, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what would be best.) The retired soldier we spoke to said that actually families are relatively well-supported, but the group of people that he struggled to support the most were soldiers who were isolated overseas and without much of a family support structure here at home (e.g., older soldiers or soldiers without spouses or partners). So, we asked him to come to class and tell us about that. As fretful as I was about having a soldier in the school, the conversation was a tide-changer for us. Soldiers who have seen conflict are in many ways the most sincere advocates for peace and reconciliation. Our guest speaker was certainly in no way interested in glorifying war and helped put in real terms what it was like to be thousands of miles away, feeling lonely, looking for a friendly word from someone who remembers him.

· We stuck close to our shared interests. And so, students wound up doing what was in many ways a very conventional project – letters and pictures for soldiers – but it had real connections and it elicited a thank-you letter from people they met in person. The genuine appreciation from the guest speakers was actually eye-opening for me. They operate in a world I not only don’t know but don’t approve of all that much – and yet we had a shared interest in a meaningful experience.

I think about successful a Peacemaker Project as having three criteria: 1) it involves everyone, 2) it creates change, and 3) it’s do-able in the time we have. And everyone participated in our project at some level. Many people had their points of view challenged (if not changed) and the letters and pictures, according to what we heard from the guest speaker, made a real difference in the lives of soldiers from Massachusetts. And we did it all in six weeks. Our biggest imperative with Peacemaker Projects is to give children something in themselves that they can celebrate and to help them (and others) see them as peacemakers and thoughtful, engaged members of a community. It’s a simple goal, but it’s probably best that way.

Not sure if this is helpful or not, but I hope so. Feel free to let me know if you’ve got specific questions or thoughts.


Striking the right balance when it comes to guiding children through this process is often precarious, especially when we bump up against issues or questions as weighty as war and peace. At the very least, we owe it to children to be honest with them - and with ourselves - as we sift through the moving parts and thornier pieces.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Never Gave Up: A Peace Tale About Hip Hop and Fifth Grade Hopefulness

The fifth grade class in Room 101 was no picnic. By the end of September, they were already on their third teacher. The first had some kind of a heart attack during the first week (but would recover). The second was a demure but severe long-term substitute with no formal teaching experience. And the third - a kindly, well-intentioned, slightly-overweight white man named Mr. Booth - was earnest but struggling.

When Janet and I walked in for our first Peace Games class at the beginning of October, we both expected to encounter a mild case of chaos. Not surprisingly, that was exactly what we found. We brought a modified version of the lesson - cutting out about 20 minutes of superfluous icebreakers - but it was immediately apparent that we did not cut nearly enough. Adjusting to three teachers in five weeks had made the students tired, suspicious, and understandably restless, and it showed. They thought nothing of barking at each other from across the room or getting up and walking around without regard for anything the three 'teachers' said. We were hardly more effective at crowd control than we were at teaching, learning students' names from the many reprimands parceled out by Mr. Booth. By the time we stumbled out the door, Janet and I were both speechless.

The months that followed saw the class fall into something resembling a routine that managed to find comfort with a persistent low-level chaos. Classes were always noisy and somewhat free-form, with a fair share of scolding (from the adults and children in equal measure), but it was clear that Mr. Booth - for all of his on-the-job training and baptism by fire - had earned the affection and respect of the students. Despite ample reasons to be discouraged - even crestfallen - he was always unfailingly optimistic and hopeful. He was never at a want for an encouraging word, and his mind was always at work trying to come up with new ways to capture his students' imaginations or motivate them to achieve higher. (One morning, I was shocked to come into his classroom and see a full-sized replica of a fully-operational traffic light, which Mr. Booth cheerfully explained was going to anchor his new behavior management system. It worked for a while but before long became just quirky and distracting.) Most revealing, though, was the fact that his students - in all of their craziness - clamored to be around him. They came early, stayed late, and seemed to bask in the attention he lavished on them.

When the spring rolled around and it was time to start thinking about a Peacemaker Project, Janet and I approached the process with something like hopeful trepidation. By this time, Janet had taken over lead teaching, although I regularly backed her up. Despite the stress that they induced in us, we - like Mr. Booth - had grown to enjoy these students a lot. They had character. And so when they told Janet, maybe impulsively, that they wanted to write a hip hop song for their project - a prospect that would surely have scared off teachers less novice than any of the three of us - she sought out a way to make it happen.

