Community School students practice empathy, mindfulness
"Have you ever seen someone being bullied and didn't say anything?"
"Do you have trouble saying 'no' to your friends?"
"Do you or someone you know have a disability you cannot see?"
"Have you ever felt alone, unwelcome or afraid?"
Droves of Forest Grove Community School students answered "yes" to these questions and others during a Peace Village Global workshop Thursday, Jan. 18. The questions are designed to foster trust in a deliberately honest environment, connecting peers in a setting outside the day-to-day.
The nonprofit organization teaches young people how to resolve conflict peacefully but effectively, foster empathy, and connect with the natural world and others through summer camps, after-school programs and school-day workshops. The community school's seventh- and eighth-graders participated in Peace Village's four main lessons: conflict resolution, mindfulness, connection to nature and media literacy.
"You can see something open in the kids," said Pacific University graduate Wintry Whitt Smith, who co-taught Thursday's workshop. "They're more empathetic; they're listening to each other more."
Whitt Smith helped create the Peace Village curriculum about 23 years ago, along with her colleague Elizabeth Wilson and United Church of Christ pastor Charles Busch. After two boys locked another boy in the bathroom of a Lincoln City school and beat him so badly he was hospitalized, Busch embarked on a journey to prevent such tragedies and help offer youth some peace in an often violent world filled with bullying, global wars and intolerance.
After that incident, "we said, 'We need to change the culture,'" said Whitt Smith, who participated in the first Lincoln City workshops in 1996.
Community School teacher Shannon Perry has been researching violence, war and genocide with her students along with causes and preventative measures for these problems.
"I'm excited to see what they walk away with and what they gain," Perry said. "I think at this age they feel pretty much misunderstood by everyone, so I hope at least they come away with a tool to communicate their own needs."
Whitt Smith kicked off the day with a trust-building exercise, blindfolding half the students and pairing them up with other students to guide them around the Forest Grove United Church of Christ, where the retreat was held. Some students were giggling during the exercise; others were more calm and serious, comforting their blinded partners.
The students also broke off into small groups and discussed a handful of things they had in common that weren't visible. The students' conclusions were varied: "We're all in eighth grade." "We've all been in the same school since kindergarten." "We're all silly."
These activities help build community and trust, said Whitt Smith, who asked the students why that was important.
"You'll work better with people you trust," said one student.
"You're more likely to value someone's opinion and believe it," said another.
"If you don't have trust you don't really have friends because they don't know anything about you," one boy offered.
"All people have the same basic needs," Whitt Smith told the students during the conflict resolution portion of the day that followed. "We all want to be heard."
Students shared an emotion they were feeling, along with printed cards that revealed what someone might need to soothe that emotion.
For example, when one student shared she was frustrated, her peers responded that she needed support and appreciation. When a boy talked about the difficulties he had with his sister, his group mates told him he needed independence and love.
"How did it feel when someone guessed a need you had?" Whitt Smith asked.
"It felt nice," a few students responded.
Next time they had an argument with someone, Whitt Smith asked the students to think of two things before reacting: What their own need is and what the other person's need might be.
Many students indicated they enjoyed the exercise. Others said they felt frustrated that some of their peers didn't take it seriously.
"It's an awkward age and sometimes it's hard to take things seriously," Perry said. "But they were willing to share that they didn't feel they were being heard, and those peers heard that."
Forest Grove Noon and Daybreak Rotary clubs are planning to collaborate to financially support Peace Villages summer camps and school programs, said Susan Winterbourne, Rotary International District 5100 chief grant chairwoman, to help along the service club's mission of promoting peace.
Whitt Smith said they hope to hold Peace Village summer camps in Forest Grove this year.
By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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