Conversations pertaining to work often begin like this:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a high school teacher.”
“What do you teach?”
And then it takes a moment to register. The follow-up question usually is, “Is that a real class in high school?”

And thus begins the story of how classes on nonviolence wind up in high schools.

I tell people about the various chapters, how we start out at the beginning of the semester with personal peacemaking and nonviolent responses to assault. Students always want to know how a pacifist would respond if he or she were to be attacked by a random stranger leaping from the bushes or from behind a dumpster in a dark alley. So I ask them how many of them have ever been physically hit by a random stranger in any way at any point in their lives. Maybe one or two people. Then I ask them how many people have ever been physically hit by a member of their family or someone they know at any point in their lives. Nearly every hand goes up. We worry about the boogeyman and abandoned buildings but fail to address some of the most conflict-ridden arenas, the places where we usually go like home, school and work.

That’s how the semester begins, by examining our own personal lives. This first chapter introduces students to nonviolence, the myths, the truths and the power of responding with nonviolent force to our precarious lives. We create a working definition of peace, of violence, conflict and of nonviolence. We explore where we need to create spaces for peace in our lives, in our communities, in our state, in our nation and in our world. We start to learn about consensus, following a process and taking turns. We begin to disarm our disbeliefs, our doubts and our misgivings about peacemaking. We start to let our defenses down in order to let peace in.

After establishing a baseline for conceptualizing nonviolence, the class learns about historical figures who usually get the short end of the stick in traditional high school classes. Primary sources are a must in Solutions to Violence, the name of the course which I teach and which my mentor, Colman McCarthy, founded. We study Gandhi in his own words. We watch A Force More Powerful, the video series by York&Ackerman which aired on PBS in October 2000. We read Dr. King in his own words, and learn about the civil rights movement, hassle lines and nonviolence trainings. The class begins to understand the structure and discipline which nonviolence requires. We then read Dorothy Day, learning about intentional communities and communal living. The students I teach are accustomed to mass marketing, consumerism and capitalism, so Dorothy Day’s commitment to generosity, hospitality and precarity tends to shock them. That chapter demonstrates a very exciting learning curve.

Next we read Gene Sharp, Tolstoy’s “Patriotism or Peace”, Daniel Berrigan and a very articulate piece by Joan Baez which examines a dialogue between a pacifist and a skeptic. We learn about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq as a result of the economic embargo, about the School of the Americas Watch movement, about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, about sweatshops and maquiladoras, about child labor and child soldiers, about economics and the Pentagon and about the environment and animal rights. By the end of the semester, the Students in Solutions to Violence know how to find alternative news and pacifist perspectives on the Internet from websites like Commondreams, Indymedia and the Nonviolence Web.

What students really learn…

“This class made a difference in my life. I see things in a whole new way now that I didn’t see before. I’m not saying this class changed my whole viewpoint on life, but it did help me to be a little more open-minded. I’m seeing a little more color these days than just black and white. I don’t think this class is about learning a bunch of stats and info. It’s more than that. I’ve learned to be a little more positive than negative. I hope that the class becomes required in the future.”

I hope that my students learn the specifics of nonviolence, that they learn to tell the stories of nonviolence and that they grow in their understanding of key nonviolent figures both past and present. Even more than the facts, though, I hope that they learn about themselves. About halfway through the semester, I ask the class what they think my goals are in teaching Solutions to Violence. Items from the following list invariably arise each semester in their responses to that question:

Compassion. Compassion is a difficult skill to teach. Everywhere around them in the world, they learn to be tough, not to show their softer side and that kindness is a weakness. Perhaps the best place to start is teaching with compassion. My mentor, Colman McCarthy, gave me some good advice about how to do this. He told me that before every class, he reminds himself to listen more than talk. He says that good listeners have many friends and poor listeners have many acquaintances. Many people like to talk just to hear their heads rattle. The skill of being a good listener is perhaps the most important one in the teaching profession.

I have learned many things from my students just by listening. In fact, even if I just show up to class and don’t say a word, the students will create their own dialogue because they so often need a forum to vent their emotions and share their experiences. When we study Gandhi and review the nine steps for conflict transformation, “Work on your listening skills” is one of the toughest on the list. I ask my class if, when they’re having a conversation or argument, if they are truly digesting the words of the other person, or if they’re planning in their heads what to say next, letting the other person’s words go in one ear and out the other. We so desperately want to be heard and understood, but have little experience in truly listening with patient hearts.

