Finding Higher Ground through Peacebuilding

One Step at a Time, One Book at a Time

Wel­come to the sec­ond arti­cle in our series, Peace-olo­gy: Find­ing High­er Ground. In this arti­cle we explore the mean­ing of peace­build­ing and what the infra­struc­ture for peace can look like in one class­room and through­out a school. We also sug­gest a pic­ture book and a book for the “adult on the rug,” both which explore the deep con­cept of peace­build­ing, leav­ing us with these ques­tions: What peace are you build­ing? Who might be miss­ing from the table?

What is Higher Ground?

Joyce: The con­cept of High­er Ground is an abil­i­ty to move to a high­er lev­el of see­ing and respond­ing, to grow into a greater aware­ness of the needs of all so we can act more often on behalf of the great­est good and respond com­pas­sion­ate­ly to the human needs of those dif­fer­ent from our­selves. How can we see and respond with greater aware­ness when we begin to build the infra­struc­ture for peace? That was a burn­ing ques­tion I pur­sued at East­ern Men­non­ite Uni­ver­si­ty in Har­rison­burg, Vir­ginia. How can peo­ple trans­form — not solve, not fix — con­flicts by build­ing some­thing new between peo­ple? Can these con­cepts be direct­ly applied to our schools and class­rooms? Here’s what I learned:

Peace­build­ing is about build­ing a new kind of social struc­ture, built col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly by a group that shares a new vision and cre­ates new rela­tion­ships among those involved. In schools, this involves new rela­tion­ships between school lead­ers and teach­ers, teach­ers and their peers, teach­ers and stu­dents, and stu­dents and their peers. It involves a re-work­ing on how peo­ple be togeth­er and how they learn together.

Peace­build­ing is based on an eth­ic of care. Stu­dents need to feel seen and heard by their teach­ers and acknowl­edged, val­ued, and appre­ci­at­ed for who they are and what they con­tribute to their class com­mu­ni­ty. They also need feed­back on what is appro­pri­ate and what is not, with­out being shamed.

Peace­build­ing is par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, empow­er­ing every­one involved to make deci­sions and solve prob­lems. Stu­dents build a sense of self-effi­ca­cy by see­ing their ideas as part of the plan. Teach­ers also ben­e­fit. They not only build clos­er rela­tion­ships with their stu­dents, but also with one another.

Peace­build­ing builds a sense of belong­ing among stu­dents, staff, teach­ers, and school lead­ers. The feel­ing of belong­ing is some­thing that engen­ders hope and a sense of agency. Every­one is wel­comed at the table. *

What does it take to begin the process of peace­build­ing and sus­tain­ing peace in our class­rooms and schools? Courage to move for­ward. Fore­sight to envi­sion or imag­ine a peace cul­ture in a class­room or school. Cre­ativ­i­ty to offer par­tic­i­pa­to­ry oppor­tu­ni­ties to build com­mu­ni­ty and a sense of belong­ing. Inspi­ra­tion to invite teach­ers, prin­ci­pals, and stu­dent lead­er­ship into the work of peace­build­ing. Many addi­tion­al High­er Ground qual­i­ties, such as dis­ci­pline, under­stand­ing, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, good­will, and accep­tance also come into play.

How does Renee Dauk-Bleess, art teacher at Oak Crest Ele­men­tary become a cat­a­lyst for peace­build­ing in her 3 – 6 grade class­room and school? Read on.

Creating a Classroom’s Infrastructure for Peace

What is peace?

What kind of per­son should I be?

Keep pur­su­ing answers to these questions.

—Sachiko Yasui

Renee: These final words, at the very end of Caren Stelson’s young adult non­fic­tion book Sachiko: A Nagasa­ki Bomb Survivor’s Sto­ry, deeply moved me. Sachiko’s ques­tions were a call to action, urg­ing me to reflect upon the renewed impor­tance of social/emotional learn­ing in the class­room. Think­ing about these words was a cat­a­lyst for change. Look­ing back, I real­ize now Sachiko’s impor­tant mes­sage was the foun­da­tion­al build­ing block of peace­build­ing in my ele­men­tary art room.

In the sum­mer of 2020, Caren and I recon­nect­ed over her new­ly pub­lished pic­ture book, A Bowl Full of Peace, based on the events from the true sto­ry of Sachiko. We spoke of the impor­tance of teach­ing kind­ness, peace, and com­pas­sion to stu­dents, of build­ing rela­tion­ships with hun­dreds of stu­dents as a spe­cial­ist teacher, and of devel­op­ing a cul­ture of peace for an entire school. But how?

What changes could I make in my Art Room?

A Phys­i­cal Space for Peace: I want­ed to cre­ate a cozy space, a wel­com­ing space in the back of my room — A Peace Place. This was to replace the stark table and chair I put in the cor­ner for a pre­vi­ous “take a break” place. I brought back my grandmother’s rock­ing chair from the front, (I could no longer gath­er stu­dents togeth­er on the rug to read/share/teach due to COVID social dis­tanc­ing require­ments) and arranged it in front of a small desk with a table­cloth and soft blue rug under­neath. I hung a beau­ti­ful poster with calm­ing water and reminders to breathe. I col­lect­ed a bas­ket of books about peace for stu­dents to browse through and read, and post­ed Sachiko’s ques­tions on the wall. I want­ed this to be a place for all stu­dents; to let them know that they were wel­come in this room and could use the Peace Place at any time.

