Circle of Peace / Peace Wall Memorial
Sanfordville School - Warwick, NY
Home | About the Memorial | History | Student Artwork | Directions
Events | Photos | Links of Peace & Hope | Contributors | Contact
Building Blocks of Peace
we are to teach real peace in the world, and if we are to carry on a
real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children”
Incensed by my students’ misbehavior, I sternly told them to cut it out and ordered them to put their things away, sign in for the day, and sit quietly at their seats with a book. It was Friday morning, September 21st, 2001. The evening before, President Bush announced the War on Terror to the American people. Although I had suspected that some of the children would come into class knowing about this pronouncement, I wasn’t prepared for the celebratory tone in many of their voices; nor the apprehension and gloom I recognized in the faces of some of the others.
As my students settled down and began to read, I went about the usual routines of getting the day started. During this quiet time, I found my thoughts returning to the chanting incident. I felt troubled that I hadn’t handled the conflict better. After all, I had advanced training in mediation and confliction resolution, and used it often with my students. I had to admit to myself that I was caught off guard by my own explosive reaction. It was a reminder of how disturbed I am that many young children grow up thinking war is a good or necessary thing to bring about peace. Given their exposure to mainstream media, what else could they think? It was clear that my multiage class of 3rd and 4th graders were being exposed to more information than they could process.
As I reflected on all of this, it occurred to me how much energy we were all spending keeping abreast of the minute-to-minute details of the World Trade Center tragedy. Many people in our small lower Hudson Valley community commute to New York City each day to work. A good number of them work in either the financial district or as fire fighters, police officers, or health care providers. On September 11th, 44 people from our county died. Seven of those lived in our town, and some of their kids attended our schools. The tragedy struck us hard. Afterwards, large numbers of volunteers from the community worked days on end commuting back and forth to Ground Zero to find victims still buried in the rubble of the towers or to help with feeding and supporting the rescue teams who needed care themselves. Most adults I knew, including the students’ parents, were spending enormous amounts of time watching TV or reading various news sources. So many people were concerned about the large numbers of people missing. Each day my students came to school with stories or news clippings to share with their classmates. Everyone seemed to be in some stage of grief, anxiety, or both.
Naturally, this made my role as teacher even more challenging. As the events of September 11th unfolded, I did what I could to keep myself focused on easing the fears of my students. Initially this meant relaxing the academic goals. I recognized that the children would need some time during the school day to share their concerns.
Yet, unsure of how to handle my own distress over September 11th, I had avoided any full class discussion. Instead, I had felt it was safer to begin engaging them with some creative activities that could help neutralize the sadness and confusion that was so palpable throughout the school. So, as the children entered class on September 12th, I nervously had handed out various pieces of paper as I invited each of them to use it anyway they saw fit to convey what was on their minds. Max, who loved drawing, gave me a sigh of relief and responded with a tone of gratitude in his voice, “Thank you Mrs. Braxton.” Several other students chimed in their relief as well.
The class eventually settled down and began working. As they drew pictures or wrote stories, they freely talked amongst themselves about the tragic events that occurred the day before. As I walked around the room observing, I occasionally intervened to clarify information but kept any responses to a minimum. I answered certain questions but deliberately avoided responding to those that I thought might upset the children even more. As I looked over their drawings, it was easy to see the horrible things that were spinning through their minds: planes crashing into the towers, people jumping out of windows, and buildings full of smoke and flames. Death and destruction were evident in nearly every child’s work. By the end of that first day, I was emotionally drained and felt unprepared for the task of addressing the confusion my students were experiencing. Besides, I didn’t want to expose my own questions and reactions, which I discovered ran counter to what some of their parents were expressing. I recognized this as a major conflict and one that I did not want to touch.
