The other day I tried to remember what I learned in 3rd grade, and I couldn’t think of a single thing. What I did remember, however, was how my friends and I formed a little “pack” (we called it) and did everything together – in school and out – so that I never felt friendless or alone; I remembered how my teacher would give each of us a big bear hug each morning, squeezing the living daylights out of us in an embrace we wouldn’t have exchanged for anything in the world; and I remembered how another teacher cried when the class was so out of control, we missed the siren that commemorated victims of the Holocaust (and how, for the first time, I felt the full impact of what it means to bear communal responsibility for less-than-ideal behavior). If I were to take time to think through 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, I suspect the pattern would be the same: I would remember random events involving friends, students, and teachers; I would remember that I generally enjoyed the whole experience; but I wouldn’t remember anything at all about what I learned in Math, Language Arts, or PE.

I think that, as kids, we are much more shaped by the social environment at our school than by any information we learn in class.Impressions from our childhood years stick with us much longer than facts. In the end, it’s the atmosphere – the culture – we experience at school that leaves its mark, much more than the content.

Two weeks ago I received the following note from the director of one of our pilot schools in Kenya:

I wanted to let you know that the Peace program has had a profound effect, I believe, on the development of the school culture this year so far. Each week at Wild Wednesday, we award “Peace Hero” certificates, something that is looked forward to every time. Of course, translating the idea of Peace Heroes to children this age and in this context can require us to look at small acts as heroic. So, students have received certificates for things such as the following: Tidying up without being asked, welcoming a new student, sharing a bicycle so other students can ride it, always including other people in play, welcoming people visiting our school, bringing things to share with or show to classmates, and recognizing teachers with acts of appreciation. There have been other things, too, but this is just a list of a few things we’ve seen put in place here at school. However, the biggest effect is that we are all increasingly aware of how small acts of peace make an important difference to us individually, but as a school, too. We are now more in tune with the affective realm, and have new language to notice kindness. We have children learning about the heroes that they’re exposed to during their Peace Heroes class, which brings us all into a more heightened state of recognizing and performing our own acts of peace, small and large.

I love how the program is creating a certain kind of culture and awareness at this particular pilot school. I truly believe that it is the environment the students will remember best, long after the content of their studies has evaporated from memory. The material is, of course, important. But if it is not taught within a specific kind of milieu, it will fall flat eventually. In other words, it’s not just about getting the content across, but about creating a dynamic school community – one that is inclusive, kind, and engaging. This is what will leave the deepest impression on students, many years down the road.

At this school in Kenya, they are using kindness as the defining characteristic of peace. This is very powerful, as acts of kindness always convey a certain message – one that lets people know they are valued and appreciated; it is a reaching out that says, “You matter to me.” Kindness is, in this sense, profoundly welcoming. I think it is a generally acknowledged truth that people flourish when they feel accepted. In the same vein, students thrive when school is a place they feel they belong to and are welcomed in. This is the stuff that will grow students in confidence and that will compel them to rise up and take action – to be peace heroes. Because we are propelled and inspired in direct relation to how valued and supported we feel.

To be included –to belong–to be part of–to share life with– these are the experiences that will leave their indelible mark on the students. So it is no small thing to stop and ask ourselves: What kind of communities are we building in our schools? The communities we create have the potential to change not just our lives, but also all of history, as is evidenced by the life-stories of so many of our peace heroes (think, for example, of Mother Teresa, whose community, spread now throughout the world, is still thriving and impacting thousands of people today, so many years after her death). Let’s give our students the opportunity to belong to something as invaluable as this – let’s create for them communities of inclusivity that propel them to change the world for good, one kind act at a time.