Sandra (Gr. 3)
Day 1. October 2016. It's our first attempt at circle. The children are loud. They are peppering us with questions and they can't seem to listen to our explanation or instructions. One child has run out of the classroom. Another is hiding under a table. There are two more who refuse to leave their desks. And then there is "Bobby". Bobby is walking around the room flapping two long magnet strips on either side of his head. He is reciting a script from his favourite cartoon. I don't understand what he is saying. He isn't with us in our world right now. He is somewhere else, somewhere in his own head. I can't break through. What are we doing? This circle thing is an ideal. It's meant for typical classrooms with only one or two children with special needs. It's not going to work for us. I really don't see this happening.
Fast forward. May 2018. Bobby proudly places the card for Friendship Circle on the class schedule. "Don't start without me" he pleads. The children-every single one of them-come to the front of the room and, semi quietly, form a circle on the floor. The four or five children at the left notice that someone walked in late so they back up to make a space for their friend. The child who ran from the room on day 1 wants to read the guidelines for circle. Actually, he recites them, as he hasn't learned to read yet. He is proud to tell us the rules. The child who couldn't control her blurting on day 1, silently raises her hand as a volunteer to go first. She is eager to share. The smile in her eyes tells me so. The talking piece reaches Bobby. He tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up. No one prompts him anymore. Bobby simply contributes as the other children do. This is our own little utopia. We're not perfect, but boy, are we connected. Looking at those little faces I am filled with joy, no, it's contentment. Peaceful, internal contentment.
This year I have had a very positive experience using circles in my classroom. Having the most challenging students of my career, both academically and behaviorally, I was looking forward to introducing circles as part of my discipline routine. During circles I could reinforce appropriate behaviour in terms of taking turns speaking in honouring with each person had to contribute. It worked beautifully! As with most new ideas it took some time for the students to physically get into circle so that each child could be seen. Before long they had that skill mastered as well as honouring the person with the talking piece. Very few reminders were needed for that to happen. So we're circles have grown and evolved since September with many little milestones in some huge milestones to show.
One big one was surrounding a young autistic boy who in September was too anxious to even sit in the circle. He would pace around the classroom while the rest of the class sat in the circle. As time went by, he gradually warmed to the idea and would come sit with his class but not contribute. He now joins circle every day and never needs prompting to share.
Terry (Elementary Guidance Counsellor)
Let me tell you a story. One about two students who simply could not get along. Every day, the two boys would wait with anticipation for playtime after school. Both no doubt believing it would be a time of great joy. For these two people, it often ended with disappointment. For some reason, they always find each other. Whether near the jungle gym or on the soccer field or near Big tree where students would gather. They would find each other. Soon after, an argument would begin followed by pushing and name calling. I'm not sure if they really knew what was happening. It's seemed to be their rule, something they just did, somehow defining who they were as kids, a pattern that could not be broken. Somehow this conflict was unavoidable, their destiny. Every day, they would go home and tell their parents how horrible the other student was to them. How their feelings were hurt. How they had hated playtime. Their parents being caring people, grew more and more concerned. Every new day brought new stories of how terrible the other child was. Their concern grew to anger. And their anger required action. One day after school, the parents decided to monitor the situation. This would provide a golden opportunity for the parents to witness how terrible the other child was behaving. This unfortunately brought the parents into conflict. Harsh words were spoken, each parent defending their own child and blaming the other. This made the situation worse at school. Now the children, supported by their parents were at war, gathering support for their cause where ever they could find it. Other students got involved. Alliances were formed. Battle lines were drawn.
In an attempt to bring peace once more to the little playground, the school staff thought it might be wise to bring the parents together in circle to discuss what was happening. This was scary for those involved. Normally, the staff would not include parents in this way. This was a risk.
What happened was unexpected and remarkable. At first, the parents of both children came in with their own agendas. As expected, they sat with arms crossed and angry faces. As they sat and listened to each other, doors begin to open. Fences were amended. As the parents figured out how best to move forward, so did the children on the playground. As the parents repaired the harm in their relationships, so did the children. Perhaps it had been an issue between the parents all along being acted out on the little playground by the next generation. I'm happy to say that the children refrained from conflict for the remainder of the school year. Peace had been restored to the little playground.