We asked around and found a local hip hop artist who said he'd come to the class. The visit was an occasion that prompted both fifth grades to crowd into the small classroom for an impromptu concert and discussion about positive hip hop lyrics and a session of brainstorming ideas. The whole class spent a few weeks on free-writing exercises and then started writing draft verses. Most of the first drafts centered around how they were 'the best rapper alive' - or similarly-themed self-referential odes - which we gently tried to redirect to issues that they saw in their communities. Before long, the ideas came freely: drugs, violence, single parenting and absent fathers, even hope that someday there would be a black president.

With verses in various draft stages, Janet set out to find a way to record the song. The classes became increasingly cantankerous, as students competed to collaborate with each other or have more or less of their verse included in the final product. And when Janet brought in music samples and had them try rapping to a beat, everyone had an opinion on which songs were or were not good enough and everyone wanted to be heard at once. It was as loud and as chaotic as it had been on the first day. And yet this was not the same as the first day. Somehow, this chaos felt more focused.

When she wasn't in class or working with students on their verses, Janet was calling around trying to find a recording studio. Finally, she got in touch with some graduate students at the Berklee College of Music who agreed to sign out a recording studio for a day so they could record and mix the students' song. It was the field trip to beat all field trips. We took the train to Berklee in the morning and crowded into the studio as the Berklee students explained the process: first, they'd figure out some music samples and loop them (when our students started singing along to the chorus of 2Pac's "Baby Don't Cry," they knew they found the hook); then, they'd bring students in two or three at a time to record lyrics; and finally, they'd edit it all together. If all went well, we'd be able to walk out that same day with a CD in our hand.

It wasn't always easy. Students got restless when they weren't recording. Some needed more takes than others to get it just right. A couple of students asked Mr. Booth to read their verses for them at the last minute (which he did). But when we finally arrived back at the school at 2:00, they were able to borrow a CD-player from the kindergarten teacher across the hall and debut their song for the first time with the principal and several of the other adults in listening in. It was a remarkable moment. Students were beside themselves with pride, unselfconsciously singing along to their own voices and smiling broad smiles. Adults, very few of whom would have been able to imagine such a moment back in September, were astonished.

The fifth grade students who wrote that song in the spring of 2002 are turning 18 this year. I wonder often where they are, what they're thinking, what kind of people they have become, and what else they've accomplished. I don't take for granted the fact that the road has not been easy for some of them, but I'm hopeful that the verses they wrote in their halting ten-year-old handwriting have stayed with them on the journey.

Never Gave Up
Mr. Booth's Fifth Grade (2001-2002)

Let's share the Nathan Hale virtues:
peace, community, pay your dues
We are the future, so we're here right now
To keep the peace, and we'll show you how

Yo, the violence in our community is insane
It is deformed and ugly, (what would I like to do?)
I am the future
stop these drugs, stop these thugs,
stop the illin', stop the killin'
Yo, yo, when you smoke, it messes up your brain,then you start going insane
You start getting weak, you won't be able to take the heat
Aright, aright, okay, come on,
Yo, people need to help each other out
Yeah, killin's not the answer, without a doubt,
Alright, goin' to the store to gettin' shot, what's that all about?
There's shootin' at night, that's not even right
It takes your brain, then it gives you a death...

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry

What's going on with our community today,
we got drive-by's like every day
You see drug dealers ain't keeping it clean
We tryin' to set the world free with dignity
I love the world with dignity
C'mon (yeah, I feel ya)
Anger's like a stranger,
it's about to change ya
Let the change be for humanity

Our rap is clear, our message is plain:
violence and drugs will drive you insane
One, your vein, feel the shame, miss the train,
You'll ruin your brain on cocaine
Don't even know your name

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
(Listen to your teacher)
Baby don't cry

Yo, it's united we stand, divided we fall
We should respect each other,
whether blacks, whites, Latinos, and all
I can't take the pain
There are gunshots springing, bullets like rain,
But they don't fall soft, only hard
I just want you to relax, till I picture you, God

We are diverse, with all different faces.
How come our presidents don't share our races?
White's alright, but in my crayon box
there's also reds, yellows, and blacks
We can be anything we want to be, but it will take time
Even if you're too busy, our future will not wait

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry

We have teen pregnancy and we can't be free till we stop and see
Can we please stop and see?
Family is a need, not a want,
Doesn't matter if it's a mother or not
But where are the fathers when their kids need 'em the most?
They're out sowing their royal oats

We are the future of the world today
We need to stop and pray, people are dyin' everyday
Without education, can't do what we want, can't make our dreams come true
Tomorrow's sunrise is the light we see
Tomorrow's promise is ours to keep
The world we share is under the gun,
the peace and creatures for everyone
We believe in humankind, no one will be left behind
If you are lost, let me draw you a map:
We're from the Hale School,
and this is our rap!

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry