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September 2005 - Issue No. #58 (p. 8-10)

Teaching With Peace Stories in the Classroom

by Charles Kowalski

Tokai University, Japan

Teaching through stories is a tradition as old as humankind, and much older than written language. The world's great wisdom traditions have always used stories to illustrate abstract concepts in a way easy for anyone to understand and remember. Such "wisdom stories" as Jewish mystical tales, Christian parables, Sufi teaching stories, and the riddles of Zen Buddhism have a timeless appeal that extends beyond the boundaries of their traditions. There are many ways in which stories can be used in the teaching of peace, as well, in order to help listeners develop empathy or look at a familiar situation from a new point of view. We will explore some of these techniques here.


A storyteller can "reframe" a familiar situation by providing a different point of view. Parables - stories using symbols and parallels to convey spiritual truth or moral lessons - are a time-honored example. A story can often work its way past people's carefully constructed psychological defenses; an ancient example comes from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Samuel 12:1-7), in which a prophet "speaks truth to power" by using a parable to call an unjust king to repentance.

Another form of reframing consists in condensing a complex, large-scale issue into a more easily imaginable form. One example of this is "If the world were a village", a well-known article (Meadows, 1990) made into a children's book (Smith, 2002) showing how languages, cultures, religions, wealth, and education would be distributed if the world were a village of 1000 or 100 people.

This Strange Creature Called Man

  • A visitor from another planet comes to Earth and sees soldiers doing rifle practice.
  • Visitor: "Why are you doing that?" Soldiers: "We're being forced to - we were drafted"
  • The visitor moves on and sees a soldier being awarded a medal. Visitor: "Why?" Spectators: "He's a hero - he killed hundreds of the enemy"
  • The visitor moves on and sees a condemned man being led to the gallows. Visitor: "Why?" Spectators: "He's a murderer - he killed two people."
  • The visitor returns to his spaceship and writes in his log: "The inhabitants of this planet are forced into training to kill each other. Those who can kill many are honored, but those who only kill a few are condemned to death themselves. This species will probably soon become extinct."

One other common form of reframing is satire, recasting a situation in a way that makes it appear ridiculous. For example, an unusual perspective on human affairs is offered in the following story by Peace Pilgrim entitled, "This Strange Creature Called Man" (Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 1982, pp. 106-107). (This and other stories here are given in "story skeleton" format giving only the essential elements of the story in abbreviated form, leaving it to the individual storyteller to supply further details.)

Making heroes, villains, and fools

"No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence is rewarded."
- Margaret Mead

One of the reasons that teaching stories is so effective is that listeners can identify far more readily with people than with abstract concepts. If a character in a story is likable to listeners, described admiringly by the storyteller, and rewarded at the end, hearers will respect the values that character represents. By contrast, characters who act in a despicable or foolish way, and suffer as a result, serve as a warning to listeners not to be like them.

The world's folklore, ancient and modern, is full of stories whose heroes are valiant warriors, defeating their enemies through superior strength and courage. To create a culture of peace, more stories are needed in which the heroes are peacemakers, finding creative ways to resolve conflict, and in which those who resort to violence are cast in the role of villains or of fools.

The Appalachian story of "Old Joe and the Carpenter" (retold in MacDonald, 1992, pp. 76-78) is an example of a tale where the peacemaker is the hero:

Old Joe and the Carpenter

  • Old Joe and his neighbor lived far out in countryside. They got along very well for decades until a stray calf appeared near the border with his neighbor's land. Old Joe and his neighbor both claimed it. The two fought and stopped speaking.
  • A week later, a young carpenter appears at Old Joe's door asking for work. Old Joe takes him to the boundary of his neighbor's property and shows him a stream.
  • Old Joe: "That stream wasn't there a week ago. My neighbor dug the channel to spite me. I want you to build a big fence along-side it, so I won't have to see his house."
  • The carpenter works all day and in the evening, Old Joe comes for a look
  • Instead of a fence, he sees a bridge - and his neighbor is walking across it with a smile, saying: "You're so clever to build this bridge. I'm glad that we're going to be friends again!"
  • Old Joe offers to hire the carpenter, but the young man moves on, saying: "Sorry! I can't stay. I have more bridges to build."

Other stories portray warmongers as fools, such as this Sufi tale featuring the bumbling folk hero Mullah Nasruddin (retold in MacDonald, 1992, pp. 21-22):

  • A traveler on the road sees soldiers marching with swords, arrows and shields
  • The traveler asks: "Where are you going?" The soldiers explain: "To war, of course"
  • The traveler is excited since he's never seen a war before: "Can I come?" he asks. The soldiers answer: "Sure"
  • All go to war. During the fighting, the traveler gets shot in the head with an arrow
  • The doctor examines him and says: "We can take out the arrow, but if it touches his brain, he's dead"
  • The traveler says: "Go ahead and take it out. It won't touch my brain."
  • The doctor asks: "How do you know?"
  • The traveler explains: "I don't have one. If I had, I would have stayed away from war"

For students in elementary, junior high and high school, stories featuring heroes their own age, in similar situations, who find creative solutions to conflict are particularly useful. One collection of such stories is Wilde (2003). In one story, a boy resists a bully's attempt to provoke his anger by concentrating on a ridiculous mental image; the protagonist succeeds in keeping his cool under pressure, and the bully, frustrated by his failure to provoke him, looks foolish and ends up in trouble. The stories are geared for a U.S. audience, but teachers could take inspiration from them and recast them in a setting closer to their students' daily lives.