Jasmine - High School Math
After first hearing about Relationships First, I thought, " I have to do this with my level one math class!" This class was full of people with different personalities who often did not get along but… I had trouble getting the students into the circle! They were not very receptive to the idea.
I would've probably given up with this class if it hadn't been the support of my colleagues and I am glad I did not give up.
I had a student who is very disconnected from school (barely came, wears headphones all the time to avoid speaking to anyone).
I did not expect this student to participate in the circle. The first time I invited her, she didn’t come very willingly. However, she shared when she was asked and it made me realize that she probably wanted to be part of a group.
Unfortunately, her attendance did not improve much, but when she showed up, she always shared. My relationship with the student went from nonexistent to having friendly conversations in the hall. I believe that this would not have happened if I didn't do circles. :-)
Yvette (High School English)
Story of hope.
After two weeks of reading Julius Caesar line by line with my English 2201 class, it was time to begin analyzing the play for major literary devices such as conflicts, scenes, characters and irony. In front of this class of 33 students I said, "Who can share with me an example of conflict from the play?" I was met with absolute silence!
It was at this moment I decided to try a new approach to increase student engagement. I said, "I want everyone to put their desks in the circle." In the back of my mind I'm thinking that this may totally backfire on me! I was starting an unplanned circle in an extremely small classroom with 33 students.
I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly students rearranged their desks. Students who had never spoken to each other we're communicating to get the circle just right. Now, I had 33 sets of eyes on me wondering what I was going to do next.
I started the circle by having students share an example from their own lives of when they faced conflict and how it was resolved. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised at how willing this group was to talk about their own experiences. Out of 33 students, only four decided to pass.
I then posed the question about conflict in our play Julius Caesar. This time almost every student in the circle had something to share with us. It was an original example or something to add to a classmates response. I have to say that I was shocked at how much the circle formation increase student participation.
After the class ended and I had some time to reflect, I realized that other positive things happened during that circle. Students looked at who ever was speaking and students listened to what their classmates were saying. I never once had to ask anyone to "stop talking ", "pay attention, "or "put away your cell phone. "
During this one circle, I was able to cover all the objectives set up for the lesson. Students discussed not only content of the play, but also shared experiences from their own lives. It was definitely a valuable experience in building relationships. Several students returned the next day and asked if we could have another circle class, and we did!
Farideh - High School - Healthy Living
For me having support was one of the most valuable tools in my engaging in the RJ process.
I openly admit to feeling intimidated and very nervous about leading my first Circle. Without the support of Deenaree, I am confident to say I would still be reluctant. Her kind, supportive nature in guidance has allowed me to gain confidence in myself and my abilities to successfully engage students in to RJ circles.
Circles could be an in valuable tool in today's classrooms. However, a project such as this makes its success possible.
Students were naturally curious;
Initially students we're passing on questions;
Slowly they warmed up.
The most successful experience with circles was in the gym. Student had lots of space and Energizers were easy to do and students had fun. So did I :-)
I chose the topics surrounding school and what stresses you out for the first round. The obvious answers: tests, deadlines, teachers, etc.
The next round, what do you do to handle it? Most said: study, extra help from teachers, Study group… What surprised me most was a child who is very quiet felt comfortable enough to say “his psychologist who he sees on a regular basis” help him handle stress. I thought that comment was brave on his part in the confidence level he felt from the group!!
Brandon (Safe and Caring Schools Itinerant)
A large urban junior high school contacted me regarding a class of grade eights that was experiencing a high degree of conflict. They wanted me and a colleague to do a one-hour presentation on how to have healthy relationships. The more I heard about the conflict in the group, The more I realized the presentation wasn't going to work and that a circle was the best way to build relationships within the group.
My colleague and I went to the class to do the circle but as we were about to start a teacher took us aside and warned us that a few of the students had extreme behaviour problems and wouldn't last 10 minutes. She said that when they got out of control she would remove them from the circle and take them to the office. We started the circle and when we finished an hour later, everyone was still there and the students and staff were asking when we could do our next circle. We have now completed six Circle sessions with this class and the level of respect and sharing has been excellent. Not one person was asked to leave the circle.