In the days following, I worked with the class to generate ideas for what we could do to help make a difference in the lives of those who were working so hard at Ground Zero. Many ideas came from the children themselves. Carliann brought in some thank you cards she had made from home for the firefighters. Right away most of them wanted to do so as well. Another student wrote a beautiful poem that I asked him to share, and this motivated other students to try their hand at poetry writing. By the end of the first week, the class had created beautiful handcrafted thank you notes to the firefighters. Over the course of the next week, they had also initiated a school-wide drive to collect clothing, flashlights, blankets, candles, snacks, and first aid materials for rescue teams. Supporting my students’ wishes to help in these different ways allowed me to believe that what we were doing was a valuable contribution. I thought it would be enough to reduce our anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
Yet, I was growing increasingly more stressed personally and professionally. In truth, I was hesitant to take responsibility for addressing my student’s questions and concerns about the events of 9-11. I knew that I was deliberately avoiding such conversations because of the emotionally charged and politically sensitive climate that existed. I had never experienced being a teacher during a time when the call for war was so strong. Perhaps my inability to sort out my own confused feelings rendered me ineffectual when dealing with the strong emotions in my students. Tears welled up in my eyes. And with so many distractions surfacing in the school day as stories unfolded related to the ongoing recovery and rescue efforts, I had become increasingly apprehensive about my ability to stay abreast of my daily teaching responsibilities.
So the day after President Bush declared war in Afghanistan, I was at a loss. “Now, I am faced with children chanting war songs!” I thought to myself. I reached for a tissue. “How will I deal with this everyday?” At that moment, a light went on in my head. If I’m feeling this way, what are my students feeling? I am an adult. Mustn’t it be harder for them? Who was helping them to make sense of what they were experiencing? It was then that I realized that the chanting incident needed to be addressed in an empathetic way. After all, even though my students had read about wars in their social studies lessons, they had never experienced it. Now, war was becoming more real to them, and to many it was a scary thought. Addressing the concept of war would require me to engage them at a deeper level than I had, up to now, been willing to go. I no longer could allow myself to avoid this difficult discussion.
During morning meeting, I opened with an apology about the way I had handled the clash of emotions that erupted from the chanting incident. I explained that using violence to settle differences and the idea of war, itself, has always been very upsetting to me, and that these strong personal feelings coupled with seeing some of our classmates disturbed by the lyrics of the song led me to decide to have it end. I then expressed that the way I shut down communication had served to remind me of how important it is that everyone feel safe and listened to in our classroom, even when we disagree with someone’s point of view. I proceeded to invite my students to share their thoughts and feelings about what had occurred in our classroom that morning.
Listening intently and responding honestly to the hard questions and sometimes racially charged statements shared by the students that morning was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career as a teacher. I knew from living and teaching for many years in this community that a majority of the residents lived by a different political ideology than myself. So I am always mindful of the possibility of being criticized by a parent or administrator for engaging my students in the types of meaningful and relevant discussions that might be considered controversial. I think it is important to engage the students in solving the problems that emerge in the classroom and to teach them strategies for sorting through the issues inherent in conflict. Knowing how important this process is to developing skills in critical thinking, I gave the children all the time they needed to air their fears about terrorists, war, and death, as well as their questions about Arabs and Muslims. As we talked, I noted on chart paper terms like: stereotype, prejudice, name-calling, and discrimination that would need further explanation in my work with the students.
The meeting we had that morning went on for some time. In the process, I discovered it quite challenging for me to respond to their questions in a forthright manner. I revealed to them that many of their questions were my questions and, like them, I needed to learn a lot more about other cultures. I then told my students how the tragedy of 9-11 had affected me and how difficult it was at times to cope with the enormity of the situation. I shared how troubling it had been for me as a child to see violent acts and other people’s suffering. I then talked with them about holding on to hope and believing in their ability to make a difference in the world. A few students shared their visions for a better world and what they thought they could do to make it happen. I conveyed to them that my vision meant working for peace.
It was then that something shifted in the way the children were thinking. I asked my students if they saw anything good coming out of the horrific events that took place on September 11th. Suddenly, Mitchell, who had been sitting quietly throughout our discussion, perked up and offered that he felt good about “seeing all the candles and pictures put up all around.” Jessica chimed in, “Yes, I like them too. My mom said they’re like poems and prayers calling out for loved ones to return safely home.” Tears rolled down Jessica’s face as she spoke, and someone handed her a tissue, and someone else reached out to hold her hand. The children began sharing stories about the goodness and courage of all the rescuers, and about the beautiful memorials family members had created, and as they did so, each one quietly reached for a classmate’s hand or shoulder. “Ms. Braxton,” Christine whispered, “do you think we can make a memorial for peace?” And the whole class responded, almost in unison, “PLEASE!!”