Compassion also comes from empathy. I always hope for my students that they make other people’s experiences a part of their own, whether they live in the same town or around the globe.

Ownership of their learning. Students have very little opportunity to exercise their natural creativity in school in no small part to the reliance on standardized testing and multiple-choice exams. These brain-numbing techniques lull the students into a passive state of receiving information without truly testing the measure of its worth, without examining it for relevance and truthfulness. Standardized tests stratify students into categories that teachers, administrators and colleges are comfortable with, but have little bearing on what students have actually learned.

I am interested in students learning. I want them to assume responsibility for their own education, and become partners with the school and their teachers in an active pursuit of knowledge. In Solutions to Violence, students have the opportunity to grade themselves, and each semester they report that this is the toughest assignment. The class writes about what they are learning, how they are learning and how it is affecting them in their daily lives. Then they must assign a comparable grade so that the administration is satisfied. Learning ought to be a cooperative process. Sharing power with the students demonstrates respect and attentiveness to their autonomy and gives them the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned. It is also tremendously valuable insight for me to know what parts of the curriculum reach the students and what elements of truth they have gleaned from the stories, videos and discussions.

This semester, one student said the following: “Why can’t you just give us grades, Miss Wells? I mean, if you gave us grades then we could just be angry with you if we didn’t like them. If we give ourselves grades, we have to live with what we have done and either be angry or happy with our own effort. Can’t you just do our grades for us?” For me, this says it all. Students are too far-removed from the processes by which we measure them. Perhaps we don’t trust them to give honest evaluations of their work. Perhaps it ought to be part of the teacher’s job to evaluate the students independently. But I believe that empowering students to grade themselves is one of the best privileges to bestow on them. They must assume responsibility this way.

Occasionally, students will respond with less-than-honest recommendations for their grades. So we review what they have written as a part of their evaluation, and use their overestimated grade as a jumping off point. What I have realized all too often, though, when a student grades himself or herself higher than I would have is that I have not accurately measured what that student has learned, and upon closer inspection, I learn that indeed that student has assumed a great deal of responsibility for taking back his/her education. Sometimes it takes a while to know what you know, though, and test-centered accountability does not take into account this gestation period for knowledge to develop.

Knowledge about the world. Most students do not read the news section of the newspaper. Many students read the sports section, but that is just not comparable. Solutions to Violence teaches them how to dissect the newspaper, learn about the places in the stories and try to connect with the lives of those impacted by international events. We talk about letters to the editor, discuss news items and read through articles, point to places on the map and follow up with case studies about places that interest the students, like Palestine and South Africa.

But Solutions to Violence is more than just encouraging students to be more informed. It is giving them the tools to take action and create change in their lives, in their school, in their community and in their world.

In the past few semesters that I have been teaching in California, my students have incorporated their theoretical knowledge about how and why nonviolence works into practical action to address current needs in the community and in the world. For example, in response to learning about the mushroom workers’ struggles to win a contract for fair pay, better health and retirement benefits, the students organized a school-wide canned food drive to benefit the farmworkers. This particular action impressed me because it was during the last week of school and coordinated primarily by the seniors in the class, people who had tuned out of nearly every other subject and had their minds only on graduation.

Nonviolence is not only about changing the world. Students begin to learn about how their hearts and minds can be transformed by considering peacemaking a legitimate skill. We read a selection from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Peace is Every Step, learning to be mindful of our breathing and to recover ourselves and refocus when our attention turns to anger and potential violence. Many times my students have reported that in a tense situation, one where they were ready to loose their cool, they remembered the conscious breathing exercises we do in class, concentrating on naming our in-breath and out-breath. When they were in control of their own emotions through mindful breathing, they felt less likely to react violently. It is this exact personal transformation which makes me believe that Solutions to Violence is a worthwhile class that ought to be a part of any standard high school curriculum.

It teaches them how to be better friends, better children, better students and better people. It helps them define their talents, articulate their thoughts and cooperate with each other.

I, too, am transformed each semester, impressed with the level of life experience and wisdom my students bring. I learn from them as much as they learn from me.

Teaching peacemaking in school is the most logical non-reactive component to ending intolerance, racism, ageism and all other forms of personal, structural and institutional violence. I am hoping that more people will recognize this and that the movement to teach peace will be the saving grace for the sake of our young people, our communities and our world.
*Leah Wells is a high school teacher and the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This article was initially published in the spring edition of Peacebuilding, the newsletter of the Peace Education Commission.