Syracuse University Magazine

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“The curriculum is very interactive. The focus is on the language arts— reading, writing, and speaking, but it also involves music, art, and role play.”

MARA SAPON-SHEVIN, School of Education professor

Photo by Steve Sartori



Peaceful Approach for Young Learners

School of Education professor Mara Sapon-Shevin believes teachers can change the world and has developed a new program to help elementary educators across the United States begin to do so in their classrooms. Using children’s literature as the foundation for dialogue, the Peaceful at the Core curriculum gives teachers tools for ending bullying and promoting a positive social culture in schools. Its lessons are designed to be interdisciplinary and multilevel. They also align with the learning goals of the Common Core, the national academic standards developed by education chiefs and governors from 48 states. “For many years I’ve run a project called Creating Safe and Peaceful Schools, and I’ve worked with teachers around doing things in their classrooms and schools related to building community, addressing bullying, teaching kids to stand up for one another—just making the world a kinder place and educating better human beings,” says Sapon-Shevin, an inclusive education professor who specializes in diversity and social justice issues. “One thing that has been important in that work is doing projects like this curriculum, which teachers can implement without tremendous cost.”

Peaceful at the Core originated two summers ago, when Sapon-Shevin brought together teachers from 10 area schools to write a curriculum based on children’s books for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. In November 2014, she and Fayetteville-Manlius school counselor Kathryn Haley hosted a half-day workshop to train local school teams to implement it at their schools. Classroom copies of children’s books related to the curriculum were provided to each participant. The two also presented Peaceful at the Core in January at a Barnes & Noble bookstore near campus to an audience that included parents and teachers. “The curriculum is very interactive,” says Sapon-Shevin, whose goal is to make the teaching strategies available online with a discussion forum to invite teachers’ input. “The focus is on the language arts—reading, writing, and speaking, but it also involves music, art, and role play.”

Four themes comprise Peaceful at the Core, which is supported financially by School of Education Board of Visitors member Diana Wege Sherogan ’76 and the Wege Foundation: learning about differences, appropriate and respectful social skills, conflict resolution and problem solving, and learning to be an “up-stander” rather than a bystander. In one lesson, for example, students read about a character who “stood up straight like an arrow” to oppose a bully, and are then instructed to practice standing up tall with their shoulders back so they can experience together what it feels like to “say no like you mean it.” The curriculum is not designed as a punishment model to stop bullying, but as a toolkit for teaching students to be caring, responsible, and community-minded individuals who help each other learn and grow. “I didn’t want this to be only about how not to bully, but about changing the culture and climate in schools so that it would never dawn on students to be hurtful,” Sapon-Shevin says. “As teachers, we’re doing a bigger and more important job than just having a nice year in kindergarten. We’re teaching people to be human beings who are going to be citizens.”  —Amy Speach