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Lessons in peace for life; City students learn nonviolent discourse.

Byline: Melissa McKeon

WORCESTER - South High Community School English teacher Mary Reynolds, like any teacher, is used to a few old paradigms: teachers teach, students learn.

But recently Ms. Reynolds and a group of other teachers, as well as groups of students at middle and high schools in Worcester, were learning a new language, a new way of speaking to each other about the world about two subjects likely to touch everyone's life: violence and nonviolence.

They're learning it from the Center for Nonviolent Solutions, a group of Worcester folks who have long been on a quest for a more peaceful world, all in their own ways working toward the same goal.

About four years ago, Worcester businessman William P. Densmore suggested to his friend Michael True, a professor at Assumption College, that those folks get together and see what might be accomplished.

That small suggestion, Mr. True recalled, took on a momentum of its own, as many more folks than he'd expected responded to the idea that an organization devoted to teaching an antidote to the violence of the world around them could be successful.

Once those folks were gathered and committed, Mr. Densmore suggested the name: the Center for Nonviolent Solutions.

Among those gathered were many who, like Mr. True, had spent their lives teaching, so it was natural that teaching nonviolent solutions should be the focus.

But why teach about peace and nonviolence?

CNVS member Michael Langa answers it simply: If we're not teaching peace, someone else is teaching war.

That war, or violence, can take many forms. In schoolchildren's lives, it can take the form of bullying, date rape or outright violence in the halls and playgrounds.

Most recently, CNVS has taken its message into many venues where middle- and high-schoolers can learn a different way: teaching conflict transformation in health classes in Worcester Public Schools, teaching young men about Healthy Power at Sullivan Middle School and teaching students at University Park High School to be peer mediators.

CNVS Education Coordinator Sam Diener has the word on why teaching nonviolent solutions, and communication, to middle schoolers is so important.

Middle schoolers report the highest percentage of bullying incidents worldwide, Mr. Diener said. Middle school students, he said, have a high level of peer identification and a low level of power, except when it comes to peer pressure and social exclusion.

CNVS seminars teach students new ways of creating a culture of mediation and nonviolent resolution. It can boil down to something parents have been telling their children for ages: Use your words, not your fists.

CNVS educators use role playing to teach students new ways of dealing, but also new ways of talking, and a consciousness of how they speak to one another and resolve - or leave unresolved - some conflicts.

It's teaching them to listen and empathize, and teaching them to turn another paradigm on its head. While bullying is often done in groups, CNVS courses teach students to form anti-bullying "posses," groups of students who will help each other stand up against violence and bullying.

The feedback Mr. Diener has received so far from teachers has been gratifying. He's heard that they've seen positive examples of the use of words instead of fists in their classrooms and hallways, a phenomenon that leaves room for the hope that it will carry into their homes and streets.

And while CNVS has begun with schoolchildren (Mr. Diener hopes they'll be conducting seminars in elementary schools in the future), the lessons learned can also be beneficial to adults.

"All of us could work on resolving conflicts in better ways," he said.

To help adults help kids, CNVS received a grant from Massachusetts Humanities to teach a graduate course centering on recent world conflicts that were resolved without resorting to war.

That course was eye-opening, Ms. Reynolds recalled. And while the lessons of those histories were inspiring, it's the way it's changed her own teaching and living that surprises her.

Ms. Reynolds, who spends her working life in a school environment in what is a sometimes rough part of the city, can attest that the language used by teachers and students is often the language of violence.

But at the very least in Ms. Reynolds' classroom, there's a new paradigm: Use a language of nonviolence and teach by example.

"You make a conscious effort to think about the language you use with kids in your everyday teaching, but also just conversation," she said. "You try to wipe aggressive violent language out of your conversation."

While teaching nonviolent solutions to teachers and students is a large part of what CNVS does, it isn't the only part. The organization offers training in peer mediation, mediation services and a speaker's bureau for those who would like to have some observers of nonviolent solutions speak of their experiences.

Mr. True looks back at the beginnings of CNVS and is astonished at how much it has grown. As a nonprofit, CNVS is scrambling to come up with grants and donations to fund all the initiatives that folks are asking for, a nice problem to have.

"It's succeeded beyond my expectations," he said.

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CUTLINE: Aileen Cahill, 11, and her friends play a game aimed at teaching nonviolent solutions to conflict in a Center for Nonviolent Solutions workshop Jan. 17 at Sullivan Middle School in Worcester.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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