Talking about current events with 10-year-olds can be tough. It's political, it's distressing, and it's uncomfortable for many of us, adults and kids alike.
But it's necessary. To ignore humanitarian crises and current events in our classrooms is to fail to prepare our students to become empathic global citizens. Our classrooms, our students are impacted by what's happening in the world, and they deserve opportunities to engage in uncomfortable and necessary dialogue about our world.
Yesterday, our class watched "Let Me In," a short documentary by Alicia Keys. The video begins in LA, and the city is under attack. A family's home is bombed, and they immediately flee toward the US-Mexico border. Along the way, the daughter is separated from her mother. We follow a group of refugees, including the daughter, travel across the US desert as they make their way toward the border. Mexican officials are at the fence when the group finally arrives at the border. An official places his hand on his gun, and the refugees stand still, silently staring across the fence into the eyes of the Mexican officials. (I won't tell the rest of the story- the video is well worth watching if you haven't yet seen it.)
I paused at the natural breaks in the video to quickly summarize what had happened in each scene to make sure my group of 35 10-13 year-olds understood what was happening in the video. I tried to end the video at 8:10, ever aware of the limits of instructional time, but the class insisted we continue watching. I know student engagement when I see it, so we continued watching until the credits began rolling.
I opened our discussion by first acknowledging the position of the video, and then moving to empathy. “It’s pretty clear that she has some thoughts about refugees that she’s trying to tell us about," I explained. "The other interesting thing that this video does is that it puts us, puts you, in the position of a refugee. This video is trying to get people to imagine what it would be like if they were from Syria, if they were from a country where they were at risk of having their home bombed. This video was designed to make people have empathy for people. Do you know what empathy is?”
Yes, our students certainly know what empathy is. "It's feeling for other people," Sage said. "Putting yourself in other people's shoes," added Elliott. "Trying to understand how someone is feeling," said Ananda. Slater used a children's song to define empathy: "Empathy, empathy, put yourself in the place of me." Mikey added a verse to the song, singing "Even if I'm a refugee, put yourself in the place of me."
Usually, in class discussions, I ask specific, well-thought-out questions and use a think-pair-share or similar structure to encourage participation and to keep our discussion on track. This time, however, I just asked students to share their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the video.
Tre began our discussion, simply stating, "It made me really sad." "Yeah," I agreed, "it created some intense sad feelings, right? I felt the same way." "It almost made a lot of people cry," added Quora. "Yeah, it made me eyes get watery, it made my heart hurt," I said, mindful to let kids know that sad feelings are normal and okay, especially in the context of watching this video and thinking about the refugee crisis. "I already knew how bad it [the refugee crisis] was, but seeing this, how it looked, just felt really real," said Elliott.
Brooklyn shared her perspective on the video. "It’s showing us that if this happened to us, what would other countries do? Would they want us? Would they let us in, because we’re not letting people in right now." Bobby agreed, saying "If we don’t let them in, and then something happens here that’s really dangerous, how would we know they would let us in?" "Great point," I responded. "That's definitely something we need to think about."
Ananda continued the conversation, explaining, "The video shows us the other side of the refugee story, because up until now, all we knew was our side- and we want to accept them [refugees] and help them stay alive, but we don’t want to get hurt ourselves. Now we’re seeing, this video shows us the other side where we just want to escape the terror. "The one thing I was noticing when we were talking about both sides is that they both included safety," said Bella. "So they both want to be safe, from whatever’s happening in one city, and the other side wants to be safe from the people who are trying to come over from the other city or country or continent." "Right," I agreed. "Bella’s saying that all people want is to be safe. And that’s why people make the decisions that they do- to flee their country, to not let people in- it’s all around safety."
Our discussion continued, with students engaging in dialogue about terrorism threats, human rights, and the pros and cons of open borders. As we ended the day, I was reminded of the power of empathy, and the critical importance of engaging our students in discussions that matter.
I'm the "I'm not a math person!" poster child, so it was with much hesitation and self-doubt that I begrudgingly agreed to fill in as a temporary middle school math teacher. Don't get me wrong- I think math education is incredibly important, but I felt woefully inadequate to be taking on a task as important as shaping the next generation of mathematicians. Six weeks later, at the end of my too-short career as a math teacher, I'm realizing that perhaps being a "non-math person" made me a better math teacher than I had anticipated.
