How to bring restorative justice to your school

Levine-336x336By David Levine,

Hey, you! Yes, YOU can make it happen! Anyone can. Whether you are a principal, a student, counselor or teacher, you can be the one to speak up for restorative justice. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (Mahatma Gandhi).
Though I currently work full time as a restorative justice facilitator, it wasn’t always this way. At my last school it was a student, a junior, who decided our school needed this approach. He found backing from our principal, and he found a mentor in me, his advisor/teacher.

That’s all it took for us to get started. We wanted to stop suspending students and so we had interesting and difficult conversations with students, staff and families, many of whom were resistant, about how to better deal with discipline. We read books, watched YouTube videos and reached out to local RJ practitioners.

There was not much of a roadmap, but it was exciting to be blazing our own path and discovering some powerful outcomes (and some informative failures) along the way.

Fortunately, since those days, there are far more resources available to those of us who want to bring about change in our school culture. My work continues to be guided by a plethora of people, books and videos on best practices, but I will always feel indebted to Nicholas Bradford, founder of the Restorative Justice Center of the Northwest, the book “Implementing Restorative Practice in Schools: A Practical Guide to Transforming School Communities,” by Margaret Thorsborne and Peta Blood, and the inspiring work of Jeff Duncan-Andrade.

I like the definition of RJ as “a relational approach to addressing harm.” It is a system based on equality, empowerment and personal accountability. Restorative practices refer to the vast tools employed when working toward this ideal environment, such as an RJ council.

An RJ council, as illustrated in my last column, is a meeting in which community stakeholders circle to discuss a harm committed and find resolutions. These councils are incredibly important but are just one of the many tools needed to have a restorative community. There is a common misconception that these meetings are the entirety of the process of creating a restorative community. That could not be farther from the truth.

The fact is, you cannot restore a community if it doesn’t exist in the first place. If a student hates their school, why wouldn’t they cut classes? If a student doesn’t feel safe in the cafeteria, why not be ready to fight? If students don’t have a bond with their teachers, why would they dare to take academic risks and face possible failure? We often want kids to respect teachers simply because they are authority figures, but students often do not see this hierarchy in the same way. Many youth, especially inner-city students of color, are wary of teachers who don’t seem to understand what their lives are like and have grown distrustful of authority figures, such as police and politicians.

And why wouldn’t they? The statistics show unequivocally that they (black and Latino students) are being unfairly disciplined by a system whose institutionalized racism has only recently been removed from the law books. Here in New York City, students are greeted by long lines at metal detectors, overcrowded classrooms and safety officers policing the hallways.

If we are trying to sell school to these students, they aren’t buying it. We will not get meaningful change simply by changing the way that we discipline students who misbehave. The change must come from the ground up.

I made this very clear when I was hired this school year to help build an RJ framework at a public high school in the Bronx.

It takes time to build relationships at a school, and those are the key to a successful and fair system; the job is to humanize. Johnny may normally bully a kid like Martin, but if there was a classroom discussion about loss, for instance, and Johnny learned that Martin’s mom is fighting breast cancer, he is much less likely to bully him. We tend to most easily hurt our fellow citizens when we see them as “other.”

When thinking about RJ in schools, I look for the space and times most conducive to community building. Often this is hard to do this in content classes, where teachers struggle to make it through mandated curriculum.

Luckily the ninth and 10th grades at my current school have 45 minutes per day of “advisory.” This type of “non-content” class is pretty common in many schools.

But such advisory periods are often completely underused. Both teachers and students do not understand the purpose of this time, and therefore it devolves into a study hall of sorts, where students mostly just hang out and talk to their friends or watch videos on laptops.

[Related: The Truth Behind Obama’s Juvenile Justice Reform]

This is a huge missed opportunity. This type of period is absolutely about content and learning, only we are talking about social-emotional learning and developing “non-cognitive variables.”

And though New York state does not currently award credit for this type of content, or evaluate students on this criteria, we know that these “soft” skills, which include impulse control and executive function, are extremely good predictors of student success in almost all facets of school and later in life.

