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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

News from Head of School--Peace Education


News from Head of School--Peace Education

Elizabeth Topliffe

Oh, peace train sounding louder

Glide on the peace train

--Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens)

Two weeks ago, our entire student and staff community gathered on the compass rose in our outdoor environment. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and as we gathered one of our elementary students reminded me that I’d forgotten something.

I turned to go back into the building. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve got it.” She turned into the building, returning with another staff member, the two of them carrying the peace pole.

We were there to celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Peace. Sunshine slanted through the play structure onto the circle of students and staff. It was warm and gorgeous, and the children gathered around a peace pole to share music, poems, and thoughts about peace.

A pretty picture, eh?

Don’t be confused. This was not a Hallmark moment. Our gathering was much more than a mere demonstration of sentiment.

Peace education is woven into every aspect of a Montessori curriculum.  It is not a small piece of the curriculum, nor is it a hopeful, uplifting message that lacks substance.

At Stepping Stones, peace education leads to a fourth grader telling me not to worry about having things set up perfectly: “Don’t worry. I’ve got it.”

We cultivate peace by speaking quietly and keeping an ordered environment in Children’s House. Students experience what it feels like to dive deeply into work, allowing them to achieve an inner sense of peace that comes with accomplishing hard work.

We cultivate peace by giving words to feelings and slights. We ask even our youngest students, “How do you feel?” “Did you notice her face?” “She looks hurt.”

We ask our older students, “How can we do that so we can preserve our friendships and include everyone?”

We help students change their put-downs and drama into compliments and appreciation.

We practice mindfulness in our Upper Elementary program. We don’t use punishments or rewards to manipulate behavior. Instead, we help our students seek to understand the other, to understand why their peer might be doing something. Once we understand one another, we help students to modify their own behavior and influence others.

Peace education is why our curriculum includes such rich cultural studies and geography. It is why our maps begin with the universe and Earth.

We cultivate a sense of place for children in a much, much bigger cosmos. And then, even while understanding how small each of us is in a large world, we help our children understand that they can change that world. We let them know in big and small ways that they have power and can make a difference.

We allow students to make mistakes without shame. Instead, we use those mistakes to move forward. We give them opportunities to help other students—walking a younger student into the building or reading a story. We allow them to persuade their peers in meetings, making suggestions for new pets, chores, and the division of responsibilities.

We expect our students to influence and shape the adults as well, making a case for guinea pigs or reminding an adult to relax: “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”

On that gorgeous morning, I daresay we were the only school where every person was enjoying the sunshine and celebrating peace.

I’m trained as a lawyer and after a few years as a judicial clerk and in private practice, I worked in banking for over a decade. It’s funny: In those jobs, we didn’t go outdoors to celebrate peace. Never. Not once.

In those jobs, my colleagues would have scoffed at the idea of celebrating peace. They might have made jokes about hippies or have made comments about how “impractical” peace is.

My former colleagues have obviously never met our students.

I wish all of those colleagues understood (really understood) how small they are compared to the great cosmos. I wish even more that they understood that their actions can change the course of that great cosmos.

I wish they had met our students. I’m glad you have. Join them.

Join me in believing that peace is the work of education. Glide on the peace train.



“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”

—Maria Montessori