Let’s start a movement!
I attend a lot of conferences. If it’s inexpensive, easily accessible, and topically appealing I’m pretty much guaranteed to be there. This past weekend was no exception as I attended the Restorative Justice Collaborative of Houston’s (RJCH) annual conference: Restorative Justice 360 at the University of Houston-Downtown. I’m partial to social justice-oriented events that have a sliding scale registration policy, showing a thoughtfulness that takes into account the significant needs and often limited resources of prospective attendees. This registration policy in conjunction with the RJCH’s work in Houston produced a healthy balance in attendees of teachers, administrators, students, and community members. In a single room you saw public, private, and charter educators, social service providers, parents, and young adults all actively contributing to conversations about restorative approaches to teaching and learning.
The world of restorative justice in Houston is fairly new to me, although the themes and strategies we discussed resonate with many experiences I’ve had on different sides of the education system. After meeting the RJCH’s founder Dr. Anita Wadhwa (who wrote the book on restorative justice in urban schools) I immediately asked to come visit her school and participate in a Circle. These are purposeful, intimate discussion groups intended to build more resilient positive relationships. There are different types of Circles (see picture below); I joined Community Building Circles where students collectively examine their learning environment, build relationships, and discuss ways to ensure success despite the clear conflicts they often experience between their lives inside and outside of school. More on these conflicts in a future post.
In one session students from Morton Ranch High School in Katy, a suburb of Houston, spoke passionately about the impact restorative justice practices had in their school. They’re seeing fights avoided or at least mitigated, relationships strengthened, and students feeling more included in the school community. Other students from a local magnet school asked how, with less disciplinary issues than many neighboring schools, their campus could benefit from restorative justice principles. What followed was a great discussion about how even in high-performing schools with relatively few disciplinary issues these restorative practices can be valuable for alleviating the pressure of a stressful, highly rigorous learning environment.
A highlight of the conference was the session by Brian Jaffe of YES Prep Gulfton: The Praxeum: Making In School Suspension Restorative. He shared his insights from a brand new implementation of restorative justice principles in his schools. Many popular charter networks have the reputation of promoting zero-tolerance disciplinary practices but Brian is actively seeking to change that on his campus. Because he’s in the midst of his first year, Brian used his session as a case study and canvassed the audience for ideas. Me being a lover of EdCamps and the Socratic method I found this part wonderful! I learned a great deal about practical restorative justice implementations and I think the room offered some useful feedback to Brian as well. One interesting question is what to do when the students are enjoying the in-school suspension more than class. He’s not seeing any decline in in-school suspension referrals, but what if students are actively seeking “punishment” perhaps because they don’t feel supported by their teacher?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the keynote by Karen Sparks, restorative practitioner at Morton Ranch High School. As a frequent attendee of conferences I’ve grown weary of the “big name” speakers and I’m often much more excited by teacher presenters, and this was certainly the case with Karen. I’ve met Karen before but never knew about her restorative justice work. She brought many of her school’s 50+ student facilitators, or Circle Keepers, and gave a lively lecture sharing how the practices (~100 Circles this year alone!) that have become essential to the school’s operation have saved relationships and possibly even lives! I told Karen I’m tapping her for EdSpeakers because we absolutely need her voice more widely spread.
If you’re interested in learning more about restorative justice principles and practices, visit the Restorative Justice Collaborative of Houston’s resources page. You can also reach out to Karen Sparks directly. I hope you’ll try a Circle out in your own learning community and if you’re near Houston let me know so I can come visit! And for you conference organizers, let’s get more students out to our events!