I spoke honestly about not being sure of how to proceed with such a project, since I had never done it before. I expressed that I had always found artists helpful in guiding such projects and wondered if any of them had an artistic parent who might be able to help us. Sam, a shy 3rd grader, jubilantly flagged his hand and declared, “My Mom does art stuff all the time. She’ll come in to help us.” That same evening, I called Sam’s mom, Hilda Shields, and asked for her help. My voice quivered as I described what had taken place in the classroom that day and that the children were passionate about creating a peace memorial. I conveyed that although I was conflicted about taking on such an emotionally and politically charged project, it was important to the children to be involved in something meaningful to them and that could give them hope for a better future. Hilda agreed, “Yes, I know what you mean. When I am emotional or upset, I move rocks, even boulders around in my garden. Sammy and his friends love rocks. Maybe we can start there.” As I hung up the phone a great sigh of relief came over me, and gratitude filled my heart.
Being a teacher in the Partners in Education Program (PIE) in Warwick, New York has afforded me many opportunities to create units of study that are project-oriented, thematically organized, and incorporate students’ interests and ideas whenever possible. The philosophy of PIE is founded on the principles of developmental education and multiage classrooms, which assert that each child’s development is unique; that the needs and interests of the learner are primary, and that the teacher’s role is to provide a dynamic learning environment where students are given opportunities for problem solving in real world situations. Within the parameters of district and state standards, I can design curriculum and utilize a variety of conventional and authentic assessments to accommodate the wide range of ability levels, interests, and learning styles of my students. Fortunately, PIE is a program of choice and the philosophy is supported, brought to life, and enriched by parent involvement. I looked forward to getting started on this newest adventure and couldn’t wait to see what I could learn from Mrs. Shields.
The following Monday morning, we got started right away planning our peace memorial project. I had chart paper ready, and the students got out their clipboards and paper. We all sat in a circle on the rug and made a list of questions and concerns we had about creating a memorial. Then we combed through the list to tease out and eliminate duplicate ideas. I then asked the children to identify which questions they thought were the most important for our project and why. Eventually, someone suggested that we place a check by those we should keep and cross out the rest. Our final list read as follows: Why are memorials created? Who is our memorial for? Are there peace memorials that already exist? What do we want our memorial to look like? What materials will be needed? Who do we go to for help? Where do we want the memorial to be?
On Tuesday, we looked over our list again and saw the need to clarify some ideas and include others. I explained that we were modeling how real researchers go about their work. They generate their questions, then think up the types of activities they need to do that will lead to the answers they are seeking. I led the students in a discussion to identify what we would need to know and be able to do to get answers to our questions. In the process, the students discovered how many curriculum areas connected to their peace project and how learning is interconnected. We concluded by developing a scope and sequence of the project and a series of activities or first steps to begin our investigations. Before bringing the lesson to a close, I helped the children to see that September 11th is a part of their history, that in fact, they were living history each day as the effects of the tragedy unfolded, and that one day they would read about this in the history books and know that they were witnesses to what is written. As the students left the circle with their clipboards full of notes, they had an air of importance about them, and I felt mighty proud of how grown up they seemed.
Working with students in this way is wonderfully exciting. I have always found that linking the curriculum to students’ interests is a very rewarding challenge, and one that fosters an engaging classroom environment. Having my students share their ideas, generate their own questions, and offer solutions to problems as they learn by doing channels what they already know and reveals what they can learn from each other. I believe that learning in this way is empowering and fosters the development of a life-long love of learning.
During morning meeting the next day, the students and I discussed the term “symbol”. I then placed on a table about 25 common road signs and had each child choose one and explain what it meant. They felt very good about how well they knew the meanings of these symbols. We then brainstormed other symbols they knew and categorized them. Included in the list were the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, the eagle, and the peace dove. I explained the difference between a national and international symbol. I then informed them that their first lesson in preparation for creating a peace memorial would be to learn about different types of peace symbols. I took the class to the computer lab to research various types of peace symbols using the Internet. They loved this assignment. It was so exciting for them to discover the many different peace symbols that exist in the world. The children couldn’t wait to draw some of them. Bob called out, “My dad had this one hanging in his car. He didn’t tell me it was a peace symbol.” “I want to make some peace symbols of my own,” said Lance. When we returned to the classroom, the students and I made a list of peace symbols we had learned about. Their homework assignment that evening was to start a peace dictionary with illustrations and definitions. This was due at the end of the week.
