The 2018-2019 academic year was filled with more than reading, writing, and arithmetic for the students and staff at Katherine Thomas School (KTS) in Rockville, Maryland. Blended into lessons for every grade and embedded into every aspect of studies – there was a focus on peace – as the school embarked on a journey to Peace Certification by the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation.
Their journey began with an afternoon meeting between Mattie’s Foundation CEO & Chief Peace Officer, Jeni Stepanek, PhD, and a #PeaceCrew planning and leadership team at the school. They gathered around a table and listened to Mattie’s voice during a brief presentation, and they considered the “what, why, and how” elements of Peace Certification. There were many questions and lots of conversation, and enthusiasm and ideas exchanged about what this particular journey might look like throughout the school year. And then, the work – and the fun – began, as the entire school community mapped out their “#Pathways2Peace.”
“We were excited, but also initially a bit hesitant,” said Wendy Epstein, one of the staff members at the initial meeting. “It seems so simple… reflect on a peace element and Mattie’s message, respond to it with discussion and activities, and reach out to bring that message – and peace – to more people, beyond those on the certification journey. We can do this! But where to begin?”
KTS serves youth in preschool through 12th grade, offering an exceptional educational experience and nurturing environment to students with special needs including language and learning disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities, and/or other health impairments. After the core #PeaceCrew team met with a wider group of staff members, they introduced the concept of Peace Certification to the students, and asked them what mattered to them, and how they wanted to begin their peace journey. It didn’t take long for the KTS community to choose “kindness” as their journey theme, and to select a variety of Mattie quotes and poems and books to support each grade and developmental level in exploring and expressing and expanding peace.
They reflected on “playing after storms” and creating “recipes for peace” and “choosing kindness” and “being a champion” and that “peace can begin simply, over a cup of tea and a game of chess” and so much more…
They responded with art projects and video projects, with peace poles and PowerPoint presentations, with a buddy bench for the playground and hallway #Pathways2Peace directions and so much more…
Then, they reached out on Grandparents Day during the spring, to share and celebrate how they are choosing to seek peace, and to make peace, and to bring peace – for themselves, for their school community, and for others beyond KTS, and so much more…
Dr. Stepanek – known as “Mattie’s mom” and “Mama Peace” to the students – attended the Grandparents Day event, moving from room to room and activity to activity and presentation and to presentation, and interacting with the students and their family members and KTS staff.
“I left the building in awe, and appreciation, and more awe” Stepanek said at the end of the gathering. “This community really embraced this journey at every level, making peace more than ‘something we do.’ The students and staff here have chosen to make peace ‘something we are’ throughout the day, and across classes, and beyond these walls.
“And wow!” she continued. “The students are the ones leading the presentations and the activities and the conversations on Grandparents Day. The staff worked hard to help each young person understand what peace means, and how we can make choices that are kind for ourselves and for others. The staff embedded the peace journey in various class activities – and the students learned academic and life skills, and also attitudes and habits that are part of living more peacefully.”
As some of the older students re-purposed a rusted bench into a colorful “Buddy Bench,” they learned to use power tools and to measure and organize materials and to express themselves on their “bench slat” – knowing that their finished project would become a peace place, where a student could sit to reflect or to share the message that they would like to connect with another person.
As some of the younger students created cereal treats and other peace snacks, they were also working on reading and math skills, and on sequencing and following directions.
Opportunities continued to unfold for students to learn more and more academics and life skills while also creating presentations and projects, food and fun, poetry and art, and so much more… for kindness, and peace…
The students then introduced the “what, why, and how” elements of their peace journey to their family members, and then invited those gathered in each room to participate in conversation and/or activities together, as their educators and support staff smiled and cheered them on.
“It was just an all-around amazing day,” Stepanek said. “Every space of the school was filled with visual representations and activities rooted in peace. And every heart and mind and spirit was soaring with hope, and with the realization that peace begins with simple choices, including kindness.”
And then, a few weeks later, the students and staff boarded buses and traveled to the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park for their Peace Certification Ceremony.
“We decided we wanted to do something very special to celebrate this journey,” said Joy Thibeault, a member of the 2018-2019 KTS #PeaceCrew team. “So we planned a field trip to Mattie’s Park, so the kids could see and touch the life-size statue, and hear Mattie’s voice, and sit at the chess tables and run on the playground and just have fun with a picnic lunch. We wanted to combine opportunities for ongoing learning – lessons we can offer beyond the school setting – with a celebration and pure fun.”
Filmmaker and Mattie’s Foundation Director, Marc Birnbach, joined the celebration in the park and recorded footage and invited students to share thoughts on their peace journey.
“This was really awesome,” said Birnbach, who leads the production team working the Mattie documentary project. “These kids really get peace, and they are so connected to Mattie – as peer. Mattie isn’t here, but they are so connected to his voice, to his message, to him being a real kid – like them, and a kid with challenges – like them. This experience, and this community, is really awesome!”
Stepanek presented the certificate marking the commencement of the 2018-2019 Peace Certification journey with the students gathered around the statue of Mattie. And she reminded them, “This moment is wonderful! You have worked hard to make peace something that you do, and something that you are, in the fun times and also in the tough times. Remember though, this moment is the beginning. This moment is the beginning of every next moment. Keep choosing peace. Peace matters, kindness matters, you matter, we matter – in this moment, and in every moment.”
One middle school student turned to the statue and leaned in with a long hug. “Thank you, Mattie,” she whispered. “Thank you for teaching us. Thank you for reminding us. We will be peace for you, and for us, and for everyone.”
“Our Pathways to Peace materials and activities, including Peace Certification, are created and offered as tools to support youth and adults as they learn more about Mattie’s messages of hope and peace, and as they move from attitude to action in living with peace, and in making choices that amplify peace in our world,” said Stepanek. “Our mission and vision is to spread the message and help make it real to people, so that peace moves from being possible to being a reality. What we really want is for youth and adults to enjoy the materials and activities, but then continue growing with them – well beyond a lesson plan or an event or a Peace Certification journey.
“The KTS community has become a role model for this vision,” Stepanek said with a smile. “Now we are in the 2019-2020 academic year, and they are continuing their peace journey. They remain rooted in kindness, but are exploring and expressing and expanding peace with a new peace element theme!”
Stepanek and Birnbach visited the school during the Fall 2019 semester, interviewing members of the #PeaceCrew team and student representatives across grade levels. They shared reflections on the previous year’s peace journey. They talked about Mattie being a role model for them – for choices and for peace – and on the difference Mattie’s messages make for them as they choose peace at personal and school and home and community levels. They talked about the need for kindness – for everyone, everywhere – especially as we deal with challenging truths that are a part of our history, and we challenging truths that are a part of our world today.
And, they talked about their excitement and plans for the Grandparents Day 2020, when they will share new lessons and activities and peace conversations with family members, and continue their journey with, and for, peace.
#MattieMatters #YouMatter #WeMatter