REA: Peace Experiments

The text of the formal presentation portion of my workshop:

Let me begin by telling you about the context in which I do religious education. I’m minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, a mainline congregation founded in 1947. Like so many mainline congregations founded in the post-World War II era, today we struggle to adapt to new and different demographic, economic, and theological realities. In particular, we’re trying to figure out what the end of Christendom means to us as a post-Christian congregation, and we’re adapting to an intensely competitive nonprofit landscape.

Four years ago, I suggested to our lay leaders that we might do a six-week spring curriculum unit in peacemaking for K-5 Sunday school classes. That program, which I based on an old 1980s curriculum called “Peace Experiments,” was described by Geez magazine — a magazine subtitle “Holy mischief in an age of fast faith” — like this:

“In the spring of 2012, Harper introduced a program for the children of his congregation called Peace Experiments. Each Sunday began with anti-war reading, like, for example, The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss. Four activities were then offered: non-competitive games, peace sing-alongs, baking or quilt-making. Playing ‘balloon bump’ might not seem like the most revolutionary activity, but something needs to replace toy guns and Call of Duty as go-to hobbies.

“Harper said it’s tough to tell if the program will create a lasting change in the kids. But the physical aspect of the activities, such as assembling the peace quilt, was something he believes will stick in the minds [and hearts, and souls] of the young participants. Feminist theology, he added, emphasizes that we’re embodied beings, not just brains. Peace Experiments followed the same idea.” [Full article here]

This is a pretty accurate summary of what we did in 2012. Now fast forward two years.

When we were ready to implement Peace Experiments again in 2014, we evaluated the program in terms of three of our congregation’s four primary educational goals. First goal: To have fun and build community — the kids had fun as demonstrated by increased attendance, and anecdotal evidence suggested that mixing age groups built ties between different grades — we did well with this goal. Second goal: To build the skills needed in our religious communities — we felt children made some progress in learning interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, learning to work and play together, learning how to sing in groups, etc. — qualified success. Third goal: To raise prepare kids to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they reach the age of reason — it’s very hard to measure progress towards this goal, but we felt that exposing kids to adult role models probably helped us with this goal.

I was particularly interested in the way Peace Experiments got people of different ages to work and play together in a values-oriented religious community. Lev Vygotsky said: “[The zone of proximal development] is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” [Mind in Society, p. 86] With this in mind, I began to think of Peace Experiments in terms of peer collaboration and adult guidance — we were trying to help kids act more peacefully than would be predicted under a strictly individualistic developmental model.

This Vygotskian model of development also helped explain the success of our volunteer management model. By April, most of our regular Sunday school teachers are feeling pretty burned out, so we used the Workshop Rotation Method to staff Peace Experiments. In the Workshop Rotation Method, adult leaders plan a single hour-long workshop, which they lead every week for several weeks, while the children rotate through several different adult-led workshops. Since the Workshop Rotation Method requires a lower level of teaching skills from volunteer teachers, it allows you to recruit adults who would not ordinarily teach Sunday school. This means that you get a greater variety of adults working with the kids, including adults who may identify as peacemakers but not as teachers.

As the religious education committee and I reflected on these things, we began to rethink what we meant by peacemaking. Peacemaking is often seen as a set of essential skills that we are going to teach to children. In our area, we have anti-bullying programs in schools, we have nonviolent communication for kids, we have “evidence-based” peacemaking programs, all of which share some of this essentialist philosophy of education. But we were beginning to think of peacemaking in terms of an existentialist philosophy of education: in the midst of an absurd world, we were asking our children to define themselves as peacemakers. I was particularly struck by something existentialist educator Maxine Greene wrote in her essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings”:

“There cannot be a single standard of humanness or attainment or propriety when it comes to taking a perspective on the world…. There can only be a conversation drawing in voices kept inaudible over the generations, a dialogue involving more and more living persons. There can only be — there ought to be — a wider and deeper sharing of beliefs, an enhanced capacity to articulate them, to justify them, to persuade others as the [many-voiced] conversation moves on, never reaching a final conclusion, always incomplete, but richer and more densely woven, even as it moves through time.” [Full essay online]

As the religious education committee and I reviewed all these various factors, we realized what really made a difference was not trying to teach essentialist skills. We moved away from the notion that we had to teach kids certain classic peace songs, or that we had to teach kids how to do noncompetitive games. We began asking ourselves: What did we adults do that we felt was peaceful? What brought peace into our lives? How could we communicate peacemaking as a positive, fun thing to do?

Furthermore, we began to talk explicitly about feminist theology, which is a core theology in my denomination. Feminist theology reminds us that so-called women’s work is just as important as so-called men’s work. Feminist theology reminds us that children of any gender are at least as important as adult males. Feminist theology reminds us that we are embodied beings, and we need more than words and information, we need hands and bodies.

I’ll mention one final theological position that implicitly informed Peace Experiments, which we might call “humanocentrism” after theologian William R. Jones; that is, whatever the power or size of God, we affirm that humans bear an inescapable responsibility for addressing the problems facing us here and now. Thus, Peace Experiments assumes that we must strive to nurture a better world.

We began to develop activities that embodied peacemaking as a way of living, things that kids could actually do side-by-side with an adult guide, that would help the children to define themselves positively as peacemakers. Baking and fabric arts were pretty obvious activities — making cookies as peacemaking! We had a volunteer who wanted to teach unicycling, and that seemed a perfect peacemaking activity on several different levels. And we also included some activities that could come across as essentialist in orientation, because we had adults who were passionate: one of our strongest feminists wanted to lead discussions about peace (which worked explicitly by talking about peacemaking, and implicitly by having a civil conversation where differences of opinion were allowed); we had non-competitive games, etc.

Our 2014 Peace Experiments program proved successful. It attracted perhaps 50% more children than it did in 2012. Kids liked it; some of them even demanded that their parents bring them to church. The influence spread beyond the children’s program: adults talked about peace and peacemaking; middle schoolers asked to attend some of the final sessions; and the high school youth group, which leads one service each year in mid-May, chose to address the topic of peace.

But what I really want to reflect on with you are the theological and philosophical aspects of Peace Experiments. And to do that in good feminist style, we are going to start with an embodied activity.

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