The advisory, done correctly, can be a place of frequent discussion circles and one-on-one meetings where adults can act less as authority figures and more as advocates and coaches. I am working to help teachers reimagine what advisory could be.

This year, we have rolled out a plan for both semesters to help students grow in social emotional skills. Their first semester focused on self-discovery through “who am I” projects. This included family interviews, autobiographical writing and cultural celebrations, as well as a whole host of community-building games, journaling and circle discussions on topics relevant to the students’ daily lives.

In this first semester students not only got to share things about themselves with their peers, but they were celebrated often, taught the proper way to disagree in discussions and learned to tolerate and appreciate people who may be different from themselves.

Now that students had completed and presented their first-semester “who am I” projects, they were asked to grow and develop as learners even more. First they composed vision statements about what they wanted from school and from life: Where did they imagine themselves in the future, and what type of people did they hope to become?

These are the most important questions for our young students, the ones that make them feel valued and capable, empowered and challenged, and yet they are hardly ever asked! Then students in the advisories are led through a personal “JOY” project. They discover a topic that interests them, propose a project and a product they will create, and work on the project throughout the semester.

They are being taught a host of skills such as planning, revision, communication, time management and that failure is a common part of every great project. Teachers will tell them about personal projects they have done, from trying to lose weight to building a garden in their backyard.

Students start to see their teachers as humans with passions and interests, and teachers get to share parts of themselves that they truly love. In this way we demonstrate to young people what it is to be a “lifelong learner.”

Students are excited because they get to do a project on something they are good at or interested in. Whether that thing is video games or fashion or rap music, it may be the first time they have received recognition for something they have spent countless hours working on. As an educator, why not let them choose the project topic? If I am teaching them about planning, reflection, grit, communication, public speaking, research and many other high-order skills, why does it matter if the project is about skateboarding, algebra or anime?

The only conceivable answer is that those subjects will not be on state exams. If that is the only measure of educational value, we are in deep trouble. I could tell you countless stories about students who have failed many academic classes proudly exhibiting an amazing project on something they love to do, with a huge smile on their face and loud applause from the school community.

It is through success like this that students can regain their self-confidence. School instantly goes from something they resist to a place where they are succeeding, where they get to work on things they love, where their identity is valued. Rather than teaching the student, the teacher has simply been a coach, making suggestions along the way, or perhaps taking a book out for the student to read on their subject.

Trust is built, and the students see what it is like to be in control of their learning. Self-assessment happens. The teacher can ask “Do you think your project was a success? How do you know? What were some troubles you faced? How did you deal with those challenges?” Compare that to a report card that gets mailed home.

So, creating an advisory experience is one amazing way to build relationships and prevent discipline problems. The advisor becomes a confidant, an adult who a student trusts to help them through tough issues. I have often seen angry students on the verge of fighting asking to speak with their advisor, as this person is a lifeline.

If your school does not have an advisory period, and cannot get one, you can look for other times that may be available for this type of fun, engaging work. Most schools already have sports teams, clubs, lunch groups or study hall periods. It is also possible to take some time from content classes for circle discussions, self-assessment and student-driven project work. Most often the investment in time yields outstanding results in student outcomes.

Just like any great project, bringing restorative justice to your school will be a constant evolution, requiring you to take risks, make revisions and to accept critical feedback. It will help to work with mentors, conduct research and assess yourself frequently. There will undoubtedly be countless success stories and also days of failure.

In my next few columns I will discuss the necessity of student involvement and the inevitability of encountering resistance when implementing RJ. Don’t let the distance of the journey prevent you from taking the first small steps. I guarantee that others will soon join by your side, and that your school will never be the same.

David Levine holds a teaching certification in English Language Arts grades 7-12 and an MFA in creative writing. He has worked as an educator in Big Picture public high schools for the past eight years in Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, and now in the Bronx, where he is currently a Restorative Justice facilitator, dean and teaching coach.

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