I haven't always considered myself to be bad at math. It wasn't until it was time to memorize my times tables that I remember feeling badly about math. Suddenly, math became intimidating. For the first time in my young life, I had felt stupid. I couldn't recall a multiplication fact quickly enough, and I'd been embarrassed in front of the class. For most of my life, I've had anxiety about math.
So when it came time to teach math, I knew exactly what I didn't want for my students. I didn't want my students to feel like they're not good at math. I didn't want them to be intimidated by math. I didn't want them to grow up thinking that they're "not a math person." I've read enough mathematics education research to know that there's no such thing as a non-math person, and that it is our math education experiences that shape our mindsets about math. With the right math mindset, we can all learn and do math at high levels. I knew this on a theoretical level, and it made sense to me, but I'd never experienced a version of math education that wasn't anxiety-provoking. The thought of developing a math class that was unlike anything I had personally experienced was intimidating, to say the least.
We started the year with open-ended, multi-solution math tasks with many access points from YouCubed. I heard a lot of "I'm bad at math," "this is too hard!" and "I can't do this!" during our first two weeks. Slowly, though, the conversation changed. We started Jo Boaler's Inspirational Math, which includes an inspirational video to kick off each lesson, and math activities that emphasize the importance of math as patterns. We talked about the misconception that some people are "just math people" and how we can all become good at math. We emphasized the importance of making mistakes, and learned that our brains grow when we make mistakes (and we even started celebrating our mistakes!). We practiced making math visual, and realized that sometimes we can conceptualize math better when we draw or model it.
I noticed a decline in the frequency of students expressing negative self-perceptions of math, but didn't truly realize the impact that our math classes were having on students until my last week of teaching math, during student and parent goal-setting conferences. In one conference, a parent tearfully remarked that this year was the first time her child had said that he enjoyed math, after years of negative experiences in math classes. In another, a parent described that her child was so excited about our math tasks that she came home each day and enthusiastically described the task, and had asked for math manipulatives like the ones we used in class for her next birthday gift. Over half of my students, in their goal-setting conferences, said that they were enjoying math, with many explaining that math is not usually a subject they enjoy.
My students aren't the only ones who found themselves a bit surprised at their enjoyment of math. I became a math teacher, and a passionate advocate for whole-child mathematics education. I happily explained the philosophy I was adopting in my math classes to anyone who was willing to listen- coworkers, parents, tour groups, my friends. I never expected to love teaching math, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that I would be sad to leave my temporary teaching appointment. Teaching math confirmed my belief that math doesn't need to be painful, exclusionary, or anxiety-provoking. We can all learn to love math- or, for some of us, perhaps re-learn how to love math.
I am probably not a typical math teacher. As a kid, I hated math 95% of the time. I still remember the first time I felt stupid. It was in second grade math class. I'd been pulled into a small group to work on memorizing my times tables, and I was confused. And slow. And angry. Why did I need to memorize this? Why did I have to come up with the right answer in 2 seconds or less? Why was it a competition? I kept feeling this way, during every math test, every time the math teacher cold called me, on the math section of the ACT... I was not a math person.
When I got to college, as a self-identified non-math person, I tried to fulfill my math requirements in the least-math-y way possible. I took astronomy. And I became a math person.
The thing about math is that it's not about memorizing. It's not about how fast you can do a problem in your head. It's about having tools to understand the world around us. I didn't realize this until I decided to become an astrophysicist.
The other thing about math is that it's very, very easy for it to become about memorizing and facts and learning equations out of context and feeling stupid. I realized this once I decided to not become an astrophysicist. I switched my major because my physics professor, after I'd spent half a semester in her office asking for help on my problem sets, told me I needed to try harder.
Turns out what I actually needed was a different way of looking at math. And this is true for many, many, many of us who think that we are just not math people. We are all math people.