I was recently asked by an urban high school to do a workshop with students about healthy relationships. I knew the best way to do this was to meet the students in the circle. The group was very diverse with a mix of students from all grades and socioeconomic backgrounds. There was one student there with ASD who did not want to participate in the circle and opted to sit outside the circle and listen. I told him this was perfectly OK and he was welcome to join us at any time. We proceeded with the circle and the conversations were excellent, the students were really opening up and sharing their thoughts. The student with ASD began moving his chair closer and closer to the circle. About halfway through the session he asked if he could join the circle. Two of the students immediately said, “Yes” and made space for him between them. We then continued the session and the student with ASD fully participated and shared many thoughts and feelings. Afterwards, the cooperating teacher told me this was a really remarkable thing for the student to be so open with a group of strangers. There was no doubt that the structure and process of the circle created a safe space where the students with ASD could feel good about participating.
Carolyn (Safe and Caring Schools Itinerant)
When I was asked to visit a school because of ongoing conflict and drama among a group of high school students girls, I knew a Restorative approach was what I wanted to facilitate. The conflict had been ongoing for months at this point. It was a small rural school so it was permeating the entire school community. Junior high and even some elementary students were engaging in "taking sides", teachers were concerned, it was affecting normal classroom routines, parents were complaining, and because it spilled over to social media, community members were weighing in. The principal wanted me to "fix "it!!
I began with a school visit and initially facilitated a generic circle about respect, and while it did help build some rapport, it did not make any significant changes to the underlying issues, and people still weren't getting along. I agreed to return, but this time to facilitate the circle to repair the harm. I spent two days at the school interviewing all the students involved in the conflict using the Relationships First questions. Several things came out of this and are significant to me as the facilitator:
Everyone was very clear the situation had gotten out of hand and was changing the school climate. They also shared their own sadness over friendships lost in a desire for it to stop.
One student presented as very nonchalant, condescending, and arrogant. While she completely agreed with all of the above she felt no need, within herself, to repair harm to because she was graduating and "these people "we're not worth the time and effort.” She did want the situation to get better for her sister's sake, who is currently in grade 10.
On the day of the scheduled circle to bring all together, I did meet with the student of concern again. I did not want a power imbalance within the group. I asked her if she had reflected on her participation within the circle and if she felt she could do it from the lens of honouring, not measuring her peers. I reminded her it was completely her choice to go to circle and she felt she wanted to.
Prior to beginning, I asked all participants to imagine someone they loved and respected unconditionally, (alive or passed on) standing over there shoulder watching their conduct and what would they want them to see. (Dorothy's suggestion :-)
The circle proceeded with the rounds of questions and even more information came forward in the circle. All participants follow the guidelines and were so honest and vulnerable in both their roles in the conflict and the hurt they were experiencing. There were lots of tears, some laughter and walls came down. It was honestly very powerful to be a part of.
The girls made suggestions of what they needed to do to move forward and apologies were offered, even by the student who I was concerned about.
*I visited later and we had a small circle to check-in on progress and had an ice cream sundae party.
*a trip occurred during Easter break and the girls who were in conflict shared hotel rooms.
*Overall the atmosphere in the school has changed significantly according to the administrator.
Bukola (International MUN Masters Student researching RJE)
Restorative justice is a story or message of hope for me as an international student. I came into a school for a study with little knowledge about the education system on the ground. I have a lot of questions and many things going through my mind without an answer or full attention from various contacts I made until I met Dorothy. She was available to listen to me when I needed someone to hear me.
I have no better definition for restorative justice then my meeting with Dorothy. She came onto the scene of my uncertainty of the way forward as to the kind of research project I would be doing. She welcomed me warmly into her office as a worthy individual despite our differences of status, age, race, and so on. Her relational approach made sense and kept me going in my Masters of education program.
I have had opportunity to read books, attend PD's and observe a class on restorative justice practice. I see lots of hope for the shift from individualistic lifestyles to a communal one believing that humans are worthy and interconnected. I am confident that with this philosophy in mind I will be better at honouring people. I am comfortable and love Restorative Justice.