The next morning the children were bubbling with excitement. They had done more than what was expected and continued to find more and more peace links on the Internet. Even their families were excited about this assignment. The children described how their parents were also learning a lot about international peace symbols as they helped them with their homework. In pairs they talked about the different symbols they had researched and spent time discussing their meanings. Afterwards we did a class tally to determine which we liked the most. Siobhan thought it would be fun to have other students in the school pick their favorite peace symbol. We decided to follow her suggestion, and several weeks later we were able to post the results of the survey in a huge graph for the entire school to see.
Later in the day, Sammy’s mom, Hilda Shields, came in to help the children think about the different kinds of designs they might want to explore. She invited them to tell her what they wanted the memorial to be for the people who visited it. Jessica expressed that she wanted it “to be a place where people who had both good and bad feelings could go. If people have a happy feeling they can go there and pray and thank God and that stuff.” Taking a breath, she continued, “And people with a bad feeling could go and sort out their bad feelings, and when they walk out their bad thoughts will stay in the peace memorial. That way it won’t be as bad for them.” People liked Jessica’s idea. Then Pierre-Francois spoke , “I think the memorial would be a good place to read a book or write in a journal. Maybe teachers would take their students out to the peace memorial so they could have a quiet place to complete their work.” “Yeah, that would be fun!” shouted Stephen. Both Jessica and Pierre-Francois’s idea got kids thinking, and Mrs. Shields had no trouble getting the students started on their drawings. Each child found just the right spot to begin planning their memorial. A group shared the rug area. Other students found a nice open space near the rectangular table in the far corner. Some worked around the large circular table. Several decided to work at their desks.
As I observed the students working, I was encouraged by how focused and happy they were. It was obvious that some children had given lots of thought to what they wanted their memorial to look like. Some included ideas about nature learned from our study of the Iroquois. Most of them used some kind of international peace symbol they had recently learned about. Still others went off on their own drawing hearts, flowers, rainbows and animals wherever they could fit them. The children worked with great determination until they were forced to stop at the end of the day. “Don’t forget to bring in the stones for tomorrow,” Hilda called out to them as they ran out the door for the bus ride home. She then turned to me and said, “Mrs. Braxton, have you considered calling this the ‘Imagine’ project?” An affectionate smile beamed from my face as I recalled John Lennon’s powerful lyrics.
Prior to the students’ arrival the next day, I set up in the science area a half dozen magnifying glasses, a balance scale, and several books about rocks and semi-precious stones for the students to explore. As they entered the door of the classroom, I could hear the excitement in their voices and noticed that their pockets and backpacks were loaded down with all the rocks they found. Sam was definitely a rock man. “Look at my collection, Mrs. Braxton. These three are my favorite ones. And this one is like a pancake,” he chuckled. He pointed out that a few of the rocks had fossils on them, and students gathered around to look. By the time Hilda returned later that morning, the children were rearing to go. They couldn’t wait to use the stones to replicate the drawings they had completed the day before. Amanda asked if she could work on making some changes to her drawing. She was a very good artist, so letting her continue would mean a lot to her. “Join one of the groups when you’re finished,” I replied. Hilda needed to have the class work in groups, but she wasn’t sure how to do that since everyone had his or her own drawing and would want to use it. Luke suggested that maybe people who had similar designs should work together. Jonathan blurted out that he and Robert both used the Yin Yang symbol in their drawings. “So did we,” echoed Misha and Kyle. “We could work together!” Robert bellowed. The children sorted themselves into five groups, and Mrs. Shields was quite relieved. She confessed that she had been pretty worried about how the group thing would work out. She hadn’t wanted anybody to feel left out or upset about not using his or her own design. As we quietly reviewed what our next steps would be, the children got busy sharing their drawings and collecting their materials.
