Outreach & Public Purpose

Teach-In 2010: Conflict in the Modern World

Tied to the theme of the Head's Forum, this special Teach-In curriculum took on a global scope, examining conflict in the broadest sense of the word.
Conflict, the very word that connotes a divide, served as a conduit for this year’s one-day Teach-In and the evening Head’s Forum programs, Conflict in the Modern World.

Both programs were new initiatives last year, introduced to broaden and deepen the Spence academic experience. The Head’s Forum, designed to engage students in Grades 11 and 12, along with their parents, in a provocative and complex topic, was launched with a lecture and panel discussion about First Amendment law. The Teach-In, a full day program where the entire school is immersed in exploring various aspects of one topic, focused on the 2008 Presidential Election.

In planning for this year’s programs, students and faculty set out to consider “conflict” in its broadest sense. They looked within and beyond the community for people and opportunities that would inform and inspire the most stimulating engagement.

At the opening assembly for Grades 8-12, Kelleher Jewett, English Teacher and Grade 11 Dean, introduced the Teach-In as a “day of mixing it up.” “This is a day to focus on and engage in different ways, different thinking, listening, talking,” said Jewett. What ensued was a non-stop burst of activities that included three guest speakers, a field trip, multiple assemblies, one documentary film and 13 workshops—two of which were run by students.

Grades 6-7 headed out to the United Nations for part of the day, Grade 8 joined Upper Schoolers—a very big deal, indeed— and Grade 10 teamed up with third graders. This was a well-orchestrated day to connect, discuss and make sense of the many conflicts that touch our contemporary times.

What follows is a glimpse of the 2010 Teach-In and Head’s Forum, where a central theme was stretched as wide as possible in order to deepen inquiry and understanding. And where going off course from the daily academic routine meant finding new pathways to learning. Teachers became students, students taught workshops, a daughter introduced her guest-speaker father, and together the Spence community engaged in taking on the world’s conflicts.

The Globe’s Troubled Spots

Juniors Andrea van Scheltinga and Kara Gibson, heads of the Model UN Club at Spence, decided to focus their workshop on “one of the most important issues the UN has to face today—the conflicts in Pakistan.”

“We realized that despite its relevance to current world affairs, very few students seemed to have any knowledge of it,” says van Scheltinga. Van Scheltinga and Gibson talked about Pakistan’s struggle to define its “national identity as an Islamic state and even 
to reaffirm its right to exist.” They provided in-depth responses to questions such as “What exactly is the Taliban?” and were often pushed geographically and conceptually to edge beyond the boundaries of Pakistan to discuss the entire region. “I think Kara and I got as much out of our Teach-In as the students who signed up for it,” shares van Scheltinga. “I had some experience tutoring students one-on-one, and I had given presentations for school before, but I had never been asked to teach a large group of people for a full period class. I left the room with a renewed appreciation for my teachers and the ways in which they are able to inspire our interest in various subjects!”

A Different Take on Conflict

Projecting a photo of Jesse Owens accepting his gold medal with a defiant military salute at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Award Ceremony, Head of the History Department Hannah Turlish was discussing “The Playing Field as a Political Weapon.” The afternoon workshop allowed Turlish to focus on her personal passion, an area of expertise and a topic not readily covered in her history curriculum. A Division I All-American swimmer who trained for the 1988 Olympics, Turlish focused her graduate thesis on the Olympic Games as a Cold War tool. Mimi Similon ’11, who says she is not that interested in sports, took part in this presentation. “She is an amazing teacher, always animated, charismatic, incredibly intelligent,” says Similon.

Traversing historical conflicts—from the Ancient Greek Peloponnesian Wars to the Franco-Prussian War, and from world wars I and II to the Cold War and Proxy Wars—Turlish deftly stitched in the history of the Olympics. “Why were the Olympic games in 1916, 1940 and 1944 called off? What was the Soviet Union doing with sports between 1917 and 1952 when they did not participate in the Olympics?” She constantly posed questions and solicited answers from the participants. “If you’ve taken Mod Euro, you’d better know this,” she’d say, looking around the room for students to chime in. Showing another iconic Olympics photograph, Turlish talked about the 1956 Soviet Union vs. Hungary water polo match, which took place the same year that Russia invaded Hungary. The game became a battlefield for restoring national pride. “There were accounts that said the water turned red,” Turlish shared, reporting that play was suspended and Hungary was declared the winner, later advancing to capture the gold medal.

The Devil of War

What altered the course of history in a country ravaged by Liberia’s long-drawn-out, bloody civil war? Who brought a ray of hope despite 14 peace treaties broken, schools in disarray, basic necessities of water, food and electricity a common scarcity, and—with 80 percent unemployment—no economic solution in sight? Ordinary women—mothers, grandmothers, daughters—Christian and Muslim, banded together, armed only with white T-shirts, and in silent protest demanded a resolution to the civil war.

