Moving From Conflict to Peace
Restorative Justice Practices in an EL Classroom
Often when investigating some tragic injustice in history—the slave trade, the Holocaust, or apartheid—my students are outraged not only by our capacity for brutality and hate, but also by the propaganda and stereotypes that turn neighbor against neighbor. However, despite their indignation and exclamations (“Why can’t they all just get along?”), these same students file out of my classroom only to become involved in the most current gossip or middle school drama where differences are emphasized, names called, and feelings hurt. Apparently the lessons they are learning in my classroom about the importance of recognizing and honoring each person’s humanity are not always translating to their own lives.
I teach 7th and 8th grade at The Odyssey School, a K-8 public charter school in the Denver Public Schools system. While our curriculum is standards-based, teachers also incorporate the six “Habits of a Learner”—essential tools Odyssey has named as important for developing lifelong learners and citizens (see sidebar on p. 2). While each of these habits comes into play on a daily basis, I place a special emphasis on the habit of “Perspective Taking” in my classes.
This past spring, I set about to find a practice that would encourage my students to learn strategies for discussing controversial issues without focusing on winning or being right. I wanted a practice that could be learned using historical and current events and then applied to the typical middle school issues they face in their own lives. I was looking for something that required my students to listen closely and work toward repairing relationships.
Restorative Justice (RJ) has been the answer. After attending a district workshop on RJ, I introduced the guiding principles to my class by first brainstorming the role “Perspective Taking” has in addressing conflict and building peace. We considered how we approach conflict, comparing the perspective that it is about assigning blame and meting out punishments to the perspective that conflict requires repairing relationships by addressing needs and taking accountability for one’s actions.
Students then trained with an RJ facilitator to conduct “peace circles”(one of RJ’s signature structures) independently. In most RJ Peace Circles, a student facillitator directs the conversation, first reviewing norms and then approaching any conflict through the three central RJ questions: What was the harm? Who is responsible? How can we fix it? All participants—whether victim, perpetrator, or community member— speak in turn without interruption. Listeners follow by paraphrasing what they heard with a focus on the needs and wants underlying a position. As a group, they then summarize the main issues that need to be addressed as well as common interests—the needs and wants of those involved that initially go unspoken or unnoticed. From here, the group brainstorms agreements— actions that will repair the harm done and move everyone forward.
Armed with this training, students engaged in role-plays during which they examined historic conflicts. They assumed a character and conducted peace circles. The students worked to utilize dialogue and negotiation with all voices represented. They shifted their focus from winning or proving an argument to problem solving as a community.
Students were quick to discover that the central Restorative Justice questions are two-directional—not only do students have to name the harm that was done to them, they also must consider the harm they may have caused. Not only do they have to determine others who were responsible for causing these harms, they must also take responsibility for their own actions and choices. Surprisingly, students found themselves more willing to identify their own role within conflicts than they had in the past. Through RJ, they have discovered ownership as a necessary step in repairing relationships rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame.
The key practice my students discovered was the power of paraphrasing. Students learned to frame their response with, “What I hear you saying is….” Rather than spending energy formulating their next argument or retort, students discovered that they had to listen deeply in order to respond to a peer’s contribution by speaking it back to them.
This simple practice transformed communications even beyond the role-playing. Students reported that they listened more deeply and focused on the needs and wants of others more than the arguments and positions they were originally itching to present. Those on the receiving end felt acknowledged and respected. In addition, the step of identifying common interests caused a perceptible shift in perspectives. Students discovered that it was easier, and more important, to address common interests than to stay stuck in the conflict; they now recognized their former opponent as another individual with needs similar to their own.
Peace circles allowed my students to view conflict as an opportunity rather than a burden. On the spring backpacking trip, when an issue erupted between a group of girls, they declared that they needed a peace circle, approached the adult leaders to request one, and facilitated it themselves.
At the end of the year, our full middle school team began to discuss ways to use RJ as a means to deepen community and reframe our approach to discipline issues. This fall, a group of ten student volunteers will form our initial RJ team and go through a formal training as well as give their input as to how we can begin applying RJ within our community. By providing my students and myself with tools for addressing conflict, we’ve become better-equipped and willing to work toward peace, holding ourselves and one another more accountable for the simple choices we make on a day-to-day basis.
Jeanne Boland teaches Humanities and Literacy at The Odyssey School in Denver, Colorado. She is in her 13th year of teaching and can be reached at Jeanne@odysseydenver.org. She is also featured in this video from our Core Practices in Action series: 8th Graders Discuss Learning Targets at the Odyssey School.