As I prepare to teach math, I know exactly what I don't want my classes to be like. I don't want students feeling stupid because memorization doesn't come easily to them. I don't want them feeling discouraged because math feels like a series of disconnected concepts to be memorized and applied out of context. I don't want them thinking that math is just about tests and times tables.
I want them to have the confidence to solve problems and understand information that interests them. I want them to authentically engage with numbers in ways that are empowering, not defeating. I want them to see the beauty, relevance, and importance of math in our daily lives. Most of all, I don't want them to grow up believing that they aren't math people.
When we know better, we do better. Math for my students will be different.
Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a class lecture. Five minutes passed. I was still sitting; the instructor was still talking. Another five minutes went by. I started fidgeting. After 15 minutes, I was having a hard time paying attention, and realized I wasn't absorbing any of the material from the lecture. Before 20 minutes had passed, unable to sit still and pay attention, I got up and took a quick walk around the building. When I returned to class a few minutes later, the instructor was still talking; the audience was still sitting and passively listening.
After almost an hour of trying my best to sit up, take notes, pay attention, I was so fidgety that I knew I couldn't stay in the class. As I excused myself from class a second time, I realized that I was "that kid." I was totally being the kid who can't sit still in class, isn't paying attention, won't stop fidgeting, finds excuses to leave the classroom, is completely disengaged, is disgruntled and absolutely unenthused.
I'm usually not that type of student. Give me a question to discuss with classmates, give me something to read, ask me to create something, and I'm eager to jump right in. But talk at me for an hour, and I start to look like a behavior management case study.
I don't say this to advertise the fact that I am not an auditory learner, or that I can't sit through an hour lecture- nor am I suggesting that lectures have no place in education. Rather, it makes me think about the correlation between what we ask students to do, and how they behave. When I'm asked to work with classmates, write something, engage with the content, apply what I'm learning to a real-world problem, I don't fidget. I don't leave class twice within an hour. Our students aren't any different. Give them something to do that matters to them, get them engaged with each other and the world around them, help them see a purpose for their work- and much of the behavior management challenges that plague classrooms disappear.
Today I had the pleasure of attending the San Diego Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices Summit, along with ~400 fellow community members and restorative justice supporters. I was amazed to see politicians, police officers, educators, and community organizations working together to support the safety and wellbeing of our community.
I was reminded today that restorative justice isn't just another initiative. It's a lens through which to view the world, a lens that allows us to see offenders, victims, misbehaving children as fellow human beings. It allows us to better understand how our own reactions can support the human beings around us. It allows us to break cycles of poverty, trauma, neglect, and abuse. It allows us to see that people exposed to trauma and toxic stress often act in ways that allow them a temporary way out of hopelessness. When our culture is one of punishment, we are compounding the effects of racism, bias, poverty, trauma... but when we begin to shift our culture to one of human interaction and connection, we restore hope, and begin to transform our communities.
As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are helping to break cycles of poverty, trauma, and toxic stress. We need to shift our interactions with students from "what is wrong with you?" to first asking "what's going on?" Restorative justice isn't the end-all, be-all of education, and it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, it can offer a framework for allowing us to determine how we can support the needs of the students in our school communities. In adopting a restorative mindset- in seeing others as fellow human beings- we become more human ourselves.
I’ve been studying restorative practices this year, but usually from the outside as an observer and researcher. I’ve facilitated a few low-stakes restorative conversations between kids, but until this month, I’d only observed formal restorative circles for more serious incidents. I had a chance to facilitate a restorative circle between several students and their teacher after a physical incident, and was quickly reminded that there is a definite learning curve to facilitating restorative circles. I left the circle having learned a few lessons about facilitation:
1. Always prep with the students and teachers before a restorative circle.
Before any circle takes place, it’s crucial to meet with students and teachers individually beforehand. This gives participants a chance to reflect on their own before the circle. It’s also a perfect opportunity to explain how restorative circles work, and ensure that all participants are fully on board, voluntarily. Our Social-Emotional Learning Coordinator, had prepped the students beforehand, but I wasn’t there. Therefore, during the circle, I had a hard time prompting the student to return to earlier reflections, and some students’ responses during the circle were short, simple, and surface-level. Had I checked in with the students before the circle, I would’ve had a better idea of how to prompt them to reflect a bit deeper during the circle. It also didn’t help that I didn’t know any of the boys very well.
