'Peaceful School' conference: Justice, empathy and equity in
By Lou Fancher
As improbable as it may sound, the life of a young person can be transformed merely by being seen.
That is what happened in a long-ago classroom when Miss Armstrong, a fourth-grade teacher in San Francisco, saw quality, courtesy and aptitude in a young girl, Toni Antoinette Johns. Miss Armstrong took the girl under her wing, assigning her the noble tasks of paper sorting and pencil sharpening.
Now Dr. Toni Antoinette Johns, the girl will tell that story and more as the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Creating Peaceful Schools Conference on Feb. 7 at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill. The Walnut Creek-based Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center has gathered the collective voices of education experts and peace activists whose breakout sessions will offer teachers and students strategies and insights to further justice, empathy and equity in classrooms and schools.
Johns is a lecturer with Saint Mary's College's School of Education in Moraga and an adjunct professor at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. The Berkeley resident has worked as a mental health clinician, liaison and trainer for police departments, and says that after her empowering experience with Armstrong, life took a different tack.
"From the seventh through the ninth grade, there were assumptions," she recalled. "I was put in remedial classes and never reassessed. I was one of the 'Negroes,' which is what we called ourselves. We were a lump."
Whether her classification as a lesser student was due to a test on which she scored poorly or the fact that it was the early 1960s and she was an African American suffering the raw touches of institutional racism, Johns internalized the negative messages. And she wasn't alone in doing so.
"If I'm taught as a lump, any accomplishment (I make) is not recognized," she says. "I judge myself from that lens: racism. It becomes a system that keeps pulling me down."
The elementary school message -- that her work was valued by a teacher and, by extension, society -- vanished.
Even worse, she said she and others carry those messages into adulthood. An adult learner of color in one of Johns' classes told her he entered an all-white school and "caused everyone to come down to my level." He was street smart, with high social and emotional intelligence, but the other students knew math.
"(As educators), we must know that another way is just as valid as academic knowing. We mustn't teach by rote. To be successful citizens, we have to take into account other intelligences. It's not either-or, it's both-and," Johns says.
Not only do teachers need to open their eyes to students' different abilities, Johns said a teacher's focus must dial in on his or her own subconscious biases and consider institutional weaknesses.
"If the institution for which we work has certain practices we haven't stopped over the years, it reinforces the story, a world view that develops behaviors. What messages inside of us might be filtering and influencing how we are teaching?" she asks. "Through looking at our own oppression, we can impact the larger system."
Johns insisted she's not blaming the system or teachers for classroom problems. Instead, she believes fundamental solutions will rise from educators, administrators and schools working together.
"We're all soldiers," she says.
Even a battle for peace needs tactics, and the conference presents a marathon of ideas and philosophies. Presenters from all over the Bay Area will lead sessions in reaching at-risk youth, restorative justice practices, proactive discipline tools, peer counselor training, turning anger into action, mental health resources, skills for reducing stress in both teachers and students, and more.
Margli Auclair, the peace and justice center's director, said the first conference in 2012 had 95 participants and 15 breakout sessions. Last year, 154 people attended 28 sessions. Due to the number of presenters and increased space at the new venue (last year's conference was held at Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek), 36 sessions are planned.
"We're adding sessions that address students with disabilities and mental health concerns," Auclair said. "We're also attempting to attract high school and college age students. They're the educators of the future."
In mid-January, 42 people were registered, and Auclair estimated that three teacher's unions providing scholarships would push the numbers this year close to 200. With room for more, she said the hope is that spreading the word about the value of getting information not typically available and the opportunity to meet other people with shared concerns will extend the conference's reach.