Peace education is important in achieving a peaceful society. However, educators in Africa have not given adequate attention to peace education especially in lower levels of learning. Children naturally absorb the spirit of violence from their environment. Therefore, it would be important for educators to guide them in filtering the happenings in their environment so as to build a peaceful culture through education. Past efforts in peace education dealt in teaching conflict resolution or negotiation skills. This presentation provides an alternative method of building a “Culture of Peace” through collaborative story writing. Though studies have been conducted on the power of narratives in conflict formation and transformation, the power of narratives to build communities and seek social justice, teaching contested narratives, and peace education, there is no adequate studies on how collaborative writing can help children create new narratives that builds a “Culture of Peace.
Five years ago I asked my students to write a one page personal essay on their greatest desire. I expected them to write about normal things that concern 14 year olds. But my students were not ordinary teenagers, they were refugees, born to refugee parents from Somali, Sudan and Congo. Some of them had never been to their countries. I noticed a pattern in their essays, they wrote about the past and the desire to be remembered. At first I thought this was a manifestation of trauma, that is, their brains had registered a traumatic experience in indelible images to which they were returning to again and again. But as I later learnt, my students had not experienced direct violence, they were being haunted by images of a different kind. They were haunted by images only words can create. They had grown up on a diet of narratives about their lost native homes, people and culture. Analyzing these narratives gave me insights on how the students perceived their current world and their role in it. I learnt about their fears, insecurities and threats to their identity. I realized that my students were trapped inside narratives, passed down to them by their parents, religious leaders and peers.
Some of these narratives made me uncomfortable, for instance, in a personal essay about building a legacy, three quarters of the class expressed a desire to engage in violent acts. In some essays students wrote in a manner that rendered the image of the “other” problematic. I noticed that though my students had never been to war or experienced it directly, their views were not different from the dominant narratives about the wars in their parents fled from.
I had conducted some independent research on narratives of peace and conflicts, focusing on the place of literature in the reconstruction of a society and I figured out I can use the personal essays as an entry point in building a “Culture of Peace”.
My aim in this presentation is to briefly explore the power of narratives, the importance of building a “Culture of Peace” among children and then share my personal reflection on how my students used collaborative writing to create mediated narratives.
The power of narratives in conflict formation and transformation
Scholars such as Nathan Funk and Abdul Aziz Said have extensively written on how narratives bind individuals together in a community and reinforce their collective identity by providing a reservoir from which members draw from to form the basis of interaction with the “other” . Mark Howard describes these narratives as “frameworks for action” through which members understand their world. Scholars generally agree that narratives play a big role in understanding a conflict. They provide insights on power dynamics and on solutions that can be acceptable by a particular community. Narratives give information on how a society interprets a conflict, and how they perceive the “other”. They reveal the fears of communities in conflicts and as John Paul Lederach explains, “one way to understand cycles of violence and protracted conflict is to visualize them as a narrative broken.”
Often, narratives are passed from generation to generation mostly by the elderly members of a society through multiple media. Children are encouraged to memorize these narratives and in some contexts, for instance, in some African communities, these narratives form the core of informal education, hence, an important part of the education of the young members of a community. It is the duty of parents but mostly grandparents to pass generational knowledge and wisdom to children through stories. These narratives validate the claims of a community regarding who they are as a people and a place.
Often, through narratives a society glorifies its past to legendary levels, hence, positioning themselves in time and place. In the case of a conflict, the narrative might be confrontational, that is, “us” versus “them” or vice versa. Most of my students clearly understood the narratives that defined their communities; their essays dwelt on how their narratives had been disrupted. They mostly wrote about a glorious past when their communities flourished.
Students do not necessarily know how their communities frame these narratives, actually they do not know at all, they just receive them from elders.
Teachers who are trained in peacebuilding can exploit the opportunities writing forums offers to create space for students to write new narratives. This does not mean that the students will discard their narratives, as John Paul Lederach says, “we have the capacity to remember the past, but we have no capacity to change it. Not even God can change the past.” But we have the ability to create a different future. This process will require a clear understanding of what this future entails. In my teaching, I envisioned this future as one that incorporates elements of “Culture of Peace”
Culture of Peace
The United Nations defines “Culture of Peace” as a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflict. “Culture of Peace” was first expressed officially at the International Congress on Peace in the Minds of People, held in Ivory Coast in 1989. 11 years later, the United Nations designated the year 2000 as the ‘International Year for Culture of Peace’ and on September 1999 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on a Culture of Peace” and the Program of Action on a Culture of Peace”.
The Culture of Peace decade was launched in 2001 and it ended one year before I started my career as a professional teacher. This decade was marked by many changes such as enshrining culture of peace in school systems, conducting trainings on conflict resolution skills, creation of peace groups, designation of youth ambassadors, and inclusion of peace education in school curriculums.