The Peace Place is also for me. When a dif­fi­cult behav­ior issue aris­es, instead of mak­ing a knee-jerk com­ment or reac­tion, I sim­ply walk back, rock, and think about peace, what kind of per­son I want to be, and how to best pur­sue the answer to that ques­tion. Stu­dents fall silent; they know that I am doing the work of peace­mak­ing for myself. This pow­er­ful act has made such an impact. It has giv­en the Peace Place a gen­uine, cer­ti­fied value.

Peace Place
The Peace Place

The Peace Place is now part of my dai­ly art les­son. When I intro­duce the Peace Place at the begin­ning of the year, I mod­el walk­ing back myself and rock­ing in Grandma’s Chair, explain­ing it was one of the few things that I had of hers since she passed away almost 40 years ago. A brass tor­toise, dis­cov­ered on a “free” pile, just spoke to me. It is now a beloved part of the Peace Place. Stu­dents are encour­aged to reach out and touch it, ground­ing themselves.

Now at the begin­ning of each art class, as I share the Peace Place slide, I sim­ply raise my hand to invite a stu­dent to go back and sit in Grandma’s Chair, rock, breathe, and find their peace. Hands always go up. In each of my 19 class­es, every day a 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th grad­er qui­et­ly walks back to the Peace Place and is wel­comed by that space. It is a chance for every stu­dent to feel that they have “a seat at the table.” Every­one has a qui­et, safe place to sim­ply breathe, rock, and reflect. Many of my spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents find com­fort there; stu­dents who are hav­ing a hard day find solace in Grandma’s rock­ing chair. The phys­i­cal act of rock­ing itself has a ther­a­peu­tic effect for chil­dren and adults. Stu­dents use the space not only at the begin­ning of class, but through­out art class, as need­ed. It has been an impor­tant tool in help­ing stu­dents self-reg­u­late and allows stu­dents at Oak Crest to cul­ti­vate an authen­tic rela­tion­ship of trust with them­selves and with their teacher.

An Atmos­phere of Peace: As Joyce Bonafield-Pierce wrote, “Peace­build­ing is based on an eth­ic of care.” I want stu­dents to under­stand that I care deeply about them, that I will try my best to treat them with lov­ing kind­ness, peace, and com­pas­sion every day. I began to inten­tion­al­ly ver­bal­ize and phys­i­cal­ly mod­el the word “peace” to explain my class­room envi­ron­ment and cli­mate. In addi­tion to the Peace Place, stu­dents enter the Art Room to an atmos­phere of soft, calm­ing, instru­men­tal music with nature scenery played on the big screen (“Win­ter Woods” by Tim Janis is the cur­rent selec­tion). Lights are dimmed, but a large bank of win­dows still brings in plen­ty of nat­ur­al light. There is also a small water foun­tain and bat­tery-oper­at­ed can­dles flick­er­ing gen­tly up front. We begin class by tak­ing a qui­et moment and keep­ing our bod­ies so still that the only sound we hear is the trick­le of the water. Often­times I close my eyes, place a hand on my bel­ly, and just breathe deeply. Once the room feels calm and peace­ful, we begin our les­son. I often thank stu­dents for tak­ing the moment to be still and qui­et their bod­ies. Stu­dents nod, oth­ers take a deep breath them­selves. Togeth­er, we are ready to learn. 


A Lex­i­con of Peace: To sup­port our Sec­ond Step Social/Emotional Cur­ricu­lum, each Mon­day dur­ing announce­ments, our prin­ci­pal out­lines an impor­tant social/emotional skill to focus on for the week, called the “Tiger Tar­get.” To empha­size the Tiger Tar­get, I cre­ate an engag­ing Google doc and type up a kid-friend­ly expla­na­tion of the goal for the week. I let stu­dents know that I care enough to take time out of Art Class to help them bet­ter under­stand the impor­tance of these life skills. Often, I ref­er­ence Joyce Bonafield-Pierce’s High­er Ground words, which appear not only on our Block Par­ty col­lab­o­ra­tive mur­al in the hall, but on large chart paper in the classroom.

Devel­op­ing a lex­i­con of peace allows me to build rela­tion­ships with stu­dents and teach with a shared vocab­u­lary. Using words that show we respect one anoth­er, we step onto High­er Ground and build peace — one word and one action at a time. 

I’ve noticed a fun­da­men­tal shift in how stu­dents inter­act with each oth­er, and how I inter­act with them. Peace­build­ing is hap­pen­ing, slow­ly but sure­ly. As Ellie Rosch­er com­ment­ed, “Last­ing work moves slow­ly, at the speed of trust.” Togeth­er, the almost 500 stu­dents at Oak Crest Ele­men­tary and I are work­ing at the speed of trust, towards cul­ti­vat­ing a cli­mate of peace, kind­ness, and compassion. 