As a student, I have not been able to practice much of what I have learned and observed but I am looking forward with high hope that I will live out restorative justice practice if I have opportunity with Relationships First in mind.
The Elephant in the Room
The cartoon to the left represents the crossroads at which we have arrived in today’s education system. While we recognize that there are very significant differences in the way each child learns, the expectation continues to be results-oriented in a very standardized way.At the end of the year, there is still a measurement required in terms of how well each individual has performed according to the average, and whether or not that child is ready to continue to the next level, equally prescribed.
It’s as much of a conundrum as trying to get an elephant to climb a tree! How then, as educators, do we teach effectively within a system that no longer matches our core values and beliefs about how a child learns? A shift in thinking is never a comfortable thing. We tend, especially in times of change, to curl up into the comfort of our traditions and balk against the idea of adding more on to our already very full agendas. Alternatively, we grasp frantically onto the new trends hoping that they will save the day: Multiple Intelligences, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, popcorn reading, foldables, pathway supports, zero tolerance, no zeroes allowed and on the list goes. Needless to say, teachers, administrators, and students are overwhelmed with the demands of this fast-paced society; we spend a great deal of time trying to navigate the information overload that has become our norm and hope that we as adults-and our children-make it through to the next holiday with our sanity fully intact and our bathroom passes hanging smartly by the sign-out sheet next to the door. Before throwing up our hands in defeat, I’d like you to consider the following studies:
Normal children today are more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950’s. This trend in anxiety and depression will continue to increase over the next decades. The reason? Our young people are feeling socially disconnected, unsafe in their environment, and mistrustful of others. Little wonder, then, that the authors of this study entitled this era, “the age of anxiety.” (Dr. Jean Twenge, 2000)
A study by Dr. Lynda Younghusband (2000) on Newfoundland and Labrador teachers fits with the age of anxiety and feelings of isolation too. According to Younghusband, teachers express that educational change in the province in the past few years has resulted in leaving them feeling bombarded by demands and deadlines within the work day, with little time to reflect on their practices. Feelings of resentment for lack of personal and familial time were also noted. Okay, now you can throw your hands up in defeat. Everyone is feeling alienated, resentful, and overwhelmed students, teachers and administrators alike, so how can anyone cope with reaching her highest potential?
Let me share with you a little of my journey: Feeling like a hamster caught in one of those exercise balls (which believe me, I don’t want to be), I initially tried to keep up with the demands. “I must work harder so my students will succeed” was my inner mantra. One day, in the extreme heat in my classroom (windows bolted to prevent possible injury-or escape?) and filling in forms as to how many of my students were failing and what I was doing about it, I felt a modicum of resentment. This increased the following week when I had to fill in forms showing which students were passing which, in my opinion, was already indicated on the previous forms. Added to that was the horrendous job of keeping track of the hall pass which, at that time, certain kids were pilfering at an alarming rate. Was this a diabolical plot to undermine the bathroom needs of their peers? Or, was it a pointed action designed to send the message that bathroom oppression is not the answer in a school system? As I searched high and low-not for the philosophical meaning of it all but rather my hall pass-I thought, “When did I become the potty police rather than an experienced teacher of literature?” When I did then recover my hall pass, it was time to move on to a deeper question. It started out as, “Wait…what?” and then grew into, “How can my values as an educator fit with today’s classroom in a way that my students are encouraged to grow into responsible and independent young learners? Really, that’s a true story.
This is a huge question with which to grapple but, like most complex concepts, there is a simple shift that needs to occur in order to create a space for this “Wait…what?” dialogue to begin. Simply put, we need to reconnect with the values that, at the core, make us feel a sense of belonging to a community, and a sense of being valued as human beings.
