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Does Forgiveness Have a Place in the Curriculum?

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Martin Doblmeier is the director of a documentary film, "The Power of Forgiveness," and has given talks at about 50 screenings of his film around the country. About half the screenings were sponsored by faith groups and the other half by high schools or universities, he says. More universities than schools have been interested in showing the film, but Doblmeier would like to see the film get more exposure in high schools.

The film, made in 2007, has been shown in at least one community deeply affected by violence: Blacksburg, Va., the home of Virginia Tech. I chose this month, when the 10th anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School is being marked, to feature it as a possible resource for schools.

Children in schools are the subject of the film, which I watched last week, in a few segments. There's footage about how elementary schools in Ireland are using a "forgiveness curriculum" that was developed by Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, to combat tensions between Protestants and Catholics in that country. (The curriculum is also in use in a private school in Milwaukee.) The Irish children are shown putting on plastic "forgiveness glasses" and talking about how they might see someone differently through the lens of forgiveness than without it.

The movie explores as well how the Amish expressed forgiveness to the family of Charles Roberts, a mentally disturbed milk-truck driver who shot and killed five school girls and wounded five others at an Amish school in 2006.

There's also footage that shows two men—Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix—visiting the Gompers Charter Middle School in San Diego and talking about forgiveness. Azim Khamisa is the father of Tariq Khamisa, who at age 20 was shot and killed in 1995 by Tony Hicks, who was then 14. Ples Felix is the grandfather of Hicks. The two men, one grieving over the death of his son and the other over the actions of his grandson, formed a strong bond and now visit schools to convey that forgiveness can be the best response to horrible events in one's life. "Forgiveness is something you do for yourself," Khamisa tells the students.

Tom Rickards, who teaches at the William Penn Charter School, a private Quaker school (not a public charter school as the name suggests) in Philadelphia, says he showed the segments of the film about the Amish and about the friendship between the grandfather of a murderer and the father of the young man who was murdered in a class about Quaker principals and practices and also an ethics class. Rickards said that film fit in with a discussion about the "morality of emotions" and how much people should or shouldn't try to control their emotions.

Doblmeier visited the ethics class to talk with the students. The school community had a screening of the film in the evening.

Rickards said his students responded to the role of personal narrative in the film. And they were struck, he said, with how the filmmaker acknowledged he included some opinions of people in his film that he didn't personally agree with.

The Pennington School, a private school in Pennington, N.J., also recently hosted Doblmeier during a screening of his film.

The film presents a wide variety of perspectives both from people of faith—including Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese-born Zen Buddhist monk, and Rev. Lyndon Harris, who is an Episcopal priest at a church near Ground Zero of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—and secular researchers who study the impact of forgiveness on human health. It does not wrap the concept of forgiveness into a neat package. It is about the choices, including revenge and forgiveness, people have in responding to violence.


1 Comment

Forgiveness is definitely in the realm of human feelings and behavior and can be discussed in school. I believe that an educator would have to be cautious about being religious, but forgiveness could be discussed in how it is viewed in different religions. Why completely hide it? I think it might be best discussed with other emotions such as shock, sadness, anger, retribution, etc.

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