Peace­build­ing is a deep, pro­found com­mit­ment. To edu­cate for peace, to cre­ate a cul­ture of peace in my Art Room that could rever­ber­ate through­out our school, I sim­ply start­ed with three ele­men­tary blocks impor­tant to peacebuilding:

  • Cre­ate a phys­i­cal space that sup­ports and upholds teach­ing for peace
  • Set up a calm­ing atmos­phere of peace, using the beau­ty of nature, music and the sound of water, and 
  • Inten­tion­al­ly mod­el and inte­grate a shared lex­i­con of peace

With this work, I tru­ly believe that I am hon­or­ing and answer­ing Sachiko’s call: “What is peace? What kind of per­son should I be? Keep pur­su­ing answers to these ques­tions.” We are gen­uine­ly build­ing peace, one build­ing block at a time, in the ele­men­tary Art Room.

Envisioning Peacebuilding with Picture Books

The Year We Learned to FlyCaren: Jacque­line Woodson’s beau­ti­ful new pic­ture book The Year We Learned to Fly, illus­trat­ed by Rafael Lopez, offers a sto­ry of peace­build­ing, begin­ning with the first step— envi­sion­ing a new way of liv­ing and being. Wood­son begins with imag­i­na­tion. On a rainy day, a sis­ter and a broth­er are stuck inside their apart­ment, bored and quar­rel­ing. Their grand­moth­er steps in and says, “Use those beau­ti­ful and bril­liant minds of yours. Lift your arms, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing.” Over time, the chil­dren lift their arms and learn to fly through their imag­i­na­tion to a bet­ter world, a world of jus­tice and free­dom that their African and African Amer­i­cans ances­tors believed in, too. When the chil­dren move to a new, unwel­com­ing neigh­bor­hood, the chil­dren trust in their imag­i­na­tions to build friend­ships, spread kind­ness, and cre­ate a neigh­bor­hood where every­one can belong — where every­one is wel­come at the peace­build­ing table. Read aloud The Year We Learned to Fly, and invite chil­dren to use their imag­i­na­tions. What could we do togeth­er to turn our homes, schools, and neigh­bor­hoods into tru­ly wel­com­ing peace places for all?

Enxpanding the Peacebuilding Team

I Bring the Voices of My PeopleEllie: The work of racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is one of the most urgent peace build­ing projects of our time. In I Bring the Voic­es of My Peo­ple, Dr. Chanequa Walk­er-Barnes right­ful­ly argues that the voic­es of black women have long been exclud­ed from the peace­build­ing table.

Walk­er-Barnes writes, “The results of this exclu­sive­ly male gaze are a body of lit­er­a­ture and an approach to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that are less about end­ing racism than they are about ensur­ing that White men and men of col­or have equal access to male priv­i­lege” (p 10). The peo­ple lim­it­ed by racism the most, who see it, feel it, and live it every day, are often not lead­ing the peace­build­ing efforts, result­ing in a world where “much of what pass­es for racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion feels like an inter­ra­cial play­date” (p 203) instead of true, trans­for­ma­tion­al peace building.

An essen­tial step to build­ing peace, regard­less of the work’s focus, is to know where we hold sys­temic pow­er and be acute­ly aware of who sets the table, who invites folks to the table, who is sit­ting at the table, and whose voic­es at the table are giv­en pref­er­ence and ampli­fied. Authen­tic rela­tion­ship is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent here. The last­ing work moves slow­ly, at the speed of trust, which is why peace­build­ing is such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary process in our fast-paced, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty-dri­ven soci­ety. Yet to build strong and trans­for­ma­tion­al peace, the most mar­gin­al­ized voic­es speak­ing truth to pow­er must be cen­tered and allowed to imag­ine and vision the way for­ward so we may all ben­e­fit from reconciliation.

Peace­build­ing is the work that will affect our descen­dants for gen­er­a­tions to come. Before the build­ing even begins, how can we set tables that include place set­tings for folks his­tor­i­cal­ly exclud­ed? For chil­dren? For our ances­tors? How can we join table con­ver­sa­tions already in progress? Take a moment to ask—

What peace are you building?

Who might be miss­ing from the table?”


* The term peace­build­ing was fur­ther described by John Paul Led­er­ach, Direc­tor of East­ern Men­non­ite Uni­ver­si­ty’s Con­flict Trans­for­ma­tion Pro­gram and lat­er, Direc­tor of the Joan B. Kroc Insti­tute for Inter­na­tion­al Peace Stud­ies at Notre Dame Uni­ver­si­ty. Among Lederach’s many books are: The Moral Imag­i­na­tion: The Art and Soul of Build­ing Peace, The Lit­tle Book of Con­flict Trans­for­ma­tion, and Build­ing Peace: Sus­tain­able Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Divid­ed Societies. 


For each Peace-olo­gy post, Caren, Ellie, Renee, and Joyce part­ner to learn and explore the mean­ing of peace by talk­ing and lis­ten­ing with each oth­er. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and chil­dren, please share your com­ments here, vis­it our web­sites, or con­nect with Joyce and Renee about their High­er Ground work.

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