Why Peace Education Matters

Fall 2016

By Sarah Pfenninger

In educating for peace, Maria Montessori looked to the child as “both a hope and a promise for mankind.”1 Nowhere is this spirit more moving than in the Montessori classroom community itself. Through sound pedagogical components of peace education and personal commitments to issues of diversity, teachers and students collectively engage in practices that embrace the participatory communities that we strive so carefully to create. In 2009, the American Montessori Society drafted the Declaration of Peace and Social Justice, which has four key tenets that govern the work of Montessorians working toward making a difference for humanity and social justice:

  • Foster peace within myself through personal and spiritual growth. 
  • Promote peaceful relationships with others through the appreciation of diversity and the respect of individual differences.
  • Work for peaceful solutions to social and political problems through a common understanding of peace. 
  • Inspire others to advocate for peace and justice in areas of individual, family, school, community, and organizational interactions.2 

What follows is one segment of the peace journey that an independent school in Buffalo, New York, took to open up dialogue on the role of peace in the elementary curriculum. Nardin Montessori offers an examination of the role of peace as it relates to both contemporary and historic time periods, allowing for an introspective view as students prepare to become global citizens. 

Children’s Literature and Vocabulary Representative of Peaceful Living 

The lower elementary program at Nardin Montessori is a multi-aged classroom that comprises grades one through three. Although Maria Montessori could be considered the pioneer of multi-aged classroom groupings, other prominent theorists have voiced the merits of having children of varying ages working collaboratively. Most notably, L. S. Vygotsky’s work on socio-cultural theory bolsters the concept that students learn best when given the opportunity to learn from their peers and/or a more capable adult.3 This is precisely the starting point of all Montessori classrooms. While the teacher is certainly present and an active member of the classroom community, the teacher serves the children and acts as a guide rather than performing the traditional teacher role of passing down units of information or knowledge. It is in this collaborative environment where the exchange of ideas can grow and develop and students’ creativity can be nurtured. 

The Word of the Week (W.O.W.) strategy fits seamlessly into this framework by providing students with an autonomous way to engage with best practices in literacy learning. In this strategy, words are collectively chosen by the co-teachers to illustrate tenets of peace, including virtues or character-building words such as “determination,” “generosity,” “serenity,” and “community.” This article is based on two particular words studied, “perseverance” and “courage.” 

The W.O.W. strategy teaches students one word per week throughout the year. The W.O.W. is introduced Monday morning and, for the duration of the week, it is studied in-depth through a read-aloud of an exemplary piece of children’s literature or poem exploring the concept of the word. This allows what Maria Montessori called “making discoveries in the world,”4 rather than simply memorizing vocabulary words. Autonomy is created when these words of the week are thoughtfully and carefully discussed. 

Is peace simply the absence of war? Nardin Montessori’s elementary students vigorously debated this topic. What could be more prudent for discussing human rights than looking at examples of literature that explore the human condition? The students agreed and enthusiastically embarked on a dialogic inquiry into what it means to have peace. During the morning community circle, we read two children’s books that incorporated a theme that matched the W.O.W., the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award-winners, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 

Educators Michael Graves and Susan Watts-Taffe argue that, in order to foster word consciousness, we must provide opportunities for children to become aware of the words that surround them on a daily basis.5 By helping children understand that words hold power, the W.O.W. strategy not only allows children to become excited about new words but also creates an authentic environment for metacognition. 

One way to accomplish this is by Kathy Short’s “Sketch-to-Stretch” strategy.6 Through a four-part process, students are able to respond to texts through a visual representation. These representations offer new insights into text meaning, while also opening the door for collaboration. The children at Nardin Montessori engaged in several pedagogical ways in which to think about the W.O.W words in order to push their thinking deeper and to include dialogue and vocabulary instruction. The Sketch-to-Stretch vocabulary strategy was one that some children chose to pursue. For example, after reading Debby Levy’s We Shall Overcome, they embarked on thinking about and sketching the story on paper. Short encourages students to use many forms of representation, including shape and color, to illustrate meaning. In this example, a pair of second-grade children created their very own Sketch-to-Stretch to represent their W.O.W word “perseverance.” By first defining the word and then creating a visual representation of their understanding of perseverance, to include a fish swimming upstream in a current, they provided a perfect example of how young children interact with literature to create meaning with text and constructs of vocabulary. 

Through exploration of the words “perseverance” and “courage” with these Jane Addams Children’s Book Award-winners, we were able to critically analyze literature to see how intolerance is manifested. Using peer dialogue, we carefully considered questions such as, “Who holds the power in this story?” “Whose voices are being heard?” “What does it take to have peace?” “What does courage look like in the name of peace?” “In what ways did the characters persevere in order to maintain equality for human rights?” 

