A New Kind of Spring Break: Finding Peace Through Service Learning

Northern Ireland Spring Break 2012 For a week in March, seventeen Wheelock juniors, seniors and graduate students were in Belfast on a service-learning study tour exploring how early childhood programs can help to heal children and communities affected by violence and conflict.  The students went to Belfast to see first hand the peace building process that is underway in early childhood settings there.

Wheelock, through its Center for International Education, Leadership, and Innovation (CIELI), has been expanding opportunities for students to develop a global perspective on how to meet the needs of children and families. The Belfast program, in its seventh year, was one of the first international learning programs created.  This year, Karen Murphy, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, was the program’s co-leader.

In February, prior to traveling to Belfast, students participated in a course I teach about how community violence and conflict affect children, families and communities, and how early childhood programs can help promote reconciliation and healing.  The course builds onto work I did for my book, Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom .  In the course, we examine how war and conflict in society affects children and how to promote conflict resolution skills and an appreciation of similarities and differences among people with young children.

While in Belfast, we had a jam-packed schedule carefully planned by our Belfast Mural Ireland 2012 host organization, Early Years . Our visit began with the Peace Tour that explores the two sides of the “Troubles” and how both communities are attempting to heal. We ended our stay with a day on the gorgeous Antrim coast visiting the Giant’s Causeway , a true natural wonder of the world, and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that goes across a deep gorge.  In between, students volunteered in early childhood settings in the Belfast area that are using the Media Initiative for Children , a program designed to teach young children to respect differences among people.  They also visited community and youth centers and a primary school that are doing exemplary work with children and families related to the peace process and more.

On a more personal note, I am deeply appreciative of being able to be a part of this powerful, life-changing opportunity for Wheelock students that helps them learn how they can promote peace and justice in the world, especially in their work with young children and families.

The students’ own words capture the power this experience had for them. Some were deeply impressed by the broader societal issues related to the healing process after years of conflict:

“For me, going to Northern Ireland was about seeing the warriors of the peace process—those who refuse to give up despite countless obstacles. Visiting Belfast renewed my faith that it is possible to do the right thing and move toward positive change even when those around you have given up hope.” Robin Liberty , Early Childhood Education Student

“I was struck by how dedicated and determined everyone was to make things better. With many obstacles in their way, those working to help progress Northern Ireland towards integration didn’t let anything stop them.” Mia Cianaciarulo , Bachelors of Social Work Program

“My experiences in Northern Ireland helped me to understand the difficulties of rebuilding a community after years of violence and trauma.  Inspirational members of the community can help to promote change.” Chelsea Valentine , Bachelors of Social Work Program

What stood out for many other students was the practice they saw in early classrooms, including the efforts to promote peace through fostering an appreciation of diversity:

“The media initiate’s method of using puppets to deal with conflict is such a transformative method that I will take it and use with later in my career.” Christina Simmons , Early Childhood Education Major

“After visiting Northern Ireland and bringing together the troubles I heard about and the troubles I saw, I hope to take back to the United States Early Years’ Media Initiative for Children curriculum.  I hope to be able to apply the curriculum in a classroom in America dealing with different kinds of diversity issues.” Caitlyn Marshall , Elementary Education Major

“It was great to experience the classrooms in Northern Ireland and to think about to classrooms I work in.” Zoe Herel , Developmental Psychology Student

“I was inspired by so many things in Northern Ireland, but especially the teaching practices I observed in the Playgroup at which I was placed, where societal and classroom issues on any topic were directly discussed and dealt with on a regular basis. I experienced four-year old students openly discussing their feelings and showing a developing empathy for others, which gives hope and proof that with time a society can heal and future generations CAN make a change for good in the world – this is an inspiration I will carry with me always.” Sarah Cuddihy , Elementary & Special Education Graduate Student

“The highlight of the trip for me was seeing playgroups from both sides of the peace wall—which divides the 2 sides that were engaged in the Troubles—come together on a field trip to the farm. Not only did the kids enjoy themselves and get along, but the parents and teachers were able to interact as well.” Joanna Doyle , Elementary Education Major

“Going to Belfast has been the best experience of my time here at Wheelock College. As a senior, I am so glad I had the opportunity to witness some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen; at the same time, got to work with an amazing group of individuals who were all working towards helping children heal through the Early Years Media Initiative. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.” Laura Jensen , Elementary Education Major

Wheelock professor Dr. Diane Levin , Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert in the effects of violence and sexualization in society, media and commercial culture on children.