You are a Sunday-school teacher and your third-grade class has worked together to create a beautiful mural. One of your students takes a sharpie and writes their name in gigantic letters in the middle of the mural. The other students gasp and cry in dismay.
What do you do? Do you immediately ask the child who wrote their name to apologize? Do you put the student in time out? There are endless combinations of how teachers can address this situation. The philosophy and practices of restorative justice/RJ can offer us guiding answers rooted in radical empathy and continued community-building.
In our American society, the philosophy that punishment will serve as a deterrent to prevent disagreeable behaviors is ubiquitous. Since it is so entrenched in the fabric of our world and systems, it makes complete sense that it may have an impact in how we respond to harm in our classrooms. RJ has its roots in indigenous justice-based systems that move away from questions such as:
What type of punishment will prevent this from happening again?
What exact combination of punishment will teach a lesson?
What punishment shall I dole out in my role as arbiter of the classroom?
Instead the questions asked are:
How can we begin to authentically repair the relationships that were harmed?
What is the root cause of this offense, and how can we start to address the root cause?
In addition to those harmed, how can we support the growth of the person who caused harm?
How can the students create healing and decide collectively what accountability can look like?
Jewish educators can learn from secular school systems that have begun to systemically implement RJ. Let’s turn to Chicago Public Schools and the guidebook they created to unpack and educate about the varying facets of RJ. CPS outlines a multi-tiered system of RJ support that I elaborate on here with respect to how we can start to use RJ in our religious-school classrooms.
Examples from Tier Oneelaborate on the philosophy that RJ is invested in long-term classroom culture building, and the work starts long before an offense. In reference to Tier One, the CPS guidebook writes:
A restorative school climate focuses on building a strong sense of community and positive relationships among all stakeholders. In a restorative environment, all community members feel safe and welcome, and adults support students in developing social and emotional skills.” (11)
These are aspirations that many of us hold for our classrooms and the specificities of how to manifest such aspirations can often be elusive, especially to new teachers.
Tier Two elaborates on the philosophy that RJ is committed to addressing the root of the problem and the accountability of the person who caused harm through collective conversation with the people who were harmed. The common approach of a teacher asking the person who caused harm to say sorry is often followed by the student begrudgingly saying sorry to another displeased student. Examples from Tier Two elaborate on how to move away from perfunctory apologies and to facilitate an authentic conversation among students to heal, when each person is ready to be a part of that conversation.
Tier One: All Students
Many Jewish educators have the challenge of building a deep and sustaining community when our classes only meet a few times a month. Jewish educators have a well of creativity, and it can be used here to think of ways for students to internalize restorative mindsets — not merely through stating the mindsets, but by thoughtfully integrating them into lesson plans. Mindsets that imbue RJ into the classroom start with the importance of students’ relationships with one another and their teacher. Another mindset is that each of the students are responsible for one another, and that when conflict inevitably arises, collaboration in addressing accountability is a conversation for all of those involved.
There is power in the words we use with children and the tone in which we say those words. There is language that can stop conversations from being restorative and language that can foster a restorative classroom. For example, asking a child “What did you do? Why would you do that?” fills the air with a sense of judgment that may be easily internalized by the child and may stop conversation. Instead, empathetic listening towards the students is a path towards RJ, especially towards the student who caused harm. For example, by both listening deeply to their words and also observing their body language after you ask the student, “What happened, and what were you feeling and thinking when that happened?” can lead to understanding the root cause of the behavior.
Tier Two: Some Students
Often in classrooms, the harm done by a student and the consequences are not deeply aligned with one another. A logical consequence is when the harm and the consequence are aligned with one another. An important component of this is ensuring that the student understands the consequence as connected to their behavior and that it is fair. Another essential component is that whenever possible, the student who caused the harm should be part of figuring out how they will repair the harm. It takes deep reflection from the teacher to ask questions that are open-ended and get to the root of the behavior. This is then followed by engaging with the student who caused the harm with a conversation that gets to what the student thinks they can do to make the situation better.
The purpose of sitting in circles with structured conversation is multifold. There are various types of circles: community-building circles, celebration circles, healing circles, parent circles and peace circles. Peace circles are often set up after conflict has reached the group and is used to reflect on what happened and to collectively create a plan for accountability.
Circles have a few components: the talking piece, the centerpiece and values. A talking piece serves the purpose of eliminating the phenomenon of people talking over one another and gives everyone in the circle the opportunity to listen deeply to the person holding the talking piece. Oftentimes, the talking piece is an object that is personally meaningful to the circle facilitator, and the deeper meaning is shared with the group. There is also a centerpiece in the middle of the circle, which consists of objects that encapsulate the energy that the circle is hoping to represent and to serve as a focal piece when interacting with one another. For example, a rock that has love written on it or a picture of someone the group admires. Shared values is another component of circle-keeping that is essential; that is, shared values that the group creates together through dialogue. The shared norms are then posted on a document that everyone can access to refer to throughout the circle.
One of the most important parts of peace circles is that they only work if they are voluntary. It is essential that every person in the circle is a ready and willing participant. One of the purposes is for those who were harmed and the person who caused the harm to authentically listen to one another. A thoughtful opening of the circle, questions to be asked in the circle and closing of the circle are to be planned by the facilitator.
The world of understanding and applying RJ to your classrooms is layered and takes time to study and understand. It is recommended that you familiarize yourself with circle keeping and RJ, and that you engage in study with experienced practitioners. Here are some recommendations about where to take your learning further:
- The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice by Fania Davis
- The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis
- The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr
- Restorative Cities Podcast with Teiahsha Bankhead and Tyreece Sherrills
- UMOJA Foundational RJ Courses
- CPS Restorative Practices Guide and Toolkit
While RJ may be a new idea to many of us and feel like radical departure from the way we have conducted our classrooms, it is my hope that reading this essay will present new possibilities about how a teacher can respond to that child who wrote their name on the class mural, and how that event might be used as an opportunity to involve the whole class in strengthening their community bonds.