How to Build a "Culture of Peace" at School

May 15, 2014

Kids from around the Kalamazoo area are looking forward to the fifth annual Peace Pizzazz at Bronson Park.

For many of them, it’s a capstone for a year of contemplation of what it means to respect each other and the environment.

And at Winchell Elementary in Kalamazoo, Pizzazz co-founder Kathy Murphy and her students say the program has made the school a friendlier and more cooperative place learn.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Murphy is standing by a desk in her classroom. She’s looking at some artwork by Simone, who is one of several second-graders using lunch recess to prepare for Peace Pizzazz.

Simone turns to a drawing of a dragon breathing fire at a mouse – which actually isn’t a scene of aggression.

“What was happening to the mouse here?” Murphy asks.

“The mouse was cold and the dragon heated him up with his fire,” Simone replies.

"We're trying to bring it home to them to make them feel powerful where they are" - Pizzazz co-founder Murphy

Murphy adds, "He said, ‘I’ll heat you up!'"

It’s been five years since Murphy helped to organize the first Peace Pizzazz, which is both an annual festival and a year-long curriculum. Many local schools participate, as do some churches and scouting groups.

The leaders have kids start with books that touch on peace in some way. Then they talk about what they’ve read – and their ideas about nonviolence.

“How it will help us in our hearts, in our school, in our community, in our neighborhoods. We're trying to bring it home to them to make them feel powerful where they are," Murphy says.

She helps her students express their ideas in art – everything from masks to collages and more.

Fourth grader Sofia describes the illustrated panel she’s worked on.

“My class made a big painted heart, and then inside of the heart is our earth because our earth means a lot to us, and so we try not to litter and there’s hands, peace doves, there’s peace signs, there’s birds, there’s flowers, there’s people,” she says.

Murphy says if she distilled what she teaches about nonviolence to its essence, it would come down to the Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated. It’s reflected in what Jazmine, a fourth grader, has to say about peace.

“We’ve kind of learned that everybody, like, thinks about things different and that sometimes, even if you say things it may – and you don’t think that it’s mean, you know, it may be mean to them. And you should always just think about how people are going to feel about it,” she says.

Evalynn, who’s in fifth grade, says the discussions at Winchell can prompt even the kids who push and shove on the playground to reconsider.

“When they’re inside there and talking about their problems, they get a little bit nicer,” she says.

And the children consider the effort it takes to apply peace in a conflict when they study a quote from Gandhi that says, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“And we talk about the word ‘revenge,'” Murphy says.

“Because as they get older in middle school and high school, a lot of the altercations that will happen between young people have to do with being upset with someone and not being able to let it go and forget about it.”

Fourth grader Lilly says it’s true that under duress, peace can be hard to practice.

“Sometimes it is to some people because when they’re bullied they feel all stressed,” she says.

But she and her schoolmate Sofia have thought about what people can do in that situation.

"It helps them feel better if they cry or let their feelings out" - Winchell student Lilly

"It helps them feel better if they cry or let their feelings out," says Lilly.

 “Or they talk to someone or – it helps me to talk to my mom or my dad about me getting bullied," Sofia says.
“But that rarely – never happens because I’m at Winchell and there’s no bullying here."

“I do think we have built a culture of peace at this school,” Murphy says, adding that when adults show that peace matters to them it helps kids to feel safer – and to follow their example.

“I’m not saying that the children don’t have problems with each other. But it’s rare – very rare – that you will see students outright making fun of another person,” she says.

Back in the classroom, students put the final touches on their art. Allie and Jazmine have built a puppet of a dove that’s as tall as they are. She’s actually a bride, because, they explain, her expression reminds them of someone at a wedding.
“We’re still working on the dress but we already finished the crown and the fluffy hair,” Allie says.

“Part of the dress will be on our arms so it will make it look like wings,” Jazmine says.

“And we’re going to put some lace on the dress and we’re gonna make it look really cool.”

They look forward to her debut at Peace Pizzazz. The festival is set for Saturday May 17 at Bronson Park. It starts at 1:30 p.m. and wraps up at 4 p.m.