My Year of Peace: Peace and Classroom Management

As I seek to be more peaceful in my personal llife, I have also tried to be very intentional about peacemaking in my professional life. Much of the impetus for my quest for peace has come from the actions of my school's Diversity Club and Solidarity Committee. This year, our focus is "Waging Peace," and I have had some really interesting discussions with colleagues and students about ways to wage peace in our school while also encouraging international peace efforts. It has been such a humbling experience. I have always considered myself a pacifist, but when I was in high school, I never gave it the kind of careful consideration that my students are giving it. They serve as such inspiring examples for the whole school community.

Over the last few weeks, a couple of interesting situations have come up in my workplace that have really given me opportunities to apply my own efforts to "wage peace." One of my classes has been challenging the last couple of weeks. My first thought was that I could just crack down and start assigning detentions to the students who were off task or causing distractions, but I paused to consider if that was going to be the most effective way to work with these students. Really the problem was minor, just three or four students were continually off task and in general seemed to have bad attitudes. Assigning detentions may have been an acceptable short term solution (even though I rarely use it), but I felt like if I assigned the detentions, it would bring short term peace, but not long term peace. I decided to observe the students who were off task much more carefully over the next week to see if I could determine the root of the problem.

What I noticed was that one student seemed to be the main "ringleader" for the others. They all took their cues from her. When one would say something distracting, she would turn to this girl to see if she approved. I thought about the best way to approach this particular student. Her grades had been dropping in recent weeks, and she seemed to be upset about something. She is a very intelligent student, so I decided that I needed to talk to her. Peacekeeping is always the easiest solution, but it does not lead to long term peace. Waging peace requires us to work diligently and patiently, and it depends on good communication. It would have been peacekeeping for me to just give her a detention and a heavy handed punishment, but deep down whatever resentment she was building for my class or school in general would have simply increased even if she modified her behavior to avoid detentions.

Instilling fear in students will keep quiet, at its best only the illusion of peace. I know as a teacher, it is easy to settle for these short term solutions because they are quick and simple and allow most of us to get quick results with minimal conflict. Still I asked myself, "Is this real peace?" Behavior and performance modification is not my goal as a teacher. I want my students to learn and grow. In fact, behavior and performance modification are hindrances to growth because they provide the illusion of growth as a substitute for real growth.

I decided to talk to the student, not in a confrontational way. I try really hard to avoid commanding students to respect me and their classmates. If I have to demand their respect through fear or guilt tactics, then I probably don't deserve it in the first place. I simply pointed out to the student that I noticed her grades had dropped and that she had seemed very distracted in my class. Then I asked her to tell me what she felt was going on and how the two of us could work together to make things better. It is important to give students ownership of their own education and conduct and to show them that you are working together, not against each other.

I did not expect this one conversation to be the be all and the end all. I hoped it would be a good first step in building a good relationship with this student so that she and the others in my class could have the best opportunity to learn. She did not point out any specific solutions we could try. She may not have even taken this conversation very seriously. She may not respect me at all at this point. Still, I believe that she knows I am not oblivious to her, that I noticed something was different, that I will not just let her hijack the class (even if I am not a heavy handed disciplinarian). I have noticed a difference. It is not a night and day difference, just a small one. I imagine that I might need to have more of these talks with her or her classmates, but this first step is so important.

Peaceful relationships begin by establishing trust. Once that foundation is in place, conflict resolution can begin in earnest. This is not a quick process because the issues that bring us into conflict rarely develop quickly even if the precipitating events for conflict seem sudden. If we only react to precipitating events and refuse to address the motivations and conditions behind those events, we are not really waging peace, just keeping quiet. I don't want a quiet classroom; I want a peaceful one even if it takes more work to get there.

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Learning as a Teacher through Diversity

It's a tired cliche that teachers learn much from their students, but it's true. I have the fortune of teaching in one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the country. The diversity of the students in my class brings a new dimension to my understanding of things I teach. Here's two examples.

An Asian student wrote a paper responding to an article about Disney's upcoming film The Princess and the Frog. The student agreed with the author that the princess might not be the best possible portrayal of an African American woman, and lamented the lack of black illustrators on the picture. I have many times criticized Disney's attempts with this film, saying they are pandering to an audience, or out of touch with black America, etc., etc. But my student also mentioned that children are less inflicted with racial prejudice than we are. And being Asian, she remembers feeling empowered by Mulan.

An Indian student wrote a paper responding to a class reading on several atrocities in the past decade in Namibia. He said he was often offended when American authors chose only to focus on the negative things occurring in other countries. He wanted the author to say positive things about Namibia as well.

So these two instances have taught me another layer of denying white privilege. I might have the luxury of tearing apart a Disney film for its racial insensitivity, but the positive implications of a black princess are vast, and might actually outweigh these concerns. I might have the safe harbor of American academia from which to locate the problems of the world, but I don't live in the countries I choose to insult rather than understand.

See? It's a cliche because it's true.

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Church Tour: The Decision

It's hard to believe we started this process in December of 2008. That's almost a year ago! In February, we felt it was time to move on officially from our last church (where we had a great experience) and visit all kinds of different churches. We had a goal to choose a new church by our European trip in July, but we didn't make it. So, here we are in October. And we've found a new home!

Drum roll please...

Riverside United Methodist Church
touched our heart so much the first time we visited in June, and has continued to bless us every Sunday we've been. Every time we tell someone we decided on this church, they ask, "What do you like about it?" I'll tell you!