These initiatives were good but they fell short of expectations mostly due to wrong methodology. For instance, teaching children about peace and its importance, is not enough. Neither is it satisfying to teach them about conflicts and how to resolve them. Their understanding of conflicts and peace is shaped by the narratives that bind their community, hence, proper peace education that seeks to build sustainable Peace should involve the participation of children in what Lederach calls “the art of restorying”, which means providing students a platform for the narrative voice to create a desired future. I used collaborative writing as a platform for this transformation.
Now I will share my experiments, and I call them experiments because at that time, I wasn’t sure whether they will lead to any positive change
Collaborative writing rests on a social constructivist view of learning. Its roots are based on Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory (1978). Vygotsky believed human learning is inherently a socially situated activity. He believed everything is learned first through interaction with others, and then integrated into the individual’s mental structure. Collaborative writing fits into this social cultural perspective since it enables students to engage in collaborative process of making meaning through planning, negotiating, writing and revising a story together. Scholars have argued that when students write collaboratively, they are exposed to alternative narratives and have potential to negotiate the inclusion of their own narratives . I won’t talk much about this technique, a lot has been written about it, Let me explain how I used it.
My model was based on the works of Glen Bledsoe who has given guidelines on various stages of collaborative writing.
The first stage of this process was collaborative planning. This stage enabled my students to discuss and brainstorm. They generated ideas on given topic, suggested topics of their own and sometimes told personal narratives. Sometimes I guided them in choosing meaningful, necessary and relevant topics with peace themes such as environment, gender, democracy, education, and religion. I let the students to evaluate the ideas and make choices on what to ultimately write about. They also decided on the structure of the narrative. This was the most complex stage given that it set the tone of the entire narrative. It was also complicated because of the diversity of students in my class [It happens when you have students from different countries and different ethnic groups]
After settling on a topic, they moved to the next stage
The next stage entailed collaborative composing. This stage depended on the activities done at the planning stage. Students, chose the setting of the story and created characters [People were at the core of the stories, but sometimes they used animal characters – this is very common in African oral literature]. They had to develop these characters comprehensively [ This was very interesting, you get to learn a lot on what stereotypes students have about particular people in the society.
A key element of this stage is the negotiation that takes place, some descriptions will be denied, some ideas will be accepted and others will even be booed.
I created a conducive environment by always advising students to listen to every story or idea and only make friendly amendments.
Composing was often initiated by a conversation and then transcribed onto paper (we did not have access to computers in classrooms).
Students decided on words, phrases and sentences to use. Often, composing took the form of leap frogging whereby a student made a suggestion and then another student built upon the suggestion. The process went on and on till a draft story was written to the satisfaction of students.
This stage depended on constant attention as students had to listen critically in order to build upon their peers’ suggestions. I sometimes shaped the form of the narrative through scaffolding, whereby I would compel them to explain the reasoning behind a suggestion or idea. It is at this point that narrative mediation really took place. If a student disagreed with an idea or suggestion, she negotiated with the rest of the class. This was not a democratic process per se whereby the majority hade their way, it was rather a reasoning process. Whenever they were unable to move forward, I played the devil’s advocate in order to facilitate the process.
The third stage is editing or revising. Once the draft was done, students read the story to see whether they can substitute any words, phrase or sentence and to see whether they liked the story they had just written.
Through collaborative writing, my students moved from writing personal narratives to writing stories with characters, created and developed by themselves. They decided on the setting and the form of the stories.
I cannot vouch whether these new narratives they created had a long-term impact on building “Culture of Peace” because I never really got an opportunity to evaluate the process, but the idea that students from different clans and countries were able to imagine and create new stories collaboratively, was a right step towards a peaceful coexistence. The collaborative writing process gave students opportunities to share their narratives, listen to others, and often, they traded their narrative for new ones.
I believe collaborative writing process offers opportunities for educators to build sustainable peace through mediating narratives. I think researchers and scholars should come up with a technique of evaluating the impact of this method.
Funk, Nathan and Said, Aziz “Islam and the West: Narratives of Conflict and Conflict Transformation” International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 9, Number 1 2004)
Glen Bledsoe “Collaborative Digital Writing” in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, edited by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran.(New York: Columbia University) pp. 39-45
John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination (New York: OUP, 2005) PP. 146
Lederach, The Moral Imagination (New York: OUP, 2005), PP. 148
Lev Vygotsky “Interaction between Learning and Development” in Mind and Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) pp. 79-91
Ross, Mark Howard “The Political Psychology of Competing Narratives: September 11 and Beyond.” In Craig Calhoun, Paul Price, and Ashley Timmer, eds., Understanding September 11, pp 303-320. New York: New Press.