Peace Education in Urban Schools

In a recently submitted paper, the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking (CfP) examined faculty and administration perceptions of Marquette University Peace Works (MUPW), a non-violence, peace education curriculum that has been implemented at four urban K-8 Catholic schools in Milwaukee. The paper focuses on how faculty and staff perceive the efficacy of this nonviolence curriculum in impacting student behavior and positively changing school culture. MUPW aims to provide students with the skills necessary for them to employ nonviolent communication and select prosocial, peaceful ways of building relationships with others. Our research was guided by the following question: what are the perceptions of teachers and administrators on the influence of MUPW as it relates to the nonviolent behavior of students and has there been any impact on the overall school culture?

Why the need for peace education at the grammar school level? In Milwaukee, youth in low-income communities often experience high rates of poverty, academic failure, and violence. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many are at risk to become both perpetrators and victims of violence. Without intentional collaboration among youth, schools, families and communities, it is difficult to create systemic change to transform attitudes and actions. Many of the youth violence risk factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are prevalent in the families and communities where the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking offers Peace Works (MUPW).

The notion of peace education as an essential tool for creating healthy, safe school environments is nothing new. In their book, Waging Peace in Our Schools, Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti argue, “We need a vision of education that recognizes that the ability to manage our emotions, resolve conflicts, and interrupt biases are fundamental skills – skills that can and must be taught.” A critical approach to peace education offers particular opportunities in a context like Milwaukee because, as scholars Sharon Chubbuck and Michalinos Zembylas note, it  “can be a significant antidote to racism, violence and social injustices in schools.” As students and teachers learn nonviolent strategies, the practices of peacemaking can transform their schools and create stronger, healthier communities. Violence reduction and prevention require building strong communities in which the stakeholders—including students, teachers and families—take an active role and increase their capacity to prevent violence.

To support the building of a culture of peace in Milwaukee schools with violence risk factors, the Center for Peacemaking has partnered with four Milwaukee Catholic institutions to incorporate MUPW into existing curriculum. The MUPW peace education curriculum draws upon research-based strategies to provide a common language and skill set for school staff and students. MUPW works directly with administrators, teachers, and students to teach important academic and social skills, including increasing young people’s capacity to identify and resolve conflicts nonviolently. MUPW’s goal is to offer students practical ways to deal with challenging situations by providing a safe and supportive environment where students can practice skills that translate into respectful behavior, positive communication, and a sense of hope and self-worth.

The MUPW curriculum is comprised of 30 different lessons, including topics on thought-feeling behavior, grounding techniques, perspective taking, values, and empathy. It is embedded within the Catholic tradition. Every lesson includes a prayer as well as scripture verses that are directly connected with that day’s lesson. By drawing upon religious themes, MUPW aligns with each school’s mission and supports a school culture of nonviolence through the reduction of youth violence as students are introduced to ways to confront social injustices. At the beginning of each lesson, students select three things that they are thankful for – demonstrating gratitude – and write them down in their journal. The purpose is to reinforce in students the connection between gratitude and contentment, focusing on what they have as opposed to what they do not have.

MUPW is structured to create a sustainable peace education program wherein the regular classroom teachers ultimately assume full ownership of the MUPW curriculum. In that way, the school culture is transformed as students and teachers become more familiar with the skills offered in MUPW. When MUPW is first introduced into a school, a Peace Works trainer leads each lesson while the regular classroom teacher spends year one shadowing and learning. In the second year, the Peace Works trainer and the regular classroom teacher will each spend time leading lessons. In year three, the MUPW is handed off to the regular classroom teacher.

One of the challenges faculty and staff confront is determining how middle school students, especially those who have been exposed to violence at such a young age, can best be taught sustainable methods of nonviolence. This is where the importance of a shared language begins in fostering an environment in which young people feel safe to communicate their concerns, fears, hopes, and dreams. In a broader sense, this is an environment where they may be demonstrating vulnerability as opposed to engaging in aggressive behavior. In sum, nonviolent communication calls for a new form of language to create a new way of being in relationship to self and others.

CfP believes MUPW has the potential to help create a lasting culture of peace within school communities. CfP also believes that the process of creating change requires that faculty and staff buy into the efficacy of the peace education program and believe that the implementation of this curriculum is having a positive influence on students and overall school culture.

To this end, a first step in an evaluative research process comprised four focus groups of teachers and administrators familiar with MUPW. The discussions were led by MUPW staff, with one conducted at each school with teachers and administrators from that institution. The conversations in these focus groups demonstrated support for the implementation and continuation of MUPW. Participants detailed the positive impact that MUPW has had in promoting social and emotional development in students and in improving school culture. For example, one principal noted, “[L]ast year, sixth grade was a hot mess. I don’t even have another descriptor for it. It was just a hot mess. There were lots of conflicts with peers….This year it’s not…[T]he conversations I hear and see happening through mediation definitely have Peace Works language in them.” There is also ample evidence that teachers and administrators believe MUPW could positively impact the school culture more if it were expanded to reach more students and more staff members. One teacher even suggested offering professional development centered around Peace Works: “Here’s the language you can use from PW classes that you can reinforce when backing up a disciplinary issue of when just teaching a unit…Use this language because we are already doing it and your kids are already familiar with it.”

Ultimately, the goal of this study was to gain a better understanding of how teachers and administrators perceive the impact of MUPW. The focus groups clearly demonstrated MUPW has the support of teachers and administrators who have first-hand experience with the program. These focus groups believe MUPW has already had a positive impact on the students who have participated in the program and that school culture has improved in terms of promoting nonviolent behavior. At the same time, participants in this research also identified areas for growth, with a particular focus on impact beyond the students in the MUPW classrooms. The teachers and administrators expressed the need to expand MUPW to reach more students and more staff members, and also discussed the importance of engaging families because of contrasting messages students were receiving outside of their schools.

This research is just a first step in a collaborative effort between Marquette faculty and CfP to better understand and improve the potential of MUPW to contribute to peace in local communities. The challenge is long-term, multifaceted, and extends beyond classrooms and schools. Still, young generations hold much potential as peacebuilders due to their emerging citizenship, psychological development, and different perspectives on society. Through using research to support practice and continually improving the efficacy of MUPW, we hope to help support these young Milwaukeeans in leading their communities toward a more peaceful future. 

Dr. Gabriel Velez, Assistant Professor & Developmental Psychologist
Marquette University College of Education

Dr. Thomas Durkin, Research & Grant Coordinator
Marquette University Center for Peacemaking