From Ideology to Action and From Progressive Pedigrees to Peacemaking

Making social conscience and democracy come alive

The call came in December 2015. I didn’t recognize the voice of Dr. Glenda Mosley. A native of the Baltimore, Maryland, area, Dr. Mosley is a business owner, a concerned citizen, and an entrepreneur. Her passion was clear and compelling that day as she spoke about her city that had been devastated by the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest that resulted in injuries, arrests, vehicle and structure fires, and looting.

As a researcher of the history of middle level education, I know that its founders were great curriculum scholars—and they were Progressives. I had heard John Arnold say, “I believe we need to embody the progressive education understanding that the aim of education is the development of good people. It’s who people are that counts—their character, attitudes, values, integrity” (Smith & McEwin, 2011). I recalled middle level leaders who believed that middle level education is more than structural changes related to grades or teams. Conrad Toepfer, one of the middle school founders, said all the way back in 1968, “You know, the thing about most educators, child-centered educators, is they don’t understand that if you really love children you have to hate the things that crush their souls. You have to hate racism. You have to hate sexism. You have to hate poverty.” James Beane explained his work as a quest for a curriculum with a social conscience.

Something in Dr. Mosley’s voice, her message, incited my own ancestral roots in middle level education, particularly my ideologies as a curriculum specialist. So I kept listening.

Throughout the next few months, I worked with Mosley and her team to think about educational solutions to Baltimore’s “wicked problems.” In March 2016, the school district was bracing for public reaction around the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death. The district leadership asked the schools to engage students in meaningful dialogue and other activities that might help them process their feelings peacefully.

Over the course of a sleepless week, I wrote “Gray Days: A Campaign for Peace.” The activities curated here were originally offered to the Baltimore City Public Schools as an effort to support and extend gratitude to the teachers and administrators who work each day, side-by-side with students, to cultivate their potential. However, Baltimore is not the only American city navigating racial tension and the perceived overreach of law enforcement. The social problems of racism, classism, and poverty belong to all of us—and can only be untangled if we nurture our best human resources toward resolutions. Our students need to recognize that they have the power to change the world around them. Teachers and administrators who work most closely with students should choose the activities that make the most sense in their particular context.

In places where I have used “Baltimore,” please insert the name of the town, city, or community you love. I hope these ideas spark additional ideas for the AMLE readership—and for middle schools and communities across America. The only way the middle school ideals of democracy and social conscience can work is if they come alive in us.

