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February 11, 2010 — John Hunter wants his students to change the world.
One short chat with the elementary school teacher about his World Peace Game and you start to believe it may be possible. After viewing a trailer of a film documenting his work, you know it is.
"World Peace Game and Other 4th-Grade Achievements," directed by local filmmaker and University of Virginia alumnus Chris Farina, is at once a portrait of Hunter, who teaches at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, and an inspirational look at the game he invented 30 years ago to teach peace and collaboration to gifted young students.
The film will be shown Feb. 21 at a sneak preview at the Paramount Theater at 6 p.m.
The official world premiere will be held March 12 to 16 at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where it was selected for inclusion in the festival's Emerging Visions category.
Hunter's game board consists of four levels of plexiglass suspended on top of each other, where everything can be viewed at once. It contains hundreds of game pieces and "everything that can happen," Hunter said.
The children are confronted with myriad crises that they try to resolve without using combat, he explained.
"Global warming, endangered species, oil spills … border disagreements, insurgencies, religious and ethnic tensions, and breakaway republics are a few of the situations that could be going on simultaneously, he said.
Farina, who earned a B.A. in American government from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1982, said he doesn't make films for the media attention, but chooses stories he respects, that have emotion and that are worth sharing.
"I was initially drawn to the beauty of the relationship between the students and the teacher," he said. "Then I was drawn to the lesson itself.
"John is just a master teacher. ... He's a teacher who changes students' lives," he said.
Farina was so moved by the material that he financed the initial production of the film himself. "It needed to be made," he said.
Hunter asked U.Va. Curry School of Education professor Carol Tomlinson, a scholar in gifted learning, to serve as the film's primary educational adviser.
Hunter met Tomlinson at a conference that he and his mother, a teacher and early influence on his career, attended in the late 1970s. "You know, that girl is going places," Hunter's mother said of Tomlinson, who was running a workshop.
Today, Tomlinson is a leading authority on gifted potential in adults and in children, Hunter said. "I've always been influenced by her indirectly or directly."
Tomlinson is "supporting not just the film, but also its broader mission of spreading the influence of a wonderful teacher and advocating for the replication of John Hunter's World Peace Game," said Kyle Copas, the film's associate producer who was an English graduate student at U.Va. from 1989 to 1991.
Tomlinson will supervise the creation of curriculum development needed for replication of the game, when the time comes. And that timing, Copas said, will be based on funding.
“John is a quiet, gentle man whose respect for young people and for the profession of teaching are palpable,” Tomlinson said. "His content knowledge is deep and broad. He is energized by connecting students who are important to him with ideas that are important to him.
“The film honors John as a teacher, but it also honors the art of teaching as it is practiced by all great teachers,” she said. “It’s a reminder that when students encounter a profound challenge in the company of a teacher who believes in their capacity to meet the challenge, their lives are changed forever. Their sense of themselves as learners is raised to a new level – as is their understanding of the transforming power of learning,” she said.
Another U.Va. collaborator is the film's editor, Bill Reifenberger, a faculty member in the Department of Media Studies.
He said, "It's exciting to be part of a film project that weaves together so many divergent yet complementary narratives – John's exceptional teaching, his personal experiences that made him the instructor he is today, the reaction of his students to participating in the game, and John's attempts to create a new paradigm for teaching peace to youth who are facing a world that is more interconnected and interdependent than ever before."
Hunter said he hopes that teachers especially will be inspired by the film to consider the potential of what can be realized in a classroom.
Farina is excited for the students. "They begin as neighborhood children and leave becoming citizens of the world," he said.