This year’s “back-to-school season” feels quite different in a very positive way. For the first time in my career, both my district and school are placing a strong emphasis on Social-Emotional Learning. Just last week, my colleagues and I participated in an interactive Circle Training with experts from the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University. The objective of this training was for participants to experience Restorative Justice circles, watch and discuss videos of Restorative Justice experiences, and allow for grade-level teams to plan circle lessons and sequences for the upcoming year.
Our principal has scheduled a weekly Restorative Justice block for one hour each Monday afternoon for all students in grades 5 through 8, and I personally will be co-facilitating a circle for 7th grade students in partnership with a close colleague. As we engage in this community building work throughout the year, I am interested in exploring connections between the practices of Restorative Justice and the Youth Equity Stewardship series (YES!). Both programs focus on developing and strengthening communities, but in different ways. Whereas continued participation in Restorative Justice work leads to the deepening of dialogue within a particular group of participants, the YES! journey extends dialogue outwards to the larger community through creative expression of community problems and their possible solutions. The common themes between Restorative Justice and YES! illustrate what a powerful combination these two practices could be in transforming schools from places of crisis to spaces of self-direction, curiosity, and civic identity.
Preventative, Not Reactive
Tú eres mi otro yo
You are my other me
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you
Me hago daño a mí mismo
I do harm to myself
Si te amo y respeto
If I love and respect you
Me amo y respeto yo
I love and respect myself.
This short yet important verse comes from Luis Valdez’s epic poem “Pensamiento Serpentino,” a retelling of the Mayan origin myth, El Popol Vuh. I first heard this poem last March during YES! co-directors Benjie Howard and Wade Colwell-Sandoval’s workshop at the 2016 Teaching & Learning Conference. The words of this verse exemplify the aspirations I have for my classroom and school communities as places where students have a sense of connectedness to and mutual respect for one another. YES! places this verse at the center of creating a common definition of stewardship – power among others, as opposed to power over others.
Last spring, I began the practice of reciting this poem daily with my middle school ESL students. This year, “Pensamiento Serpentino” will provide a focus for beginning our Restorative Justice practices. The poem serves as a guideline for respectful relationships, and it supports Restorative Justice work in creating belonging and social responsibility within a community. In reflecting on and responding to this poem and coming to view themselves as stewards, students are less likely to engage in inter-community conflict and less likely to knowingly cause harm to others.
A Hands-Joined Approach
I appreciate a classroom environment that feels inviting and encouraging, orderly and relaxed, one in which students have structured choices and feel empowered in their own learning. This type of space within and outside of the classroom walls fosters cooperation and collaboration as teachers work hands-joined with their students. This balance requires deep patience and effort; without a hands-joined focus throughout the entire community, schools can easily resort to being hands-on places of limits without freedom or hands-off spaces that feel confusing and chaotic.
In developing a hands-joined approach within a school, it is essential that students are able to listen and respond to one another. But this relationship is just the beginning of a stronger school; teachers, staff, and administrators must also be able to listen and respond to students and one another effectively in order to foster mutual understanding of one another’s perspectives. Listening and responding well within a community is practiced continually in Restorative Justice circles. The ritual of these circles involves a talking piece, such as a special stone, which circulates continually and gives all participants space to speak without interruption in order to express themselves and respond to others.
The YES! program extends the practice of understanding and response beyond everyday community relationships. YES! begins its Creative Resistance work by emphasizing the arts as a means to solve personal problems within a community, and it then guides students in using creative expression as a means of responding to systemic social and environmental issues. This process involves first researching the issues and then listening to one another’s stories and organizing collective action. Creative Resistance offers not only a means of effective activism, but it also provides a therapeutic release of energy through the work of artistic expression around an issue.
Bringing the Outside In, Bringing the Inside Out
In her writings, yogi Judith Hanson Lasater emphasizes the difference between student-teacher relationships in traditional schooling and in yogic practice by highlighting that, in yoga, the student chooses the teacher. A yoga student takes charge of their own practice and development, and the student has control over selecting a guide who demonstrates respect and maintains boundaries. While my students may not necessarily elect to have my class on their schedule, they certainly do decide how open-minded they are towards what I have to offer them. Each step I take towards a respectful and professional relationship with my students increases the probability of them choosing me as “their” teacher. For my students who don’t view school as a place of belonging for them, it is essential that I connect academic lessons to their experiences outside of the school walls. It is for this purpose that I see the most potential for power in fusing together Restorative Justice and YES! practices.
Restorative Justice circles create a sense of ceremony, bookended by opening and closing activities (i.e. readings, meditations, chants) that establish the Restorative Justice time and space as special. After the opening, the facilitator engages the participants in a check-in activity, which can greatly vary from one circle to the next. The check-in circles represent an ideal time to share experiences and moods that begin outside of the community. My participation in YES! gatherings has given me several open-ended ideas for this time: What’s happened since we last met? What music are you currently listening to? What are you excited about? What are your superpowers or stewardship powers? Before the closing, the facilitator does a check-out, which I see as a place that participants may think about how what they’ve experienced in the circle applies to the world beyond.
YES! offers a powerful extension to Restorative Justice in guiding students in the creation of a Listen Up gathering, an “artivism” event presented to their schools, families, and larger communities. For this gathering, students demonstrate their commitment to stewardship through working as visual artists, music makers, dancers, actors, and photographers. It is my vision and my hope this year to host a Listen Up event with my students that channels their collective energy and power into outwardly sharing their vision of a strong community bonded by a commitment to social justice.