Children know right from wrong. In 1926, during the Passaic, New Jersey, textile workers’ strike, children took to the streets. One child wrote, “We strikers’ children are getting sick and tired of the way Chief Zober has been treating the strikers. So we thought we would form a line and march to his house and let him look at the rags we were wearing and tell him to stop clubbing our parents. So we marched along about 300 of us, and sang union songs. The cops chased us, but every time we came to a corner, we formed a new picket line. Some of us got arrested, but the next day everybody was on the line again.”
The remarkable children of Passaic are to be found across the world, eager to put into practice the most elementary teachings of all: fairness and peacefulness.
Teachers like Mary Cowhey of Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, MA, walk in this tradition. She bolsters her nine years of experience in the classroom with a fourteen-year stint as a community organizer. The combination is deep: she has worked to build power in the Other America, and now teaches children who straddle the divides in this country to develop and maintain their values. Entering Cowhey’s Peace Classroom is deceptive. It looks just like any other elementary classroom, with the ubiquitous wall posters and with the medley of instructional materials on the shelves and on tables. There are some signs that something else is afoot: a Japanese character on the blackboard, a United Nations’ flag, and slogans about peace in the world. But even these are familiar in many classrooms.
What is different is the curriculum. It is not simply about reading, arithmetic and writing. That gets taught too, but not in itself. The children learn from their initial assumptions about fairness. They write about, research and add and subtract their desires to be fair in an unfair world. The logic of the curriculum is laid out in Cowhey’s first book, Black Ants and Buddhists: Teaching Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades (Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2006).
The book begins with a story from her classroom, where the students discuss how to deal with an influx of black ants. Some want to kill them, but most are unsure. One, who is a Buddhist, stops them. He implores them to let the ants, who are harmless, live. They have a discussion, and decide to gently sweep the ants out of the room. Is this the American way, Cowhey wonders? Shouldn’t she just tell the boy to get over it, for if he couldn’t deal with a bunch of crushed ants how will he deal with the aerial bombardment of Iraq? She allows the discussion to go on. What interests her is the conflict.
“Everyone had an opinion,” she writes, “everyone cared.” Given time, the students produce a reasonable outcome. The issue is time, and the need for patience to settle discord. “In these days of fast food, instant messaging, music videos, call waiting, and fast cash, our society in general and our media in particular actively and aggressively shorten our attention span. As a teacher of critical thinkers, part of my job is to deliberately nurture sustained interest in questions over time.”
The great visionary Walter Benjamin once wrote, “revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” Social justice needs time for reflection, and engagement of our mutual humanity.
I asked Cowhey if any parents have ever taken offense at her methods. No, she says. Part of this is because this is an open-minded region of the country. But also because she doesn’t tell the children what to think. She allows them to express their opinions, to be patient with the views of others and to find ways to create agreement across differences. In other words, the Peace Class teaches patience and dialogue, the basic methods of peaceful behavior.
In January 2002, as the War on Terror somersaulted all ethical debate in the country, the Peace Class read a few books on strikes and solidarity. Over snack, the kids discussed the question of the strike and the experiences of children who have resorted to this tactic. Allan, one “shy, thoughtful boy,” asked, “Maybe we could do it to stop the war.”
When another kid questioned him, he responded “softly but clearly, ‘Maybe kids could go on strike to stop the war in Afghanistan.’” At another time, a child from Kosovo cautioned about war, “It’s not like that in real life. It’s not so easy to stop.” She is of course right with her warning. But optimism is infectious.
In 2003, as the US war on Iraq came on the horizon, the Peace Class conducted a Children’s March for Peace in downtown Northampton. They marched and sang, waved signs and drank cocoa to ward off the cold. The significance of the march was that they made passersby think about their stand on the war. But more important, for the students, it made them move from thinking about stopping the war to thinking about what “they could do to stop the war.”
As Cowhey writes, “Allan got it. Allan understood that people could do something (and that children can strike and march) to try to stop the war if they think a war is wrong. Like me, he did not know exactly what his sacrifice, or his mother’s would be for peace, but he knew that at some point, peace might require him or her to do something hard, because peace is not easy.”
But learning peace is a big step in the right direction