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Restorative Justice in the Classroom

By Skylar Primm, 6–12 Environmental Educator

Maintaining a Restorative Mindset

At the end of February 2020, just before COVID, I spent two days and nights in Itasca, Illinois at the Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully’s 2020 Educating Mindfully Conference. I registered back in the fall, expecting to learn a great deal about mindfulness and yoga in the classroom, with perhaps a smattering of social-emotional learning included. I certainly did get all of that, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the conference also had major threads of diversity, equity, and inclusion woven throughout.

I followed one of those threads to a session by Umoja Student Development Corporation, a Chicago-based organization that works to expand educators’ social-emotional skills. The Umoja staff introduced me to the concept of restorative justice as a mindset, rather than just a practice. I believe that staff and students at my school, High Marq Environmental Charter School, demonstrate a restorative mindset in our daily practices. Two stories from this school year will help illustrate what I mean. (Student names have been changed throughout.)

Taking a Restorative Walk

Last fall, three high school students in my advisory were having trouble getting along. From the outside, it seemed obvious that their struggle, which started during a fraught morning circle discussion, was caused by mutual misunderstanding rather than fundamental disagreements. At High Marq, our first instinct is always to give students the opportunity to work out their challenges themselves, but after a couple of days of false starts, I decided that I needed to step in. So, on a chilly but sunny day, I brought Trev, Lyssa, and Grey outside for a walk around the school garden.

As we walked in circles, unconsciously replicating the shape of our morning meetings, I provoked conversation with a few standard questions from the restorative justice world:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking and feeling at the time?
  • What are you thinking and feeling now?
  • What impact has this had on you and others?
  • What can we do to make things right?

As human beings are wont to do, the students pretty quickly began talking over one another, so I picked up a rock off of the ground and anointed it our talking piece. (Only the person holding the talking piece may speak, and everyone else must listen. This helps pace the discussion, and encourages participants to respond rather than react.) After about an hour of walking and talking, all three students had agreed that they actually had a lot in common and had nothing against one another, but were pre-judging the situation based on past trauma and negative experiences. I counted it as a win.

In most respects, this experience was a typical example of restorative justice at High Marq. Once I got the conversation rolling, the students did most of the talking, and it took as long as it needed to take. The big difference was the walk, which I believe had two positive impacts:

  1. It gave the students something to do with their bodies while they were speaking and listening, which allowed them to attend more mindfully to the conversation.
  2. It removed the pressure for direct eye contact, which can be especially difficult for students who have experienced trauma.

I haven’t had to take another “restorative walk” since October, but I’ve certainly added it to my teacher utility belt.

Embracing a Restorative Culture

This winter, two second-year students, Thea and Brynne, were talking in a corner, which in my experience is a pretty good sign that a teacher should investigate and offer assistance. It turned out that they were discussing how best to handle a challenging situation with a newer student, Lennox. Lennox was struggling to find her place in the school culture. To Thea and Brynne’s eyes, she had been showboating to get attention, which they perceived to be contrary to a school culture based on acceptance and equality, not popularity.

Thea and Brynne were explicitly looking to help Lennox themselves, not for teacher intervention, and certainly not for admonishment or punishment. Rather, they wanted to help Lennox understand our culture, and do a better job of welcoming her into it. My co-teacher and I provided a couple of pointers and a suggestion for when they might speak with Lennox, but beyond that we left it to the students. I later got a (literal) thumbs-up from the students after their conversation, but that was the end of my involvement, and it did seem to make a difference in Lennox’s peer interactions.

This experience demonstrated to me that we had successfully built a restorative culture over the first half of the school year, and that our students were ready to carry that culture forward.

Circling Back

A mindset isn’t an end point to reach, it’s a balance to maintain. We’ve gotten to where we are right now at High Marq through a relentless focus on solutions over punishments, daily use of circle practices, and everyone keeping their fingers on the pulse of the community. I practice passively listening throughout the school day as my students interact and actively listening when conferencing one-on-one with students.Throughout the uncertainty of this past year, when we weren’t always together in one room, I my work with Restorative Justice has required new skills and taken different forms. No matter what, I continue to figure it out alongside my students as we go along.

Questions for Readers

  • What does restorative justice look like in your school?
  • What do you do to develop restorative culture in your school?
  • How do you develop and maintain a restorative mindset?

Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He currently serves on the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at medium.com/@skylarp, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at skylarp@mac.com or find him on Twitter @SkylarPrimm.

To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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