It was while I was talking with the peace heroes teacher at one of our pilot schools in Kenya that I first heard about the transformation that took place among the middle school students shortly after the program had been introduced to them. Apparently, peace heroes just wasn’t cool enough for the 8th graders. The “rebellion” was spearheaded by one boy in particular who let it be known that there was nothing of interest in these stories. Being a person of influence, he managed to sweep most of his other classmates along with him. They would put up with it; but they weren’t going to enjoy it. This, of course, posed a bit of a challenge for the teacher (who was flying high with the younger students, who just loved this new class). What changed their attitude completely was the day the stories got personal; when the students made a poignant connection to their own lives, and it rattled them to the core.

Oddly enough, this happened the day they began to learn about the transatlantic slave trade. That the vast majority of slaves shipped to the Americas were taken from the west coast of Africa really hit home – most especially for the student who was leading the “rebellion.” Being Kenyan himself, it suddenly dawned on him that the people taken into slavery so many years before could have been his ancestors. The shock of the realization put the story in a whole new light. History got personal. The injustice that had failed to interest him up until that point suddenly had his full attention – and he was outraged. His passion broke like a wave on the class, and, hitting a raw nerve with the rest of the students, tossed them into a completely different place in relation to the stories they were learning. Peace heroes had taken on a whole new meaning.

I am always fascinated by the things that make an impression on students – the things that grab their attention and move them from passive learning to something more engaged and proactive. Children have an amazing ability to transpose the unrecognizable and strange into their own reality – to find ways to connect what they do not know with the things they know. All it takes is a tiny spark of recognition for their imaginations to turn disconnected facts into something much more tangible and real. This connection is often a key moment in the learning process, as it moves the students from head knowledge to heart knowledge – to the place where empathy and compassion are born (and there’s nothing quite like compassion to propel us to action).

In our pilot school in Burundi, the 4th and 5th graders have just finished learning about Wangari Maathai (from Kenya) and Malala Yousafzai (from Pakistan). The peace heroes teacher reported that both women had a great impact on the students. Maathai’s story, which focuses on issues of deforestation and desertification, helped them view their own environment in a new way, as their natural habitat is similar to the areas Maathai worked in, and is therefore vulnerable to the same hazards (both natural and human-made). It didn’t take much for the students to make the connection; they related to the problem immediately, and their interest helped generate some very practical outcomes, particularly in regard to tree planting. These young children even took their learning into the broader community, in an effort to raise awareness and educate the adults by encouraging them to implement small changes that will hopefully make a difference to their living environment.

Malala’s story focuses on the importance of female education in patriarchal societies and the need for equal access to education for all children (regardless of gender). The point at which her story hit home was a little more surprising. Included in each story are links to both Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize speech as well as Malala’s UN speech. Since the school is in a rural area where media is not at all easy to access, the teacher had to overcome multiple challenges in order to make it possible for the students to view these videos. But he was determined, and somehow he managed to procure an old projector from who-knows-where, setting everything up in the hopes that the electricity and connection to the internet would not fail him at the crucial moment. In fact, showing these videos to the students was such an undertaking that the teacher decided to turn the whole experience into a full-blown event. Thankfully, the screening worked, and, according to the teacher, was a great success. The students were mesmerized as they watched the two women giving their speeches – even though they didn’t understand a word of what the women were saying!

As it turns out, what amazed the students more than anything else was seeing these two women stand in front of a crowd of powerful men, and be listened to and respected. I was totally floored by this report, because, given my own context, it never occurred to me how the simple act of watching a woman speak in front of (mostly male) world leaders might powerfully impact children still living in a patriarchal society. Malala’s story, which is all about the empowerment of women, came to life for these students in an incredibly tangible but completely unexpected way. Just seeing women take action, and be respected while they do so, was enough to open the students’ minds and challenge their worldview – which is precisely what Malala’s story is meant to do. But I could never have predicted their point of connection to her story – where it would impact them in a personal way.

Interestingly, what engaged these kids’ imaginations was the very thing that is lacking in their society, the very thing that needs to change. This is telling, as it seems to suggest that in addition to helping us connect to something abstract, points of interest also have the ability to tell us something about ourselves. The point at which we sit up and pay attention is where we might, if we look hard enough, see our own deficiencies. What interests us is also what implicates us.

The transatlantic slave trade and its connection to Africa made the students in Kenya sit up and pay attention. They saw a terrible injustice, and it outraged them. But you know what else they saw? In the depths of that injustice, they saw a reflection of the same injustice as it is played out in their society, and the reflection riled them. The stories about slavery opened their eyes to the various and subtle ways in which people in their own society are treated with less dignity than others, and it encouraged them to make a change – to challenge their parents to make a change in the way they treat these (ostensibly) “lesser than” communities. In other words, they took their learning, made it personal, and did something about it. And that, in a nutshell, is what this project is all about.