Esther Fine: A Reflection of Raising Peacemakers and Better Ways of Treating Our Children and Our Planet
Talk given at 65th Annual Jewish Book Fair, Michigan, Nov. 13, 2016
In this season of struggle and sadness, when our world is trembling with catastrophe, fear and shatteringly stupid decisions, one after another, we have to remind one another that there is within the human race and within each of us, a capacity for solving problems, for loving and giving, and for learning and inventing better ways of treating our children and our planet. Public schools and teachers of conscience can help young people figure out and practice being peacemakers.
I believe there is a sixth sense. We are probably not born with it, but we are endowed with the potential to develop it. Under the right conditions, empathy and what I call “ethical wisdom” can become central to a human child and grow along with that child to maturity. My recent book, Raising Peacemakers, is a story (really many stories) about how that can sometimes begin to happen.
I’m Esther Sokolov Fine. Raising Peacemakers was published by Garn Press in New York just over a year ago. I grew up in midtown Detroit and went to school there. Later I became a teacher in Canada and eventually a professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. What a privilege to be invited back to my home town to speak about my work.
Raising Peacemakers tells the story of a 22-year research project I conducted in a small innovative public elementary school in downtown Toronto where there was a focus on peacemaking and conflict resolution. At the Downtown Alternative School (DAS), beginning in kindergarten children learned through experiences in the classroom and on the playground about respecting one another’s concerns and opinions without resorting to insults, name calling, threats, or aggressive behaviors. They learned to pause in the earliest moments of conflict, to hold back and ask themselves “what are my options here?” and then try their best to engage in honest conversation, to listen, to offer help, and sometimes do what they themselves called “a peacemaking.” In a peacemaking children gather to work something out. Usually 2 kids act as peacemakers and teachers hover and support, taking control only if the kids’ discussion becomes unfair or gets out of hand.
In opening moments of the peacemaking, the children ask each other a series of questions:
- Do you want to solve the problem?
- Do you want to solve with kids or teachers? (most of the time the answers are “yes” and “with kids”)
- Do you agree to listen and tell the truth?
- No plugging your ears?
- No interrupting?
- No stepping on toes?
- No arguing back and forth?
- No denying?
In this new political environment, I think we need to add some questions:
- No insults?
- No threats?
- No racial or gender slurs?
- No put downs?
- No unwanted touching?
At the conclusion of a successful peacemaking the children have listened to each other, put forward suggestions, chosen a solution, and agreed that the problem is solved. This is followed by a group handshake. When it is working well, it’s democratic practice at its best.
Since the election, I have been ruminating about what to say to children and rethinking what to say about the mission of Raising Peacemakers given this changed political climate. Children need to be reassured that despite the current bully-at-the-top model in Washington, they will be protected at school and on the streets. They need to somehow be re-convinced by caring adults that bullies are not the true heroes and that children’s voices and concerns matter. The goal is to put the peacemaker in the position of hero, reduce the status of bullies, and explore social justice together in order to build safe schools and human understanding. At the moment, our children are at risk. How are they to understand their social responsibilities in today’s world? What are they to see as their options? Whom will they trust?
Children from immigrant families, children from minority as well as majority races, communities and cultures can and must speak up respectfully and bravely and then REALLY listen to each other. And we need to keep all of our children safe and supported as they do this. As we teach children to share, we must show them how to share by the ways in which we as adults live our lives.
In the project, filmmaker Roberta King and I interviewed and recorded the peacemaking process. From 1993 to 1996 we videotaped three classrooms and playground activity for the full school day every 6 weeks. As well, we interviewed kids, teachers, and parents, and we made a feature documentary called Life at School: The DAS Tapes. Then we periodically videotaped interviews with many of these same kids as they grew up. The book tells in story form (incorporating many of their voices) how this all transpired, and then describes some of the important thoughts and work of these young people 22 years later. For example, on page 104 is a picture of Jessica as a child, and on page 105 as a young adult talking about how peacemaking has influenced her thinking and her life choices. I believe that the voices and the story in Raising Peacemakers will help teachers, parents, and all readers figure out ways to work with children’s aspirations, problems, and questions today and for many years to come. I hope you enjoy it. Thank you.
Raising Peacemakers by Esther Sokolov Fine tells a twenty-two year story of kids growing up with peacemaking as their foundation. At Downtown Alternative School (DAS), a small public elementary school in Toronto, child-to-child conflicts were understood as opportunities. Children and adults worked hard to create a warm inclusive community where differing viewpoints and disagreements could be handled fairly and safely.
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Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-12-4 – Amazon | Barnes & Noble
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-13-1 – Amazon
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Purchase: Shop at the Garn Store
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