Peace in Action 

As the group of first- through third-graders gathered on the carpet for morning circle, we engaged in literature conversations surrounding critical issues of peace and social justice. In Markel’s Brave Girl, the context of labor conditions and gender are illuminated in a thoughtful way, exposing the inequities and inhumane conditions of the garment industry at the turn of the 20th century. Following the teacher-led read-aloud of the text, the circle was opened for a full-class dialogue. 

Emily: So, actually, it says in the book that Clara, she thought “this isn’t the America I was thinking of.” She thought it would be an easy place you could get some payment … she thought it would be all nice. Chris: Yeah, and the bosses broke the Golden Rule. She thought of how it would be to be free, and she spoke up. Holland: She had a goal, no matter what, she never gave up, even if she knew she would get fired. Jon: They [the factory management] didn’t care about health care, they just wanted the work to be done. Clarisa: Yeah, they only cared about business. She showed that she knew what was right. She knows that firing her is wrong because she is a good person. Mara: Yes, and I think that when she said that, she kinda kept moving on to get the strikes. She didn’t want to get fired, but she had a really good heart because she kept moving on in her plans. She had to get fired because she had no choice. Mrs. Sabuda: So, do you think that she was a leader or follower? Nina: She was a believer. 

Emily begins to make connections, citing evidence from the text to support her views. By considering the realities of immigration, particularly at the turn of the century, she starts off the conversation by setting the scene for the harsh realities that immigrants faced. Rather than America serving as the “pot of golden opportunity,” the main character of Brave Girl must come to grips with the fact that life as an immigrant factory worker is hard and dangerous work, a situation that must be remedied. This is elucidated in the children’s subsequent comments illustrating the W.O.W. of perseverance in light of Clara’s struggle to balance what is right for humanity and peace against what the factory management demanded. Our students clearly identified who held the power in this book — the factory managers — while identifying the main character, Clara, as a change agent for peace and equality. Although Clara experienced physical and emotional abuse, in addition to being exposed to dangerous health conditions at work, her perseverance is considered to be a cause for hope, as Nina calls her “a believer.” 

Provide Sustained Time for Talking about Literature 

To facilitate consideration of these important questions, educators understand that pedagogy plays a key role. Teaching for peace demands a curricular premise that moves beyond what Freire considers the “blank slate,” or mere transference of facts from a lecture, note-taking format.7 By allowing space for deep negotiation and discussion of peace topics through children’s literature, Nardin Montessori works to create spaces that nurture young children’s engagement with critical inquiry and dialogue at a sophisticated level. This enables children to move beyond the “blank slate” mentality so that they can act as true participants in their own learning. This is accomplished through regularly scheduled, sustained blocks of time to discuss literature. 

Thinking through Word of the Week words from a critical literacy lens, such as dialogic inquiry, allows these learners to engage in meaningful work that aims to elevate the level of dialogue as it relates to global and local issues surrounding social justice. Children’s literature serves as a powerful vehicle to do this by affording young readers the imaginative power to examine issues of inequities so that, in turn, they can begin to work toward respecting human rights through strengthening the fibers of a democratic society. 

Next Steps for Teachers: Building your Classroom Peace Education Library 

Building your classroom library to encompass themes of peace is an exciting way to promote empathy, care, and respect for our earth and its people. This need not be a daunting task; there are many places where we can find high-quality examples of children’s literature. While many books can offer insight into themes of peace, quite often we find award-winning books to be the best for looking at the larger issues of diversity. Consider pursuing the following sources for your collection:

  1. Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
  2. Coretta Scott King Award
  3. Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
  4. Newbery Award 

In sum, teaching for peace provides an introspective framework for viewing the world through a lens that offers a respectful investigation into aspects of humanity requiring deep analysis and consideration. This Montessori class has continued the line of peace thinking through dialogic conversations that push complicated topics to the foreground in order to create new meanings and insights. 


1. Maria Montessori Education and Peace (Oxford, UK: Clio, 1992).

2. “Declaration of Peace and Social Justice,” American Montessori Society, 2009; online at http://amshq.org/About-AMS/What-We-Are-Doing/Peace-and-Social-Justice.

3. L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1978).

4. Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914).

5. Michael F. Graves and Susan Watts-Taffe, “For the love of words: Fostering word consciousness in young readers,” The Reading Teacher 62, no. 3 (2008): 185–193. 

6. Kathy G. Short, “Sketch to Stretch: Creating Meaning through Different Sign Systems,” CREATE, University of Arizona, 2011; online at http://createarizona.org/curricular-experiences/story-interactions/reader-response-strategies/sketch-to-stretch

7. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000).

Sarah Pfenninger

Sarah Pfenninger ([email protected]) is Assistant Professor of Literacy Education and Director of the Literacy Center at University of La Verne located in Southern California. Her work focuses on the ways in which students transact with children’s literature, with a particular emphasis on issues of social justice and diversity.