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Another Voice / Education: Schools need a productive learning environment

By Maxine Insera

I’ve been retired for a while, but I have a sense of what could benefit the Buffalo schools’ attempt at improving behavior. I grew up and attended school on the Lower West Side and live in the city. Buffalo needs to put in place and commit to a pre-K to grade 12 developmental curriculum that emphasizes positive behaviors.

My first assignment in Buffalo was as a junior high social studies teacher. After maternity leave (my three children all graduated from public schools) I returned to graduate school for my master’s in school counseling. Also, I obtained a special education certification.

My experience includes early childhood, elementary, high school and special education. In my over 25 years, sometimes I worked with supportive administrators. Then I was able to use Peace Works, a curriculum currently in use in more than 20,000 schools around the world. Its philosophy:

“We believe that peace education, within a framework of traditional values such as justice, honesty and responsibility, encourages the emotional, intellectual, ethical and social growth of children.

“We believe that conflict is a natural, unavoidable phenomenon that can be a constructive opportunity for positive change and empowerment.

“We believe in teaching children the skills they need to find creative and constructive ways to settle conflicts before they escalate into violence.

“We believe that children learn best in a caring environment where their self-esteem is nurtured as they are challenged to become responsible decision makers.”

The program begins in the primary grades with a muticolored I-Care Cat puppet and continues in elementary school with inspiration from the civil rights movement, and ultimately high schoolers can become peer mediators. Mediators are trained to solve conflicts before they escalate. The Western New York Peace Center was very helpful in leading alternatives to violence workshops. There students gained personal insights and compassion for others. I believe all this fits with current restorative justice practices.

Cultivating a positive learning environment starts from the day a child enters school. Students need to see adults who care about them no matter how hostile or withdrawn they may appear.

One of my jobs was at a Buffalo Alternative High School satellite. There, students who previously didn’t adjust to school could continue classes coupled with a part-time job (positive reinforcement), or at some point deserving students could redeem themselves by presenting to school officials in order to return to a “regular” high school – never the one they left.
Most received high school diplomas. Unfortunately that program was discontinued. The center is now apartments. A productive learning climate is the goal. I am very saddened by the over-emphasis on teaching to the test. I see that as defeating to what needs to be achieved in the long run.

Maxine Insera is a retired Buffalo school counselor and former board member of the Western New York Peace Center.

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