So, teachers, let’s throw off the “scent of burning martyrdom” and have a spritz of RJ-it’ll cure what ails you. Instead of looking to the future, sometimes a journey into the past may hold the answer. Often, in society’s attempt to keep up with itself, important lessons are lost. I think this is the case for Restorative Justice, the new/old paradigm shift that will allow educators to re-evaluate their core values, to reconnect with their students on a meaningful level, and to create the space where real learning can occur. Restorative Justice is not an “add-on”; it’s an “instead of”, providing a much needed refocus on what’s important for the well-being of our community.Restorative Justice has its roots in the spiritual and indigenous traditions. Essentially, in being created or being a part of things, it follows that we must be interconnected to others, and to the world around us. That makes each of us not only a valued member for what we have to offer, but also makes us accountable to the planet and those inhabiting it.
Does this sound like a tall order, or is it astounding in its simplicity? The good news about RJ is that it’s a philosophy, not another “to do” list. At the grassroots, it entails one little change which will open a whole cornucopia of possibilities. Howard Zehr, an RJ advocate, suggests that we must change our lenses-the way we look at others- from ones that judge to ones that honour. In doing so, we will learn to appreciate the gifts that each one of us brings to the whole. Then, and only then, can we rebuild the trust and relationships that we, as human beings, so desperately need.
Starting with that simple question: “Am I honouring?” can lead to a whole shift in the way our classrooms foster growth and learning. With the RJ philosophy in mind, the space where metaphorical elephants, monkeys, and goldfish in bowls meet, becomes an intriguing adventure.
Resisting RJ for Myself
Though I have the RJ framework questions available and want to use them, it’s hard to do so when the difficulty I am facing is my own conflict with a colleague. In my first real challenge since learning about the RJ framework, I found myself grappling with how, when, where, and why I was going to follow this new framework. I hit many roadblocks…to be honest, it was VERY difficult getting past my own emotional “stuff”…it is so much easier to be a facilitator than a participant!. I learned very quickly you cannot facilitate a restorative process if you are a participant in it. I also learned, it is very easy to go to your natural “defaults”…feeling angry, hurt, sullen, or frustrated…
Secondly, RJ assumes that open communication occurs and for a variety of reasons that I cannot go into here, I felt unable to share what I was feeling and how it was impacting me. So my fear was that the process would victimize me again because I could not share my thoughts and feelings and while my colleague might be healed, I would still be hurt.
When I was asked to think about the framework questions for my face-to-face conversation with my colleague, it seemed impossible. I guess the key in this case was that we were both harmed and we both caused harm. So who was making restoration to whom?
One of the key things that led to a successful outcome was taking some time to process what had happened. Far too often, we try to “fix” things when we are still “in the moment.” In this processing time, I began to ask myself the RJ questions out loud and I really made an effort to articulate an answer to myself. This process REALLY helped me gain clarity on what had happened, how I felt, and what I felt needed to be done to make things right. I then asked myself the same questions and tried to answer them as honestly as I could from the perspective of my colleague. It was amazing to me how the questions helped me gain perspective. And when we finally did have our face to face, it helped us gain understanding and empathy for each other’s situation.
The RJ questions for me became critical in the process of reflecting on what had happened and where we could go to make it right. While our situation did not lend itself to full disclosure in a circle process (and not all situations will) the restorative questions framework can certainly help in the resolution of many conflicts. The key is to be open to challenging our “defaults” and looking towards restorative practices to guide the way!
A Circle of Dinosaurs
Some have asked can restorative justice be used in a primary classroom, does it work, and can young children really comprehend and verbalize how they are feeling and how to make the situation better when they are the offender or the victim. Is it really worth the time?
Today I witnessed how well my class has accepted the process of a caring circle and the use of a talking piece to work out their differences.
We are currently working on a dinosaur unit and I have a collection of plastic toy dinosaurs at the back of the classroom. As we were getting ready for home a couple of the children asked me if they could have our talking piece “Mr. Smiley” as the dinosaurs were in a pile and the T-Rex had bitten some of the other dinosaurs. When I looked they had placed the dinosaurs in a circle and wanted the talking piece to help the dinosaurs share how they felt about the incident and how they could help the T-Rex.
As I observed I saw and heard them pretend to be the dinosaurs and each dinosaur had a chance to tell the T-Rex how he had hurt them when he bit them. They said in many different voices “I am scared of your teeth”, “You make me nervous”, “Are you going to eat me?” “We’re scared you will do it again!”
