San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Peace Army Battles for Non-Violent Resolutions

AT first glance, it may seem a bit on thehokey side, but soldiers (teachers) in thePeace Army soon end up converts of theirleader, Dr. Rita Marie Johnson, and hertechniques, which include puppets and fingersensors.Johnson’s primary focus is “to reallycreate one country where the children learnto be peacemakers.” To do that, Johnson ,from the United States, created the PeaceArmy, which is working to slowly changesocial and emotional learning in schoolsacross the country.The army chose the Desamparados elementaryschool, Escuela Excelencia ElíasJiménez Castro, as its first battleground toteach peace.The Peace Army’s efforts, which beganin October, are aimed at 21 of the school’steachers, who will then teach the army’sideas to the students.DARY Vargas, a 25-year-old armyrecruit, teaches second grade and is in herfirst year of teaching.“This program has helped me deal withall the stress of teaching and being a newteacher,” she said during a Peace Armymeeting.“This has helped me so much. It hashelped me teach the kids better by seeingwhat they need and getting to know themas human beings,” Vargas said. “With allthe teaching standards and regulations, it’shard to see what the individual studentneeds.”The program teaches two differentmethods.The first is called “Freeze Framer,”which was developed by the Institute ofHeartMath, a non-profit research organizationbased in California that tries to helppeople find balance between heart andmind. The computer program is designed toteach people to “feel peace” and build emotionalintelligence.THE school has 10 computers with theprogram installed. It works by using a fingersensor that monitors heart rhythms. Theuser tries to align their heart and mind,which generates a peaceful feeling.The second method, which the armyhas just started teaching, is non-violentcommunication – learning to identify theemotions of yourself and others.In this form of communication, theteachers role-play by using real-life situationsthey have experienced in the previousweek. They explain the situation and then astudent tries to guess – not ask – their emotion.Once the emotion is discovered, theythen guess what is needed to resolve theemotion – whether it be love, understandingor order.After role-playing, Juan Carlos López,a young Desamparados teacher, explainedthat once his role-playing partner discoveredhis emotion, he felt understanding.Without acting, his wide face had changedfrom looking slightly hurt to relieved.“MY need isn’t just in my mind,” hesays. “It’s real. Real enough that you couldfigure it out and it validated my need.”The program helps the students get intouch with basic universal needs.“Once you get in touch with the feelingand the universal need, that’s really whenthe moment of peace begins,” Johnsonsaid. “Then you can say, ‘Oh, that’s why Iwas frustrated. I had a need to contribute,or whatever it is, and I wasn’t finding astrategy to do it.’ ”These techniques are not part of a curriculumthat is taught once and then forgotten.It is something that is used every day,proponents say. The principles are so basicthey are something many people overlook:being nice to oneself and others and havingself-control.The first method is about feeling peaceand the second is speaking peace.THANKS to a donation, the PeaceArmy could supply each teacher with twohand puppets and two headbands – both ofa giraffe and a jackal – to demonstrate nonviolentcommunication. The headbands canbe worn either forward or backward, indicatingthat the wearer is either speaking to themselves or others.As shy seven-year-old Jerry Alfaro puts on theheadbands and explains, “The giraffe says prettythings and the jackal says mean things.”Alfaro added that his teachers are nicer this yearthan they were last year and because of it, he has triedto behave better. He hasn’t been in trouble at all thisyear, whereas last year he got into trouble for misbehavingand running in the halls.Vargas says at first she wasn’t very convinced anddecided to join the group mostly out of curiosity.“I wondered if it could actually work,” she saidraising her eyebrows and making a questioning face.“They showed us the computer program with the fingermonitor and I think a lot of us were skeptical. Butjust seeing Rita Marie and her husband always smiling,and seeming so peaceful piqued my curiosity.”NOW, Vargas is visibly excited about the program.She speaks quickly andexpressively.“I used to have a problem witha very aggressive student in myclass,” she said. “He is 11 and thestudents in second grade are 7.He’s been pegged as a problem student– he steals and fights withother kids. He was always walkingaround with his hands in fists.”The student was a product ofhis home environment, she said.“He comes from a problemhome and after school he neverwants to go home. You can see thesadness in his eyes. He just needssomeone to love him. And I am so,so proud to be able to say that hetrusts me,” she said with a hugesmile.The student not only trusts Vargas, he has developeda strong bond with her as well.“He calls me mami,” Vargas said, smiling ear toear, “and the other kids made fun of him. I told themI see them more than their mothers do during the weekand I am their second mom. I had such a beautifulexperience because he told me I am not his secondmom, I am his first mom.”“THAT, for me, was the greatest,” she said, herblue eyeshadowed eyes a little moist when she finishedher story.The teachers have devoted nine Saturdays withoutpay to the project and spend their Wednesday lunchhour in the school library or auditorium working withthe Peace Army.“Even though Saturday is family time for them,it’s worth it,” said volunteer Sylvia de Pérez, turningin her seat to look at Vargas. “Just look at Dary, she isso happy.”But even the Peace Army has worries –but it’s agood problem.“My only concern about the Peace Army is that itwill grow too fast,” Johnson said. “People want tojump in and help but they want me to go to this schoolor that school, but what we have to do is do it reallywell in one school first and prove that it works. Wehave to walk our talk.”EVENTUALLY, Johnson wants to be able toprove her army works and then spread to each andevery school in Costa Rica.Cynthia Rojas teaches secondgrade and also gives afternoonclasses to women in theBuen Pastor jail. She has noticeda difference in using the techniquesshe has learned throughthe Peace Army with the womenand her other students.“Every experience leaves amark, whether it’s good or bad,”she said on her way to the jail.“The women at the jail are moreresentful of themselves and societyand it’s much harder to teachthem about non-violent communicationand controlling theiranger.”Although the women in jailare tough, the elementary schoolstudents are not always angels.“My second graders are pretty wild,” Rojas said.“When someone acts out, I ask the whole class ‘Howhas that student acted?’ And everyone says ‘they’reacting like the jackal.’ ”ROJAS summed up the whole project very succinctly:“Our lives are bombarded everyday with violenceand hatred and we are learning to bombard otherswith non-violence.”For more info, call Johnson at 282-6576 or

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