Student Service LEARNING TO HEAL in Northern Ireland

March 03, 2006

In Northern Ireland today, there remain deep and complex problems left from the 30-year civil war, or the Troubles, as the war is called by nearly everyone who lived through it. Relatively peaceful since 1998, the country is still recovering from long years of violence and is experiencing continuing division. Yet, as a fragile peace developed during the last decade, educators and social workers began to address the attitudes and circumstances underlying the sectarian conflict. Early childhood educators, with the help of faculty at Queen’s University, are now implementing an anti-bias curriculum in the schools, one which is designed to inhibit and perhaps reverse religious and ethnic polarization.

Professor of Education Diane Levin ’69MS has long been involved in this process of helping children heal from the traumatic markings that the violence of war leaves on families and communities – and in learning from the efforts in Northern Ireland. Her experience inspired her to organize a service-learning program for Wheelock students so that they too could contribute to and learn from the peace process.

For a week in March, Levin and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Brian Price led 11 undergraduate and graduate students on Wheelock College’s first international service-learning program to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Their goal was to learn from and support the peace process through working with children in early care classrooms in the city’s neighborhoods where new understanding – and an anti-bias curriculum – is beginning to heal wounds.

The Wheelock group spent four days in early childhood settings within and outside Belfast, working with teachers who are applying the anti-sectarian bias program in both Protestant and Catholic communities. At one of the schools, there had been demonstration marches and fires as recently as July 2005. In addition, the group spent a day at Queen’s University in workshops and seminars led by Paul Connolly, architect of the anti-bias program.

Students went on Peace Tours of the still partially divided city and heard firsthand the different perspectives of each side from guides who had been prisoners until their release in 2000, when the formal peace agreement was finally reached. They visited the 14-foot-high, miles-long Peace Wall that still divides the most entrenched areas of Protestant-Catholic conflict and that is still closed to crossing when evening falls.

Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroup Association – The Early Years Organisation (NIPPA) is the largest nongovernmental organization working in the early childhood care and education sector in Northern Ireland. Funded under a special European Union Programme for Peace and Reconciliation measure to establish an international network of early childhood practitioners, NIPPA aims to bring reconciliation learning into Northern Ireland schools and to promote the country’s experience in quality early childhood services and peace building.

Levin’s continuing work with her NIPPA colleagues – including organizing the international Working Forum Belfast peace conference – resulted in the organization’s arranging for Wheelock students to visit schools in both of Belfast’s divided communities, schools that are developing anti-bias curricula with the goal of peacefully integrating their students. Other NIPPA advisers led service learning days with preschoolers in Belfast child care centers. There, students learned how the Troubles had affected even the youngest of children and how interactive media programs are being used by staff to promote anti-bias learning.

As part of the trip’s scholarly exchange, Levin led a seminar for NIPPA on the dilemma of war play in children’s lives and a master class on the impact of media and media violence. And at Queen’s University, Connolly led students in a comparison of their observations of children with his research into how the Troubles are affecting the attitudes of children 3 to 11 years old.

Throughout the trip, wherever they went, students were impressed with the welcome and warmth expressed to them. They attended receptions in their honor at the U.S. Consulate, Queen’s University, Belfast City Hall, and at the headquarters of their NIPPA hosts. Every student noted how they were treated more as professionals who had knowledge and skills to offer than as students with much to learn. Students and faculty alike were pleased (but not surprised) by NIPPA staff observations of how committed Wheelock students are and how comfortable they are interacting with children of all ages.

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