  1. Investing in Baltimore or [name of town, city, or community]: Find a sponsor to donate one dollar for the number of students in your school. Give each student a single dollar and ask them to invest it, give it away, or use it to somehow improve their community. They may use their own talents or abilities with the dollar to multiply it. They may combine their dollar with others for collaborative efforts.Preparation: Prior to giving the students their dollars, talk about the initiative. In groups, brainstorm ideas for investing the dollars. I once participated in a similar initiative. As a singer, I worked with musicians, and we used our dollars to buy a jar. Then, we performed an impromptu concert for our families and collected tips that we used to purchase recording studio time. We made several hundred dollars by selling the recording to family and friends, and we contributed those proceeds to a charity in our community. Others took ingredients they had at home, added $1.00 worth of other ingredients and baked something to sell or give away. Someone bought three toothbrushes for $1.00 and used a gel pen to personalize them, selling each one for $1.00. That $3.00 bought nine toothbrushes, which were personalized and sold. An artist bought a nice piece of paper, and created and sold a piece of art, and then donated the proceeds. Our month-long project raised funds for a specified charity. Investing in [Baltimore] might use a similar approach, or the artwork, toothbrushes, or musical gifts could simply be given to those who would appreciate them.Encourage students’ creative ideas for projects as well as their ideas about causes and purposes in their communities to which they would like to contribute.Implementation: Give students their single dollars to invest and set a time to bring back what they’ve earned for a designated cause—or come prepared to write and reflect about the experience and how they invested or gave away their dollars. Some students may just keep or spend their dollars. Don’t be discouraged. Many will take this idea very seriously, and appreciate the opportunity to make decisions about improving their communities and using their own talents and resources (in addition to the dollar).Follow-up: In groups, have students discuss or write about how they invested their dollars. Schools may also consider having students respond to an anonymous survey about their experiences so they can report results back to the students. The survey might ask about how they felt about receiving the dollar; whether they used it, invested it, or gave it away; and how the activity might be improved.
  2. The Next Best Thing: This activity works similarly to “Investing in [Baltimore].” With The Next Best Thing, small groups of students are given a small, insignificant item (e.g., a paperclip). Then, in small groups, they go into the community and ask for the next best thing:”We are doing a project to raise money for [a charitable organization that the small group has chosen]. All we were given was [show and specify the small, insignificant item], and we’ve been asked to go into the community and ask for the ‘next best thing.’ Do you have something you can give us that is better than this? At the end of our project, we will [sell, auction] our final item and give the proceeds to [our chosen charitable organization].”You can auction the items at the end of the project or donate them to an organization that will sell the item and provide funds to support community initiatives in the area. Schools should provide guidelines for where students should go and how groups should be formed.
  3. Positive Post-Its: Give students sticky notes and ask them to write positive messages on them and place them in places in their home, school, and community that will make a positive impact. For example, they might write positive messages about inner beauty and place those on a bathroom mirror to remind others that real beauty comes from within. Quotations are a great source for positive messages, and you can direct students to websites that provide positive quotations. Here are some that might be shared with students as examples:
    • “We cannot, of course, save the World because we do not have authority over its parts. We can serve the world though. That is everyone’s calling, to lead a life that helps.”
      –Barry Lopez
    • “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” –Maya Angelou
  4. World Café Conversation: Host a school or community World Café. World Café is a global conversation movement and a powerful method for inviting dialogue and problem-solving in communities and groups. This one may be best implemented if you have skilled conversation hosts. If you do not have skilled hosts at this time, World Café might be an aspirational initiative for future conversations. A hosting tool kit, translations of facilitation materials, graphic recording information, and a facilitation checklist are also available at questions for a Campaign for Peace World Café Conversation should center on positive restoration of [Baltimore]. You might have tables representing a variety of community organizations and ask, “What can [faith communities, law enforcement, high school students, schools, parents, youth organizations, local businesses] do to improve [safety, well-being, law enforcement/community relations, etc.] in [Baltimore]? Each table might address a slightly different question. Be sure to plan for a “harvesting” of ideas at the close of the conversation.
  5. Extending Gratitude: Write notes expressing gratitude to a person or group that has made contributions toward improving your community or city. Consider writing to local law enforcement officers or departments. Single cards or notes could be written with multiple signatures collected. Think about posting some of the Positive Post-its at your local police department, shopping mall, hospital, or other place where people work to serve others. People aren’t hardwired to be grateful. And, like any skill worth having, gratitude requires practice. See A Practical Guide to Gratitude or download a free app at
  6. Peace First: Visit the Digital Activity Center at to find activities that work in your classroom or school. Consider nominating someone from your school or community for the PeaceFirst Prize. The PeaceFirst Prize celebrates the powerful contributions of youth peacemakers. The PeaceFirst Prize recognizes five young people between the ages of 8-22 for their compassion, courage, and ability to create collaborative change. Through a two-year $25,000 PeaceFirst Fellowship, the organization invests in young people’s leadership as peacemakers and shares their stories.
  7. Host a Futures Festival: The Futures Festival is a special event designed to engage people of all ages in constructive dialogue about community development issues. It is geared primarily toward youth and older adults, two population groups whose opportunities to participate in community activities are often limited. Through murals, models, photographs, theatrical displays, and other communications, the Futures Festival brings community residents and public officials together to share their ideas about community development. All participants get the chance to answer (and learn how others answer) the all-important question: “What would you like to see in the future of your community?” A Future Festival Facilitator’s Guide, providing information related to planning and promotion, activities, materials, evaluation, and follow up is available at
  8. Plan Intergenerational Gatherings: Intergenerational work demands that we recognize the inherent strength of each generation and the need we all share to be connected. In a world of easy isolation and quick, impersonal media connections, intergenerational approaches are proving once again to be not just nice, but necessary. Whether addressing a pressing community need, tutoring a child, teaching an older person to surf the Internet, or sharing a community building, the generations are meant to be together. Our communities and country are better served when we encourage the connection and benefit from the magic. Download or choose appropriate activities from the Intergenerational Activities Sourcebook available at The Sourcebook provides warm-up, short-term, and longer-term activities, each aligned to important curriculum goals.

    Keep in mind that the ideal goal of intergenerational exchange is not just to do good activities. The most successful intergenerational initiatives build mutually satisfying relationships between the younger and older participants. Getting together for initial activities provides the groundwork for additional relationship building meetings.