Garn Press Book Excerpt: “Raising Peacemakers” by Esther Sokolov Fine

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.

esther-fine-2Raising Peacemakers

By: Esther Sokolov Fine
AmazonBarnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo eBooks and other retailers
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-19-3
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-12-4
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-13-1
Garn Press Imprint: People and Society
Genre: Nonfiction

 

 

 

Chapter 8: “Teacher Voices” (Book Excerpt)

We interviewed teachers Marie, Lori, and Ann on a regular basis during the 1993-1996 phase when the children were in elementary grades. Ten years later we met with them again to learn how their teaching had evolved, and about influences the DAS experience might be having on their more recent work.

From the phase 1 interviews with Marie (1993-1996):

In after school interviews Marie talked about her 4th – 6th grade program at DAS. She also articulated her understandings of peacemaking. She wisely reminds us that conflict is an ongoing fact of life, and that there will always be disagreements. Marie says:

They’re going to argue … and children deal with it a little differently than adults, they don’t rationalize as [easily], or they don’t … use their logic … they don’t know how to manage anger as quickly, I think, as we might … so, they lash out a lot faster … you have to be realistic too, about what to expect from them … I think I’m getting more that way too as I … teach longer … you begin to accept some of this, but not in a way that you’re going to let it happen … you’re going to deal with it differently in a more realistic way. You know, you become less idealistic the longer you teach, but I hold on to what I want to do with them. That’s still there intact, if not stronger than ever.

Marie explains that in her DAS classroom problems are solved quite naturally. The students are aware of what is going on, and what their responsibilities are within the structure of the classroom. She ponders her own responsibility and how her own actions can affect the children and herself either positively or negatively. Marie holds to the principle that without any responsibilities then there are no rights. She says:

People can’t just have rights and not the other. It won’t work. So it’s a perfect balance where there’s individual choice, but … the individual choice doesn’t outweigh the choice of the group, where there’s individual say and opinions, but your opinion doesn’t [outweigh] the opinion of the group. And, if the opinion of the group is that we are doing this and we’re doing it this way, then you have to compromise … because that’s how it works in a big group; you can’t have your say all the time … so that’s a skill to me, and it’s a skill that brings you to responsible citizenship.

Several years after her time at DAS, Marie founded Voice Integrative School (VIS), a privately run, not-for-profit school in Toronto that focuses on global education. The school continues to evolve.

From the phase 2 interview with Lori (2004):

Like Marie, Lori taught at DAS during the early years of her career. Some ten years later, she filled us in on her work after DAS:

It was a big, big transition to go from an alternative school to the regular stream. It was a huge shock. I mourned DAS for a year … I thought I had made a really huge mistake. I felt like a fish out of water, but slowly, I’ve managed to integrate … I feel really fortunate that that was the foundation of my teaching career. I learned a lot of things [at DAS]. I learned a lot about children. I learned a lot about parents … [and] had fabulous colleagues along the way … those kids were my “pre-Kate” children. So before having my own child … I was invested in them emotionally much more than I am with my students now, just by virtue of the fact that I have my own child and all those feelings go for her, rightly so. So when I think back to [DAS kids] … I love them.

I feel very fortunate to have started at DAS and to have met the wonderful, kind, child-centered people that I met, who really loved children and who were completely dedicated to making the lives of children as rich and as safe as they could.

After that first year [after DAS] where I was just so unhappy and thinking, what the heck was I doing … and leaving my baby for the first time, going back to work full-time, and it was not a happy year for me … but I’ve grown accustomed to it and I like my school.

You know for these kids, they didn’t have the language of conflict resolution. They didn’t know how to talk beyond blaming. And so, the first, the beginning of the year it’s about trying to listen to what people need, being able to say what you actually need from the other person, rather than blaming … and regurgitating all the past, you know conflicts, that they’ve had in the past. So there’s a lot of work to be done.

But I tend to talk to kids about problems that affect all of us, in a whole group forum, and that’s always interesting too because … it’s nice to have all of these philosophies, but then you have thirty-five personalities who need to be able to sit, fit on a carpet, and be able to listen to one another and not interrupt … and learn how to be respectful to one another and … [with their] varying levels of ability, to speak to each other about their feelings and speak in a respectful way about their perspectives, and that kind of thing. So that’s how I handle conflict.