Hilda reviewed with the class what they should keep in mind while
working on their models and gave them a time frame of one hour to complete
When the bell sounded one hour later, everyone stopped. Each group had to explain the reasoning behind their design and identify how it met the criteria set up by the group. One by one, each group went over what they had done and why, and explained how they planned to incorporate the symbols they had diligently researched. As they shared their ideas, I took notes on chart paper. Luke stated that his group “made a circle of rocks because they liked rocks and the circle stood for unity and the cycles of life.” Sam called out, “They also symbolize permanence and strength.” The other groups agreed that a circle rock wall would make a nice peace memorial.
Another group had created a circular wall as well, but they had included four openings in the wall. Max explained, “The four openings, one for each compass point, welcome people from the four corners of the earth. Remember when we studied the Iroquois Confederacy? Our group thinks it’s better to have the openings so people can easily come into the circle.” In group three, Kelly spoke up to say that her group made a rock wall too. They made theirs in the shape of a large heart because it represents love, but they saw now that a circular wall would be better. Amanda chimed in, “We thought about putting water somewhere in the peace memorial. It symbolizes purity, and it is the source of all life. Is that something we can do?” “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to check that out,” Mrs. Shields replied.
The next group had similar symbols in their design but they added an additional symbol that none of the other groups had. “Sarah, why did your group add trees?” I asked. “Well, we were thinking about the [Iroquois] story of the Great Tree of Peace. You know, the white pine? We like the story of the peacemaker, Deganawida. Remember? He wanted all the tribes to bury their weapons under its roots.” Several students nodded. “Besides,” asserted Stephen, “trees are a part of nature and symbolize peace too. We think adding trees would make the memorial even nicer.” Many of the other children nodded in agreement.
It was now group five’s turn. Everyone was pushing Pierre Francois to talk. “Ok,” he responded. “We made our design like the Banner of Peace symbol because it has a large circle too, but it also has three inner circles, and we thought these could be fountains or have stones in them.” McCauley spoke up: “We thought the circles in the middle could be filled with small stones to represent every person who died on September 11th.” “Wow, that’s a really cool thought,” remarked Mrs. Shields. After much discussion, the class eventually agreed to combine the best ideas from each group and in the process design a class model that satisfied everyone.
The next phrase of the project, creating a public relations and media campaign, was the most challenging for me, but most rewarding for the students. Again, focusing on process, I generated with the children a list of ways people learn about what is happening in their community. Poster, flyers, and newspapers were at the top of the list. Over that weekend I asked each of them to become media detectives and begin to notice where this information can be seen around town. I also asked them to notice how people advertise their events and how easy or difficult it is to read what they are advertising. The following Monday I had the children share what they learned and where they discovered it. I listed their responses on chart paper, and from this list we identified what we would need to do to get public exposure for our own project. I then worked with the students to come up with information to create their own posters. As the children worked on their posters, I realized we would need lots more help. I could not do all that was needed. Hilda suggested forming a committee to help make the project move forward. That afternoon I drew up a letter to parents. In it I listed the things that the students and I identified needing to be done, and I asked that anyone interested in helping contact me as soon as possible.
Once a parent steering committee was established, things began to happen very quickly. By the first of the New Year, the Peace Memorial model was put on display in the foyer of our school along with a “Wishing Well” container made by another class. As members of our school community learned about our project, students and visitors to the school dropped in lots of coins. Shortly thereafter, the PTA agreed to donate seed money to cover some of our initial expenses. Contacts were made with various businesses in town, and my class got busy putting up posters to inform the community about the project and how people could help in our fundraising efforts. Many parent volunteers worked alongside the children as they participated in car washes, bottle collections, and bake sales.
The steering committee also worked on creating publicity events. They arranged for the students to be interviewed at a local radio station and to meet with the board of our town’s Chamber of Commerce. On each occasion, the students spoke about our project and responded to questions about how it got started and what we hoped to achieve. Everyone was impressed with the children’s ability to talk about the project and its connection to the tragic events of September 11th.
A week after meeting with members of the business community, the school was contacted by one of the local banks requesting that our model of the peace memorial be put on display at their business. Having our project displayed so prominently in the community generated a lot of public support and empathy for the children’s vision for a better and more peaceful future. Included with the model was an explanation of all of the components of the memorial written by the class. As a fundraiser, anyone who wanted to purchase a stone in honor of someone affected by the 9-11 tragedies could do so by buying a coupon for $5.00. This coupon would entitle them, upon completion of the project, to receive a stone to place in the memorial during the dedication ceremony.