2. Don’t forget to set the tone, and don’t be afraid to re-set the tone.
One of the most important parts of facilitating a restorative circle is setting the tone for the conversation. This includes discussing what the circle will look and sound like, acknowledging that participating in a restorative circle is tough, and going over norms for the circle. It also includes revisiting the norms when needed; the facilitator’s job is to keep the circle a safe, respectful space in which participants can come together to make things right.
3. Respect that participants have different responses to the circle.
Some participants cry. Others giggle. Some express deep guilt or remorse. Others shrug their shoulders. Some are exceptionally eloquent for their age and go into deep, thoughtful reflections. Others put up a front. We don’t want to encourage participants to behave in inauthentic ways, or to act a certain way to please or appease others in the circle. We also notice that when students behave in ways outside of what we’d expect, our tendency is to question the student’s remorse, reflection, or seriousness. What helps to counter this natural tendency that we have is to explicitly acknowledge in the beginning of the circle that everyone has different ways of presenting during the circle, and we need to trust in the process. Which brings me to my last lesson…
4. Trust in the process, but don’t be afraid to make adjustments.
I do believe that the circle environment brings benefits to all involved, regardless of their presentation during the circle. Kids benefit from hearing how their actions impacted others, having a chance to speak from their perspective about an incident, and having the opportunity to make things right and restore their community. However, sometimes the process benefits from a tweak here and there. It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all. For example, we’ve been asking students “What needs to happen to make things right?” but after receiving several responses like “suspend them” or “he shouldn’t get to play on the field during break,” we started tweaking the language of the question in hopes of eliciting ideas for restoring harm done to the community rather than punishing an individual. Now, instead of asking “What do you need to do to make things right” (or “What does he/she need to do to make things right”) we’ve started to ask “What can we do to restore the community?” Taking a critical, flexible approach to restorative justice allows us to personalize the process, ensure that students are learning and growing from mistakes, and maintain a safe, healthy learning environment for our students.
One of our 8th grade students expressed her appreciation for transparency during an interview: “...teachers are always like, ‘alright you talk about your feelings’ but you [teachers] don't really talk about your own feelings. I feel like every single year, every single teacher says the same thing: ‘oh I'm feeling a 10 because I'm having a good day, or I'm a 7 because I'm kind of tired.’ She [teacher] was kind of sharing what she was feeling with us... it kind of breaks up the barrier between teacher and student, and it kind of makes us know that even though you are not teenagers or students anymore, I mean, you can still get hurt and you can still not have good days." Her quote describes one of the major benefits of circles- building trust and understanding between students and teachers.
I was reading an article for class in which the author, Sandra Pavelka, Ph.D. (2013) offered a succinct, optimistic account of the adoption of restorative practices in schools. This sounds great in theory, but the actual adoption of RJ in schools/districts is not an easy task. There are several big districts that have acknowledged the value of RJ in replacing their more traditional discipline policies, but what often ends up happening is that a district announces RJ as their new policy, bans suspensions, and then goes on to announce that RJ has led to a 300% decrease in student discipline. What happens behind the scenes is that teachers don’t buy into the practice and philosophy, and/or aren’t given the training and resources to properly implement it, and/or RJ becomes just another initiative rather than a part of the culture. RJ is such a profound concept that requires a complete mindset shift and has huge implications for a teacher’s daily practice and way of interacting with students, and that doesn’t happen through a superintendent announcing that they’re dropping suspensions by switching to RJ. Even at schools like ours, teachers have varying degrees of buy in and investment. I worry that with RJ becoming the cool new initiative, schools won’t take the time and invest the resources to actually enact change (obviously, this happens with every initiative, but RJ requires more than a more typical “let’s all write our objective on the board every day and we’ll make a box to check on your evaluations to make sure you’re doing this!” initiative). I think that to do RJ and do it well, it takes more time, resources, and support than most schools are willing to invest, and I worry that schools who take shortcuts or simply slap on the RJ label will do much more harm to the “movement” than good.
