A few years ago, first-grade teacher Chelsey Villamin noticed some of her students were having trouble getting along with others in class. One student expressed to her on the very first day of school that he wasn’t allowed to sit by another student.
“Right then and there I knew that we were going to have to do something as a class and set a goal as a community to really embrace each other and our challenges, and really figure out ways to spread kindness and peace,” Villamin said.
And with that, the Peace Project was born.
Villamin, who is in her seventh year of teaching at Manoa Elementary School, started off exposing students to literature and books that encouraged the young students to reflect on times when they experienced peace. When they felt it. Tasted it. Smelled it.
The class then adopted a fictional pineapple as a symbolic class mascot to promote the idea of hospitality and the concepts of welcoming and belonging.
“And then it transformed into this challenge of all of them coming up with ways that they can teach each other how to make each other feel really good about themselves, spread kindness, and this sense of being in the moment, calm and able to empathize while spreading this joy,” Villamin said.
The effort grew from there and has evolved into a year-long project that Villamin has implemented the last three years. Each year her students help guide what form the Peace Project will take on. Lessons span all subjects from reading, writing and vocabulary to social studies and history.
The first year, students created a book — a ringed binder filled with colorful student artwork on “How to Spread Peace.”
“Whatever their idea was, they had to embrace it and teach the whole class,” Villamin said of that initial project. “Everyday there would be a peace leader and they would teach the class, and the challenge was that everyone would do that act of peace.”
Some of the students’ examples in the book include:
- Give someone a compliment.
- Spread peace by hugging someone when they are sad.
- Spread peace by calming yourself down somewhere peaceful so you can think before you act.
- Spread peace by making a new friend and giving them a friendship bracelet.
In other years, her first-graders chose to focus their Peace Projects on a mural and a peace garden.
In addition to a big project each year, Villamin incorporates daily lessons and activities on peace and mindfulness.
Activities include “Friendship Fridays,” when students pull names from a hat and write each other anonymous compliments on a sticky note; greeting each student by name with an appropriate hug, handshake or high-five to start the day; and forming a Peace Circle for self-reflection and goal-setting.
Villamin said it’s rewarding to see her students embrace the concepts and get excited to share what they’re learning with their families and other students.
“At this young age, incorporating social emotional learning into our everyday routine is the most powerful practice because not only do they come to school to learn, but they come to school to really work together and to thrive,” she said. “Now we’re learning these 21st Century learning skills — it’s all about collaborating and working together and listening to each other.”
She said the positive changes she sees in her students fuel her motivation.
“When kids have a connection to their classroom, to their teacher, to their space, they’re so much more dedicated that the learning just comes naturally because they want to be here,” she said. “And because of that, the transformation throughout the year of them bonding more as an ohana than just peers is the most inspirational thing."