After viewing the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, students had the opportunity to engage with the award-winning film director Gini Reticker, who spoke about the year of her life dedicated to telling the inspiring story of these women’s grassroots activism.

Conflict is inherently Political

When Juliet Ryan ’12 introduced her father at the mid-day assembly, she talked about a man who had dedicated himself to “moving people around the world from poverty to prosperity.” Having spent nearly 20 years working in Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Liberia, Jordan Ryan is now in New York, serving as the United Nations Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. In 2006, Ryan accepted his first peacekeeping post in Liberia just as that country’s first female president had won the run-off elections. Ryan, who devoted three years to helping the Liberian government maintain its fragile peace, talked about the importance of understanding the roots of conflict. “Half of the children in the world and half the children who die before their fifth birthday live in countries that are affected by conflict or bad governance,” he shared. “I have never seen a country so destroyed,” he said, describing the conditions in Liberia after its 14-year civil war. “Around the world we are asking, ‘What causes that violence?’ ‘What makes states so fragile?’ ‘What fuels conflict?’” Ryan shared, adding, “We are doing a better job of anticipating the cause of violence.”

He cited governments’ inability to deliver basic services to people, lack of political participation, weak economy, rapid urbanization, young men with no job prospects, dominance and glorification of weapons, and absence of institutions that bind the society 
together in terms of civil society among the contributing factors that pull countries apart and into chaos.

“Part of the work of the UN is to be focused on building more peaceful states and more peaceful societies, to focus on stemming the rise in violence and building up the economic situation so people have a stake in the future and believe that life is better for them,” he said. Remarking that “conflict is inherently political and often about power and resources,” Ryan lauded the work of the UN, its Peacekeeping forces active in 17 countries and its effectiveness in restoring stability, the most essential condition in dealing with conflict.

The Prize for Peace

Teachers Tamar Arisohn and Amy Hand started the day for Grades 6 and 7 and their advisors with an interactive look at conflict before the group headed out for a field trip to the United Nations. With the early morning news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the fate of many of staff members unknown, the sense of urgency and concern reverberated through the halls of the UN as Spence students and teachers arrived. Yet most of the day’s commitments were being met, including giving 90 Spence girls a tour. “Gifts on display from various countries,” offerings of peace and unity, and “weapons that looked like rocks,” but could detonate and destroy, were the contrasting symbols of the day for Madeleine Mayhew ’15. “I was in awe of this amazing place; the building itself makes you feel safe,” says Mayhew. “My whole family loves to watch the news together,” she shared, relishing the fact that the Teach-In gave her “one more thing I can discuss with my parents. To really understand what a UN peacekeeper does, or what happens in an emergency Security Council meeting and how the six majors rotate—now I have such a better idea of what these mean.” Later in the day, her grade listened to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “He promises the country so much, and he is demanding so much of himself. It was an amazing speech, and I was thinking, ‘Maybe he will be able to reach some of his goals.’”

Delicate Diplomacy

“I had a problem on the terrace on the 5th of January,” wrote Sade Pacheco in her third grade essay focusing on conflict. Trouble ensued as a classmate’s science project was accidentally knocked down. “Even though I know I did not knock it down, I felt that it was all my fault.” Pacheco and her tenth-grade buddies had spent part of the Teach-In day together to figure out how to solve “the conflict on the terrace.” Pacheco was among three Lower Schoolers who spoke at an assembly for eighth, ninth and tenth graders, wrapping up the Teach-In activities. Tightly holding her essay in hand, she shared her insights on the resolution: “I learned a lot that day. I learned that I have a friend who sticks up for me. I also learned not to blame someone without having all the facts. One more thing I learned was that I will try to stick up for someone else.”

Upon reflection

While the program planning committees of faculty and students considered pairing conflict with resolution in the central theme, they opted not to do so. “The reality is that not all conflicts are resolved,” shares Turlish, a member of the Head’s Forum organizing committee. Yet many of the discussions and student reflections did converge on the issues of mediation and resolution.

“The lectures in the morning made me aware of conflicts in countries such as Liberia, but more importantly they made me wonder about the psychology of conflict and how the self-interest of opposing groups needs to be appeased to form a resolution,” shares van Scheltinga. The end-of-the-day assembly invited students to an open microphone to share their observations.

Amanda Toporek ’12, one of the Teach-In student organizers, wrapped up the day: “I find it fascinating and incredible that the topic of conflict is broad enough to be discussed on so many levels. We just heard a third grader speak to us about resolving conflict on the playground, and essentially mediation, though I’m sure she would not use that word. There are so many layers to conflict, and mediation in particular, that everyone at Spence seems to have taken something away from today.”