When it was the time for the T-Rex to have a chance he told the other dinosaurs that he was hungry and he was a carnivore but he didn’t mean to hurt them. The other dinosaurs listened and when they had their chance again they gave the T-Rex suggestions on how to handle his hunger– “Have a snack before you come out to play.” The circle went smoothly and all the dinosaurs agreed to always play together and if they saw the T-Rex getting hungry they would help by calling his Mom for a snack or ask the teacher to help get him a snack. So I ask, do you think RJ works? I definitely do!
From Management to a Way of Being
Since I began using restorative justice (RJ) practices in my classroom this year, I’ve discovered that I’m becoming a much calmer teacher. I don’t worry as much, and I don’t “sweat the small stuff’” like I used to do. This has been an unexpected but wonderful surprise. I initially began using RJ as a classroom management tool and as a way to build better relationships with my students – something that’s always been important to me. I never knew the philosophy would actually instill a natural calm and stillness in me as I’ve continued to develop my teaching pedagogy.
After observing and discussing RJ with other teacher colleagues, I’ve realized that they have had similar experiences as well and are finding themselves to be much calmer and less high-strung around their class…
I’ve also now realized how effective circles can be for discussions and activities surrounding the curriculum as well. For example, when I am introducing a new topic in social studies, math, or any other subject matter, I’ll often facilitate a circle with my class and get a discussion going on what they already know about the topic or what they’d like to learn. Likewise, at the end of a unit a circle can be used to find out what individual students have learned.
I find that circles are an excellent way to assess the individuals in my class without them even realizing it. It’s quick, easy, effective, and FUN. I believe RJ should not be viewed as time consuming, but as time well spent. RJ can help teachers who are struggling to manage their time and can assist them in covering the curriculum efficiently, effectively, and without the stress and worry.
Roxanne Skanes from Coley’s Point Primary in NL sends her unique discovery: I had begun using the acronym ‘CHAT” when speaking with those who need to talk or repair. I found I was often saying “I think we need to have a little chat about that!” and thought, maybe let it stand for something with an RJ twist. I came up with: a ‘C-aring H-arm A-wareness T-alk’ which the students are quickly catching onto!
“A substitute commented to me that the one thing she has taken from her time at HGP is the circle and talking piece. As a substitute she never felt connected with the students that she usually only saw for short periods of time. Now when she substitutes she begins every class with a check-in circle and always finds out something interesting about the group of students she is teaching at that moment. She loves it!” Brenda, NL
Circles and Adult Students
In my university course for pre-service teachers I begin each class with a light-hearted check-in circle. The impact can be incredible …
Personally, I found circles helped me a lot for presentations in other courses. Having the opportunity toshare ideas each class gave me confidence and practice I needed, even though it was only for a few seconds.
I absolutely love this aspect of the course. I honestly have never felt this comfortable speaking in class, from elementary to now! I cannot wait to actually try this in my own classroom to help students, such as myself, break free of the fear of speaking up in a judgment-free talking circle. Krystal
The Little Things
Restorative justice culture has slowly evolved in my school this year. It is interesting that the moments that make you think restorative justice is growing are not these blow-your-mind experiences. They are however, small, yet highly significant changes.
• A child raises his hand to be the next person to bring in a talking piece;
• A young person passes for the first time because they feel the right to do so;
• A child apologizes for something in a circle check-in, out of the blue;
• A child’s eyes open up when she hears the teacher talk in a way about themselves that makes the student realize the teacher is a human being.
Circle question: what age would you like to be?
Grade 4 boy: I would like to be 24 years old, because I would have a job, a car, and I’d be a professional wrestler.
Circle question: what is your favorite Christmas song?
Grade 5 girl: Well, I would like to sing mine. So she sang I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. The other kids had
never heard her sing by herself before, and they were all super impressed!
Circle question: what would you like to be when you grow up?
Another grade 5 girl: I want to be a music teacher because you get to learn all the instruments, sing all the
time, and it means I’d be really pretty too (flattery will get them EVERYWHERE!)
~Kathy Conway Ward