As the word spread about the building of a peace memorial planned by children, increasing numbers of people contacted the school to find out how they might purchase a coupon for a stone. This stone idea was Hilda Shields’, and it generated one very successful fundraising project. The students in the class were kept quite busy keeping up with the number of coupons sold and the money taken in by both the coin drops and stone sales. Volunteers worked closely with the children and checked over the totals they came up with. As donations began adding up to thousands of dollars, we all realized the project’s real possibility of succeeding.
Soon reporters from the area papers began calling to learn more about our project and to make contact with the children. Several articles appeared in the local and county newspapers about the peace memorial project. In the classroom, we talked about the importance of newspapers as a source of information. Then Migdalia, a 3rd grader asked if we could start our own newspaper. The class agreed it would be a good way to keep the school community abreast of our progress, a vehicle to share what we were learning about peacemaking, and a way to explore what other kids around the world were doing to promote peace. Subsequently, The Circle of Peace Press was born. Creating a school newspaper also met my need to have the students engaged in writing activities that were both authentic and met state standards.
Not until we began to receive letters directly from family members who lost a loved one on 9-11 did the children really understand the impact of what they had envisioned. Some cards included stories and pictures of family members or friends who died. Early on, eight year-old Kelly stood in front of the class one morning with a picture of one of her relatives who had lost his life and a check she received for the memorial. Her heart was very heavy as she told us his story. Then came a letter from an unknown father whose twenty-two year-old daughter had just started working at the World Trade Center. He also sent news clippings about her life and a generous donation. As I shared this with the children, many of them just sat dazed as tears filled their eyes. We received many such notes -- all expressing gratitude, and these propelled my students to work even harder to carry their message for peace forward. Their fundraising efforts for the next year and a half could be summed up by the following poem entitled “Peace” and written by nine year old Carliann:
At heart I am a peacemaker, and this is reflected in the way I work as a teacher. Building community is critical to the type of learning experiences I create for my students. The Circle of Peace at the Peace Wall Memorial, now a permanent part of the landscape on the grounds of Sanfordville Elementary School, was born out of a dynamic learning process. Fueled by their desire to make a difference in the world, the children decided to create a memorial that would represent their hopes for a more peaceful and just world and become a place where people can rest, reflect, and find inner peace. Throughout this project the students worked collaboratively with their classmates and were engaged in every aspect of its development, while I, as their teacher, concentrated on the teaching and learning process, parent involvement, and enlisting community volunteers. This project met my expectations of empowering my students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and agents of social change. Their learning was integrated throughout the curriculum, met state standards and fostered democratic ideals.
It took nearly two years for the completion of the peace memorial. Phase one, the 60-foot diameter circular wall was successfully completed over the summer of 2002. It was built using fieldstone from the fields surrounding the school. That September, the site was graded to the appropriate levels, preparing it for the installation of the pools. Sod was installed in early May 2003. Shortly after, aerator pumps were installed in the center circles, which keep water bubbling over the stones.
On the morning of June 20, 2003 the whole school participated in a dedication ceremony for the memorial. An incredibly beautiful day, the warmth of the sun and the wide stretch of clear blue skies above reminded me paradoxically of the morning of September 11, 2001 prior to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Everyone was very excited and happy that this day had finally arrived. Our school of 600 students had all prepared for this special occassion. Every class had learned peace songs to sing and poems to recite during the ceremony. Peace was in the air. As Danny’s dad, a New York City firefighter, stood high on the circular stonewall, his bagpipes blowing, children from kindergarten through fifth grade, stone in one hand and paper peace dove in the other, walked single file out of the school through the open field toward the memorial which lay embedded in the hillside. The songs sung on the hillside that day were ones of peace and friendship. Our journey had come full circle, and my students beamed with pride. As I stood there looking over the crowd of joyous parents, children, teachers, and community members, I could hear Hilda Shields whisper behind me “Imagine,” and a floodgate of tears rolled down my face.
page is located at www.peacewallmemorial.org/tstory.html and was last updated
Address all inquries to firstname.lastname@example.org
All contents © copyright 2003-2011 by Beverly Braxton
This website created as a public service by Jonathan Talbot www.talbot1.com