Peace Learning Center: Opportunities for Trust and Change

Peace Learning Centerby Janice Christensen / photos by Vince Bushell

It started out simple. I stood in a circle with about 30 fifth graders, eight adult volunteers and co-leaders, and Olu (Olusegun Sijuwade), the group leader. Olu tossed a ball across the circle to a student, calling out his name. The student tossed the ball to someone else, saying her name. The ball made its way from person to person, each calling out a name, until everyone had tossed, everyone had caught, every name had been called. Then we began the pattern over again, each tossing to the same person as before. Piece of cake. Then Olu started another ball. Then another, taking the same pattern. Then he brought out a whole bag of balls, and suddenly there were balls everywhere; everyone was trying to catch and toss and keep everything straight. Soon there was no pattern anymore, just laughter and confusion. This is how we began the final session for the 2002-03 school year at the Peace Learning Center. We were in a beautiful setting: the Friends Meeting House on Gordon Place overlooking the river. After we had collected all the balls, we sat down in our chairs, and talked about what happened when we got overwhelmed by too much, too fast — a common feeling for fifth graders and adults alike. By this time, our group leader, Olu, had the full attention of everyone in the group. Olu believes that a good way to learn to work together is to play together. So the morning session began with games. Games with a lesson. We worked together as partners to move a balloon across the room, and eventually pop it, without using our hands. In another game, we negotiated with larger groups to cross a line, each moving in the same way, but different from the way any other group moved. Then we spent some time brainstorming words that described how we would agree to treat each other during the remainder of the session. Words like positive, equal, fair, respectful. When it came time for everyone to agree to our list of words, everyone signed on…except for one young man, who had his doubts, and the courage to decline. It was time for snack break, so Olu sat down with the dissenter for a chat. It was an exercise in respectful listening. And it seemed to work…in the end the dissenter agreed to give it a try. After the break there were values clarification exercises led by the group’s co-leaders, students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Mediation Center. One group practiced “I messages,” a second a mediation technique called the “Peace Bridge,” and a third worked with a concept called “We Can Work It Out.” When the large group reconvened, students in each of the smaller groups made presentations explaining and demonstrating the technique they had learned. The highlight of the day for the students was a music video that dealt with such controversial subjects as robbery, rape, and homicide. This was tough stuff – but it’s the kind of thing kids see every day on MTV. Some have even faced these issues in their own lives. And Olu didn’t pull any punches. The students talked about the choices made by the people in the video. How violence grows from the choices people make. How the techniques the class just learned meant they now had more choices. And how the right choices, as Olu says, “might save your life one day.” Olu used to be a police officer, who said he changed jobs because he “got tired of putting kids in jail.” He teaches violence prevention through Peacelab International. (For more information, go to His approach is through play, then discussion. Without realizing it, this group of fourth and fifth graders learned techniques to defuse a fight, ways to keep themselves and others calm, and ideas to introduce alternatives in a situation of escalating violence. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
Peace Learning Center

At the Peace Learning Center.