-It's tiny. Like 75 people or less. We like not getting lost in the crowd and people recognizing us on Sundays.
-We like Methodists. Of all the denominational doctrines, we seem to align most closely with Methodist. Every Methodist local church is REALLY different, though, and many are not as Gospel-centered as we like. Riverside is all the things we love about Methodist, and very few of the things we don't.
-Women are fully welcomed and recognized as pastors, leaders, laypeople, and everything else. Their last senior pastor was a woman, and now the pastoral staff consists of a male senior pastor, a female associate pastor, and a female pastoral intern. I can't tell you how much this means to us, to have men and women serving together as pastors, as servant leaders, fully using their gifts and acting out God's calling without discrimination.
-The congregation is predominantly African American. As we said before, it became clear to us fairly early on our tour that we wanted to be somewhere multi-racial or at least not predominantly white. We have a heart for racial reconciliation, and we desire the rich experiences that come from being in fellowship with diversity.
-We LOVE Sunday services. We love the 9 person choir, the lectionary readings, the acolytes, the clapping, the singing, the prayers, the extended greeting time, the intentionality of everything. We love how we connect with God and how that time feels sacred.
-Everyone preaches. We've been four times and heard 4 different people preach. The whole pastoral staff preaches, allowing each person to use their gift of teaching and preaching. Each sermon we've heard has spoken directly to us, with a good mix of conviction, hope, and perspective.
-There are only a few church activities each week. We wanted to be somewhere that we didn't feel obligated to spend every night doing something church-related, and it's nice to be somewhere that we don't have to do 12 things to feel connected. There's a weekly Bible study and bi-monthly outreach opportunities, a fourth Sunday dinner, and that's about it. It's great.
-It feels very genuine and authentic. It's not very slick, sometimes there are technical difficulties no one can solve, and no one is trying to impress me with a gimmick.

We have not made any decisions about "joining," though we most likely will. And we are in the honeymoon phase, we realize that. We are finally at the place where we realize there will be things that go wrong, possibly people that hurt us, things we don't agree with, etc. And that's ok. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. And surprisingly this church doesn't "have" some things we thought might be important, like people our age, small groups, etc. But it feels like more than enough right now. We are very grateful to God for our last church, the church tour journey, and our new home.

Solo dei gloria.

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The Body Beautiful

In the women's studies course I teach, we've been talking about body image, media representation, and other related issues. One article we discussed brought attention to how we view the body as parts, not as a whole. I've been pondering this idea, because I think when we don't like something about our body, we fixate on the negative "parts." Then the whole becomes negative. "My hips are too big" really means I don't think my whole body is proportionate. Our perception of our body comes from our comparison of our own bodies to images or representations of other bodies. It's not a true examination of our holistic body.

Some magazines lately have done some interesting things to talk about the body. I applaud the efforts, but sometimes I think they fall flat and occasionally might actually be harmful. (Be forewarned: I've linked the following examples on the bolded words, but some of them are nude photographs of women. They are covered, but nude.) Serena Williams says she's insecure about her curves so she poses nude for the cover of ESPN Magazine's "body" issue this month. Glamour gets some good comments on an "au naturael" photo of a woman sitting au naturale with a belly and a smile on her face, so they do an official shoot of some of their "fuller figured" models and run a supporting article. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty sponsors a movie called The Women featuring a cast who isn't super-skinny, but thinner than average.

Feminist critics, politically and religiously conservative commentators, and other folks have a lot to say about women being nude subjects of photography. The nature of photographs meant for consumption in magazines really is a whole topic in and of itself. I think the photographers and subjects meant well, I really do. And I draw some encouragement from their attempts.

However, there are some (perhaps unintended) messages getting through here. First, be confident about those curves as long as you aren't fat. Sure, a size 8 is ok. But beyond that you don't look sexy naked. If these women are "plus-size" then what about women who are overweight? Second, "natural" confidence can only be exuded when you are in a professional studio, your picture taken by an artist, and your make-up and hair done with expensive products. And it would help if you're a model. I don't see someone's no make-up, candid backyard photograph, taken by a friend, appearing in these mags as features on "real" women's bodies. And third, the way to express your confidence in your body is to pose nude. In many ways I think it would be better to show women in clothes that hug a stomach that's not perfectly toned or ill-fitting jeans or something. Naked models complicate our gaze because it's always going to be voyeuristic in some way, even if we're meant to sincerely appreciate the female form.

The whole body, then, is an account of our interior and external struggles and triumphs. There are ways to hate it and love it (sometimes simultaneously) in constructive ways. And I'm glad to see that some people in the fashion industry are at least trying to show us that.

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I could make waves with all my word,
Could address,
Could empower,
Could challenge.
And I do.
It's just that the words
Are silent sometimes,
Lost in the meaning of
Many thoughts gone awry.
Because I plan my words
To lift up,
To connect,
To exemplify.
And sometimes they fall short.
And I do.
And you wouldn't guess
That I'm on my way,
That I'm closer
And broader
And higher.
I give you my word.
Count me here through it all.
You can't stumble on devotion,
It has to be built.
That's why I stand on the Word-
It's a peaceful sword
With multiple meanings
And countless graces.
It's like apples,
Like silver,
Like every metaphor
Rolled into one.
I'm a word,
Or a letter,
Or a poem,
Or a story,
Singing my way to the open distance
That won't be forgotten.
And I don't.
Because it's why,
And how,
And perpetually who
I choose to live my life to be.
The myth of beauty
And the allure of wealth
Will not be my end.
I'm real,
Before a word
Is spoken,
Before a breath
Is drawn,
Scoring my way through those waters
Beating on.
Against the current.
Not ceaseless,
Just steady.
In a word,
I am.

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