By IRENA GRIZELJ
WASHINGTON — “Why would a group of graduate students in International Relations at one of the nation’s preeminent universities want to get involved in teaching conflict management to middle school students?” This question begins the 100-page manual for a one-of-a-kind credit course, which has been offered every semester by Conflict Management at SAIS Washington since the spring of 2003.
The course challenges SAISers to put into practice the theories they have learned to the most difficult audience: children. The course will leave you feeling frustrated, inspired, humbled, and exhilarated. You will learn how to break up a few fights. You will gain a new perspective on the community around you. And you will be surprised at the similarities between International Relations and working with children.
In pairs, SAISers are responsible to plan and teach nine weekly classes in an inner-city school in Washington, D.C. The course was initiated after finding that many youths in D.C. inner-city schools had no positive framework through which to analyze their conflicts with parents, friends, and neighbors. Many kids have already been exposed to conflict in a variety of forms: sexual harassment, bullying, routine fights, gang activity, and domestic violence. Sharing one’s feelings, listening to another point of view, or not putting up a fight were often seen as weak responses. So the SAIS Conflict Management program decided to try to do something about it.
Centered on three key themes, RECOGNIZE–RESPECT–RESOLVE, the course moves through teaching children what conflict is (“everywhere”, natural, and unavoidable), giving respect to others, and finally practical steps for resolving the conflict. One utilizes activities, role plays, worksheets, games, and whatever other method one might have to think of on the spot to get a particular point across. The aim is not to try to eliminate conflict from the children’s lives, but rather to equip them with the ability to reason through and react appropriately when faced with conflict. Showing them alternative behaviors to violence is one goal.
Inevitably, you gain a deeper understanding of the community in which you live. For me, coming to the United States for the first time was a greater culture shock than I expected. I wanted to better gauge and appreciate where I was. The timing of my arrival in America was also quite opportune (fortunately and unfortunately) from a learning lens – the protests in Ferguson were just happening, sparking massive debates on racial issues around the country. And the schools that SAIS partners with for PeaceKidZ have a 98% African-American majority.
I suddenly felt that I found myself in the middle of a long-historic American conflict. And it felt ironic too. What did I, a white foreign young woman, know about the struggles of this community faces? How was I going to make any difference? But I wanted to learn. This is what I came here for. I do not have the answers, but I do believe I now understand better. When 11 pairs of eyes are staring at you expecting to learn something, and one kid later spontaneously puts into practice a conflict resolution tool, you realize everyone has something they can teach – whatever the skin color, no matter what age.
And what does this have to do with International Relations?
A fair few things. Firstly, we can think of PeaceKidZ as the United Nations: the children are the states and the classroom is where the UN General Assembly takes place. Like states, the children have their differences. They make fun of each other, gang up on one another, try to intimidate and bully one another, all the while trying to contribute to the world affairs that affects them. Respect in the classroom, as in international relations, is crucial. It is about self-esteem and self-worth, and it can intensify a conflict when they are lacking. You could analyse whether a uni-, bi-, or multi-polar structure is most stable in the classroom, depending on the balance of power.
But ultimately you learn there is no proper manual for teaching and no sufficient manual for dealing with international relations. You have to think on your feet, see the situation from different perspectives, and remember to not give up on your task. If you cannot stop two 10-year-olds from fighting, how will you ever stop two nations from doing so?
For those still left wondering about the relevance of the course — setting it aside as an abstract, futile attempt for change — the truth is that it only takes one person: it only takes one person to decide to react with violence instead of nonviolence. And it only takes one person to change that and show alternative ways to react. No, do not raise your expectations too high either. You only have nine classes. Nine hours. This is not much. But it is something. And it could be enough to “plant a seed in their minds”, as Professor Zartman says. If you decide to take the course, you will learn things that no textbook nor professor can teach you.