Humanizing the "enemy"

"An enemy is someone whose story we have not heard."
- Gene Knudsen Hoffman

Stories can give "the enemy" a human face, showing members of a group singled out for hatred or discrimination as individuals, with the same hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, and foibles as the listeners. At the height of the Cold War, two storytellers visiting a U.S. public school introduced the Russian folktale "The Stubborn Turnip" and were dismayed to hear a first-grade student respond with "Yuck!" During a follow-up activity, however, they received comments such as, "I thought of Russian people as being mean and evil, but they didn't seem like that in the story" and "The story was funny! I never thought of Russian people as being funny before" (Hamilton and Weiss, 2002, p. 84).

At present, there is a great deal of fear and little knowledge about the Muslim world, particularly Iraq, among many in the West. Stories told from the point of view of Iraqis and other Muslims are scarce, and the need for them is great. One rich source is the American Friends Service Committee's collection of stories from Iraqi civilians during the first and second Gulf Wars, at: . In one story, the residents of a Baghdad neighborhood near an abandoned radio tower were subjected to daily air strikes from U.S. forces. The residents conferred, decided the tower must be the target, and got tractors to pull it down; the bombing stopped after that. This story shows very human traits in Iraqis (concern for safety, community cooperation, resourcefulness) and casts doubt on the vaunted pinpoint accuracy of U.S. weapons.

Another story illustrates the suffering and vulnerability of a real-life character not often seen as a likely candidate for human sympathy:

  • A boy was born in a distant country. His mother suffered from severe depression. She attempted an abortion and refused to look at her baby. The father left the family.
  • The mother remarried. The stepfather was physically and psychologically abusive. The boy resolved "Never will I yield to force. I will always meet force with greater force."
  • At age 8, the boy went to live with his uncle, bitter about past wrongs done to his country by colonial powers. This gave the boy ideas of revolution and encouraged him to identify with mythic heroes.
  • The boy became a young man and joined a revolutionary party. He performed dangerous missions, rose to the top of the party leadership, staged a coup d'etat and seized absolute power of the country.
  • He ruled with an iron fist, torturing and killing anyone who expressed doubt about his leadership, terrorizing his citizens and living in fear himself until violently overthrown by a powerful invading army.
  • Violent confrontation was such a part of his life that his very name - Saddam - means "the one who confronts" in the language of his country, Iraq. (Based on Post, 2004)

Real-life Example

One more function of stories in peace education is to provide real-life examples of peaceful resolution to conflict. History provides many examples of nonviolent movements that changed the world: Gandhi's campaign against British rule, the Danish resistance to the Nazis, the civil rights movement in the American South, the democratic ouster of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the "Peace People" movement in Northern Ireland, the "Rose Revolution" in the Republic of Georgia, and ongoing campaigns such as those of the Dalai Lama for Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Any of these could yield plentiful material for a storyteller.

Other historical episodes can be retold as stories, such as the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German troops stopped fighting and reached out to each other across No Man's Land. A ready-to-tell version is online at:

On a smaller scale, stories of how individual acts of peacemaking, forgiveness, or reconciliation changed the shape of a community, a school or workplace, or a single person's life can be sources of inspiration for aspiring peacemakers. A collection of true stories about peacemaking in daily life, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories for A Better World, has just been published and is available online at .

These are a few of the many ways that stories can be used for peace education. Stories retain the power today that they had in ancient times: to bring new insights; to impel listeners to sympathy, anger, or reflection; and to convey profound truths in a way that will be remembered forever. In addition, stories from other cultures can make the world seem smaller and friendlier, and illustrate the hopes and fears common to all human beings everywhere. In these, and in many other ways, stories can become instruments of peace.


Brody, E., Goldspinner, J., Green, K., Leventhal, R. & Porcino, J. (2002) Spinning tales, weaving hope: Stories, storytelling and activities for peace, justice and the environment (2nd ed.). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Friends of Peace Pilgrim. (1982). Peace Pilgrim. Santa Fe, NM: Ocean Tree Books.

Hamilton, M. and Weiss, M. (1991). The stubborn turnip. In Brody et al. (2002), pp. 81-85.

MacDonald, M.R. (1992). Peace tales. North Haven, CT: Linnet.

Meadows, D. (1990). State of the village report. Global Citizen (syndicated column, May 31).

Post, J.M. (2004). Saddam Hussein: A profile: .

Smith, D.J. (2002). If the world were a village. Toronto: Kids Can Press.

Wilde, J. (2003). Peace in the halls: Stories and activities to manage anger and prevent school violence. USA: LGR Publishing.
Also in Issue #58: Click here to go find More Peace Stories

Do you use peace stories in your language teaching? Do you have peace tales or class activities you'd like to share? If so, send them to and we'll include them in a future issue of the newsletter.

Charles Kowalski, Tokai University, Foreign Language Center, 4-21-1-003 Minamiyana, Hadano, Kanagawa, Japan 257-0003


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