Over the course of the last year, 10th-grade students at Monte del Sol Charter High school have been involved in an unusual initiative: History teacher Sierra Corriveau and English teacher Elizabeth Tidrick collaborated on joint history and literature class this year, based on the topic of peace and conflict. Both teachers agree that for the charter school, the class was one-of-a-kind. The two spent the summer designing a curriculum around the nontraditional teaching method of project-based learning, in which students learn through doing rather than memorizing facts and answers to a test, and spend much more time working on projects that they have selected themselves than in a normal curriculum. The final class projects is on display in a two-day installation of a "Peace Museum" at the Lannan Foundation Meeting House on Friday and Saturday April 19 and 20.
For the first half of the year, students learned about various conflicts from around the world. They read the literary accounts of people who have lived through genocides and discussed true experiences of living through conflict and creating peace at guest presentations by various members of the community, including a Special Ops veteran, a survivor of the Sierra Leone Civil War, the son of a Holocaust victim, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Don Berletti and a panel from the Peace Corps.
"Given everything that is going on in the world right now, it really felt important for the kids to be thinking through these things," says Corriveau. "The benefit of project-based learning is that the kids are much more personally invested and interested in the outcome of the class."
In one of the final classes leading up to the installation of the project, students share their reflections on the course with SFR.
One of the most important lessons the students return to as a takeaway is the importance of peace as a personal practice. "Peace can be contagious," says Brayan Roybal, "but it starts with the individual. It starts with learning to be peaceful in oneself. Honestly, after looking at all the genocides, they all started with conflicts, and conflicts start from disagreements, and disagreements start from not really being willing to listen, not really seeing each other. So that's what we have to do here in our own communities—is learn to be peaceful in ourselves and not judge each other."
Another student, Prayas Pradhan, says, "I thought there was good and bad. Now I know that there are gray areas. The bad guys, we can't just look at them like bad guys. We also have to see them as people who were probably hurt in the past or who were scared."
The students ended the course by reflecting on the topics covered throughout the year in artistic projects based on research into specific issues. One group studied methods of cultivating peace at a personal level and built a mindfulness cabin that will be set up in the museum as a sanctuary where visors and sit in quiet reflection. Other groups chose to study the topics of LGBTQ violence, rape survivors, the glorification of gun violence, and PTSD. The public can see both personal projects and a final group art pieces on the topics over the weekend at the installation.
The effort that the students put into grappling with these difficult topics is evident in the passion with which they talk about the class as they speak about how to nurture peace in society, and how it's relevant to the problems they face as young people in an uncertain world.
"This was not part of a regular community grant program," says Linda Carey, a representative of the the Lannan Foundation, which provided funding for the experiment.
When Tidrick came to them with the idea, says Carey, "We just thought that what they were doing was really in line with what the Lannan Foundation is all about, and we were touched that the kids would have the opportunity to study social justice issues, some of which have a really direct effect on their lives."
The course is unlikely to become a regular part of the curriculum at Monte del Sol, but it raises the question of how to most effectively engage students in topics such as this one that have no clear "right" answers. The teachers agree that project-based learning provides an intriguing alternative to traditional methods.
"Peace is all about learning how to communicate," says student Daniela Gonzalez-Trejo. "Our society needs to get better at this, because being peaceful doesn't mean that everyone has to think the same way. In the class I learned how important it is to be okay with people having different perspectives."
Lucas Rosas concludes, "It's about learning not to judge a book by its cover. Not to judge or stereotype other people, because you never know what's going on inside of someone."
Monte del Sol Peace Museum
5-7 pm Friday April 19 and 10 am-2 pm Saturday April 20. Free. The Lannan Foundation, 309 Read St., 986-8160.