How I handle conflict in the general school population when I’m out on duty in the halls or in the stairwell is that I’m fairly clear about what I expect, and respect is the big one for me, and being kind to one another, not walking through a doorway and letting the door slam [into] the person … similar to DAS, we don’t have a lot of physical problems at our school but, you know, there’s exclusion and that kind of thing, that you [have to handle] with children all the time. So I often say, “You can’t say you can’t play,” (Paley, 1993). Even though [this school has] 430 students … it’s not okay for you to exclude somebody, but it happens.

Lori tells us that at her new school she felt overwhelmed by things that got in the way when she wanted to follow through with a problem, unlike DAS, where she took for granted that everybody was invested in solving problems. At DAS she could casually and easily ask another adult to cover her class while she worked with kids to resolve an issue. At her new school she came to the following realization:

Something has to give. I can’t leave a class of thirty-five students unattended while I deal with two students who are having a conflict. Where at DAS, I could say to somebody, “Could you cover my class because I need to talk to … to work through this problem with these two kids.” When I was having a “girl issue” at the very beginning of the year, there were other players from other classrooms, so I had to go and talk to their teachers about releasing them and how much time they would be willing to allow for that problem to be rehashed and solved because one of the things at DAS was the problem isn’t solved until everybody feels that it is. And some people need a lot of time.

What I find with kids [who] come to me is that I really have to spend a good six weeks integrating them into my set of expectations, because I want to get down to some fun learning and have some creative interactions with them. But unless they have some ability to manage their own behavior and keep themselves organized, and take responsibility for their own learning and how they interact with other people … that becomes impossible.

So, my indoctrination process is the first six weeks of school. And you know, you have to review … mathematics is a building block, language is a building block. But they come [to] you from all over the place. So, you have kids who are skilled in math, some strands of math and not in others, so it’s all over the map. I hope that what I teach and what I believe, and how I feel about children and parents and teachers working together is the right thing, but who knows? I mean, what’s to say that a child coming out of my classroom gets a better education than a child coming out of somebody else’s classroom? I think that they come out of my classroom thinking a little bit more, questioning a little bit more. Feeling like they have a right to say what they don’t like, knowing how to say what they don’t like and in a respectful way … feeling like they have power as human beings to make change in the world.

Lori talks about incorporating math and writing with other aspects of learning that she considers important:

I can give them those skills in conjunction with what I think is a humane education … I bring my own personality to this deal. And I’m strong-minded … I have strong expectations of myself and of the kids … they have to care about other people’s feelings. They can’t be selfish or self-centered … learning is an exciting adventure. And if you don’t … understand something, you have the right to say to your teacher, “I don’t understand this and you need to help me.”

I like the fact that our kids … you know, sometimes, I’m tired and I want to brush them off, but they don’t let me. I think that’s good. I think it’s important that they make sure that I hear them.

Lori and Marie were key contributors to the DAS peacemaking journey. It is important to pay close attention to their words and to learn how they have gone on to do their innovative work in subsequent years.

 

About Raising Peacemakers

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.

While the book includes documentation and transcripts, it’s a narrative rather than an academic text. It’s the author’s story and many stories. It’s a trail of re-thinking, negotiating and re-negotiating, solving and re-solving (occasionally resolving) teaching and learning dilemmas. It’s a tale of one school’s brave and optimistic effort to create and sustain healthy, safe, equitable, and academically relevant conditions for and with people whose lives were and are at stake in public education. It’s about children and adults growing together as they discover more about what it means (and what it takes) to become responsible citizens who care about each other, about their community, and about the world.

Raising Peacemakers shows that an authentic approach to managing child-to-child conflicts, learned in kindergarten, stayed with young children as they grew into adolescence and adulthood. It demonstrates by contrary example the profound error of standardized programs-in-a-box for “conflict resolution” and, by implication, much else in education” –Carole Edelsky. Learn more about Raising Peacemakers and Esther Sokolov Fine.

 

Reviews

Raising Peacemakers shows that an authentic approach to managing child-to-child conflicts, learned in kindergarten, stayed with young children as they grew into adolescence and adulthood. It demonstrates by contrary example the profound error of standardized programs-in-a-box for “conflict resolution” and, by implication, much else in education. Raising Peacemakers accomplishes this by offering pieces of the rarest of educational research: a longitudinal study over 22 years—highly readable interlocking stories told by the same participants at different times of their lives. And holding these all together is the wise, quiet, honest voice of Esther Sokolov Fine. Read Raising Peacemakers as a meditation or as an inspiration. It is both. – Carole EdelskyProfessor Emerita Arizona State University February, 2015

 

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