In the center of John Hunter's legendary classroom sits a towering structure filled with soldiers, spy planes, cities, submarines, and oil wells. Carefully placed, each figurine is part of a world Hunter has been developing for the last 35 years.
Under the guise of four imaginary nations, real-life crises such as war, poverty, climate change, and nuclear proliferation are presented to his fearless and eager fourth- and fifth-graders.
The goal of the game goes beyond educating kids about these issues. To win, the elementary school students must work together to achieve world peace.
Hunter has become famous for this World Peace Game. He's had a documentary made about him, has spoken about the lessons of the game at the United Nations and the Pentagon, and has given one of the most influencial TEDTalks to date.
To add to all that he's achieved, Hunter has written an inspiring book that will make you wish you'd become a teacher, or had a teacher who was this visionary. In World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, the veteran educator shares stories from years of teaching the game and opens up about the wisdom he's gained from his young peacemakers.
The kids, he said in a recent interview, are his co-teachers. "Sometime I'm the teacher, sometimes I'm the student, and sometimes we're the same," he said.
Regardless of who is in the leadership role, there is one thing that shines through each time they play the game.
That one thing is compassion.
"That's the basis of everything," Hunter said. "We're in it to help decrease the suffering in the world and increase compassion for everyone, not just for ourselves. They find so many different ways to express that, to discover that, to show that—and that's a lasting lesson for me."
Compassion, Hunter writes in the book, "is the ultimate point of education and everything else."
His approach to fostering compassion is complex. It comes with negotiations, treaties, compromising, a plethora of real-life knowledge, and a willingness to not know the perfect answer.
Also, it involves "the stark realities" that come with being human.
When you're young, adults often hide things to try and protect kids. However, he said, "kids have wisdom enough or insight enough to know there is more to it. They can feel that things aren't as they are presented."
In the World Peace Game, Hunter presents his students with the problems of the world in a careful, but not calculated way. Although he does not shield them from what is going on in the world, he takes care in remembering that they are children.
His method in creating the game, he said, is "sort of a rip from the headlines kind of approach." He uses actual news articles, but changes the names and reinterprets them for the game.
By fictionalizing the situations, the kids aren't unconsciously copying their parents reactions or the news.
"Children don't bring a lot of baggage to things," he said. "They come with a much more openheartedness and open-mindedness to solving problems, and they do it in unusual and amazing ways. It thrills me every time I see it."
It may soon also thrill the policymakers at the Pentagon. This year, his fourth-graders will head to the Pentagon to actually play the game with the men and women who, as Hunter said, "make some of the most important decisions on the planet."
They've asked to play the game to see how a group of kids go about achieving world peace. This, Hunter said, is simply "overwhelming."
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Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com