I think that to do RJ and do it well, it takes more time, resources, and support than most schools are willing to invest
I was talking with a few educators from LA Unified a few months ago, and when we started talking about RJ, they had some really interesting reflections on their district's "adoption." Their interpretation of RJ was that it meant that they couldn't send kids to the office, so they had pretty negative things to say about the approach- without having any sort of understanding of what RJ really is. Toward the end of the conversation, one of them remarked that RJ was a complete waste of time and was ruining their school. Another added that RJ was making them want to retire, and proceeded to explain that with RJ, the kids were running wild with no consequences, and adults had zero power over students. This is my concern- that teachers feel that RJ is taking away the resources they rely on without giving them anything in return, and that the implementation process doesn't allow teachers to explore the approach and get a better understanding of why the district decided to adopt this policy and how it can benefit the entire school community. I love RJ, and I believe in RJ as a means of increasing equity and giving kids what they need to succeed, but I am really, really hesitant to suggest that schools should go out and adopt restorative practices, because this isn't an initiative- it's an entire school culture, and you can't change a culture through a poorly-planned district mandate.
Knight, D., & Wadhwa, A. (2014). Expanding Opportunity through Critical Restorative Justice: Portraits of Resilience at the Individual and School Level. Schools: Studies in Education, 11(1), 11-33.
Pavelka, S. (2013). Practices and Policies for Implementing Restorative Justice within Schools. Prevention Researcher, 20(1), 15-17.
I've always been bothered by traditional discipline. It seems to work for most kids- the ones who never "get in trouble"- but for those kids who do, traditional discipline never seems to change the story for them. They don't seem to learn from their consequences, and often, their behavior escalates while their academic achievement plummets. Traditional discipline is comfortable, and to many of us, it makes sense. Punishments and threats and rewards should motivate kids to do the right thing. But what happens when that doesn't work? Do we suspend a kid for twice the amount of time when he ends up in the office again? Do we truly believe that traditional punishments teach students, or help them to behave? Can students learn from a suspension?
Unfortunately, research shows that the answer is overwhelmingly "no." Zero-tolerance policies have made matters worse; black boys overwhelmingly bear the brunt of harsh discipline; and the school-to-prison pipeline is thriving in large part due to our school discipline practices.
I began my program with an interest in school culture and a background in social/emotional education. Through these lenses, I quickly became fascinated by restorative justice, a practice widely adopted by my school site as a means of increasing equity and supporting the social, emotional, and academic needs of all students as valuable members of our school community. I've always had a casual interest in restorative practices, but I didn't "get it" until I had the chance to sit in on a family restorative conference.
"A" got into a physical altercation with "B" in the commons. In my previous school, A would've meet with our vice principal and he would've been given a 3-5 day suspension. A would have a re-entry meeting in which he would promise not to do it again, and he'd return to class, whereupon all of his classmates would ask him what happened with the fierce frenzy of middle school drama.
Here, A, B, their parents, and their teachers met before school in a circle to talk about what happened, how it made them feel, who was affected, and what needs to happen to make things right. Each participant had an opportunity to share their thoughts while all other participants listened. At the end, the group, led by the two students, brainstormed and agreed upon a series of steps to "make things right" and repair the harm done to the community. A would complete some community service, and B and A would facilitate a grade-wide community circle on ways to peacefully deal with conflict.
During the circle, I paid close attention to A and B's parents. B's father stressed his concern for A and his hope that A could get what he needed in order to manage his anger in more productive, less harmful ways. He shared his understanding of the teenage male brain, and explained to A that a surge of testosterone and the development of the rational frontal cortex makes it difficult for adolescents to stop and think before they act. A's mother cried as she described her fear for A's future if this behavior continued, and expressed her sadness and disappointment in A's behavior as a reflection of her parenting. The parents expressed their appreciation for the circle, were satisfied in the resolution.
There was no anger. There was no blame. Everyone left the circle with a sense of satisfaction and fairness. I'm not sure I'm ready to say that restorative justice is the end-all, be-all of school discipline, but I'm already seeing much potential for helping our students- and parents- peacefully work through problems as a community in a way that is fair to all.