Restorative Justice and the Educator

This post explores the idea that Somatic Living and Restorative Justice are intertwined. For those of you new to this way of thinking about resolving relational harm, Restorative Justice began in the 1970’s as a broad concept about crime, injury to the victims of crime, and alternative ideas about repair and reform. It has been expanding in recent years as an important curricular development in education. This framing of Restorative Justice as a tool in education can be extended toward many areas, including community repair,relational support and individual healing. RJ presents what I think is a revolutionary framework for the care of self and others. This blogpost makes a first step into how RJ can be integrated into social and community settings.

As an educator, I consider myself a member of community in a leadership role, but firmly believe the educator (read: teacher, professor, tutor, artist-in-residence etc.) is not the expert, or even the only leader in education.

Rather, students learn from each other, in peer relationship, and are the living examples of growth and development for each other, and yes, even for the instructor. As such, I was the leader, for example in ballet, tap and compositional instruction, and my students were leaders in Hip Hop Dance, including Beat-Boy/Girl, Pop-n-Lock, Classic Footwork from Jit and House Dance, and so on. When we dance together, I can learn from student dancers, and they can learn from me. We are engaged in a Teaching and Learning relationship and I have carried this value of Relational Learning into every facet of my life.

I first encountered Restorative Justice when I was the Director of Dance at Everett High School in Lansing MI. As a caveat, I would like to preface this post with complete self-disclosure: this time in my life was intensely stressful, and I was at a vulnerable stage in my personal life.

However, being able to function quite well while under intense stress is one of my super-powers.

Teaching 6th-12th graders dance at Everett High School held enormous challenges and I did need to engage my super-powers to succeed! I learned so much from the position. It was during my Fifth Hour Class/Community that I first experienced a Restorative Justice Circle. My Fifth Hour class was unique. In it, I had several special needs students with significant unique needs, a cadre of talented hip-hop dancers with strong personalities, and a few who dancers who really wanted to branch out into Ballet, Modern and other dance forms. I organized the semesters into Units of Study, but Fifth hour, in particular, had a bumpy adjustment between different styles of dance and lesson plans. Perhaps this was due to the time of day, right after lunch- more on that later!- or in-group rivalries. However, I was able to accomplish a fair bit of creative dance and assist the students into tapping into movement to release excess anxiety and stress. This is one of the class communities that captured my heart. It is special to me that this group asked me to join a Restorative Justice circle.

Learn more about the program I developed and taught at Everett in this short film Why I Dance by Chandler Keyes. Chandler was my ballet student at Eastern Michigan University, Winter Semester 2017, and graciously served as a mentor and Guest Speaker after our college semester ended. Travelling with me up to Lansing’s former “magnet school for the performing arts,” Chandler spent a full day with the dance students at Everett. I chose Chandler as a mentor because she was an excellent student in the EMU Dance Program, and was an Early College Alliance student. She was about two years younger than the senior, so right in the middle of the age range at Everett.

In introducing Chandler to my talented dancers at Everett, I felt her excitement about a life in the arts would be contagious. As a Youtube Creator and well-rounded entrepreneur, Chandler’s achievements both on-screen and off filled the students with positivity and enthusiasm. They were impressed the Chandler had built a budding career in style and personal fashion through branded Youtube video content.

Chandler visited Everett as a Guest Artist left a lasting impression on the students, many of whom have now graduated. I am grateful to Chandler for investing in the youth of Lansing, and going above and beyond as a Peer mentor.

I use Logos, Rhetoric and Analysis in my day-to-day life, so I like to ground my writing with this recognition: Logos is a super power, too. After over 20 years as a teacher, I always like to examine facts and best practices.

So, let’s fact-check: what is Restorative Justice today?

Consider this excellent definition, which I excerpt from Author David Yusem:
“Restorative justice views “harm” as a fracturing of relationships, rather than something that demands punishment. A restorative justice process is a way to uncover true needs and heal relationships via meaningful accountability.”

How might restorative justice apply to a conflict? Restorative justice allows the impacted parties to talk about what happened, how they are feeling about it now, the impact it had on everyone, and ultimately what can be done to make it as right as possible. Restorative approach can help school communities avoid the need for exclusionary discipline and reduce repeated offenses. People who have been harmed often have questions that only the person that harmed them can answer. Often time these questions are simple like “why me?” or “what led you to do this to me?” The process allows for these and other questions to be answered and these answers can facilitate the healing process.

Restorative justice originates from an indigenous paradigm, instead of a patriarchal capitalist paradigm: it is community based, relational, and inclusive. The process creates equity by giving everyone a space to talk and be heard and by addressing the root cause of harm. We often say harmed people harm people, so it is important to uncover and address “original” harm too.

“The restorative talking circle process is often implemented to start this conversation.” (Yusem, David, published by Mindfulschools.org.)

At Everett High School and New Tech, Fifth hour was after lunch, and frequently, this class, in a nutshell, was pissed off and stressed. Remember, I promised we’d return to lunchtime. Lunchtime at physical synchronous school is extremely social, multifaceted and loud. At Everett, as well as many other high schools, this was a time when students leave campus, are marginally supervised, if at all, and are mingling with preferred peers. There are in-groups and out-groups and for many of my Fifth Hour students, lunch time was stressful. At least one of my Fifth Hour students used lunch time as an opportunity to settle a beef, by setting up a physical fight/challenge with another young lady. When this student asked for a bathroom pass, she was really using the pass as an excuse to meet and fight with a classmate. This and other concerns were impeding our progress as a Learning Community. Thus, we needed to able address concerns calmly through A Restorative Justice Talking Circle. While this Circle was my first, I had attempted to do this process several times in the past, with Everett classes and with other groups of folks. We were able, with the help of a RJ Staffer to itemize and examine grievances from Fifth Hour community members.

Student Concerns

  • Own Choreography? Students only wanted to work on their own ideas.
  • In fighting, peer to peer disfluencies, personality conflicts.
  • Schedules changed? Principal would frequently change students’ schedules. This would only aggravate the students and set back our class progress.
  • New students coming in all the time? Difficult to maintain status quo.
  • My style of hip-hop? I’m a white mid-westerner. Students were concerned about my ability to lead and direct their dances due to my race and ethnicity.
  • Personal Memories of this first RJ Talking Circle:
  • How I was nervous! As a conflict-avoidant person, I thought something scary or negative might happen. This was not the case!
  • I remember the sense of relief, a kind of group exhale: everyone stayed calm.
  • How students really only wanted to be heard.
  • How each student needed time and space to share.
  • Students needed to be heard by each other.
  • Once members got started, the whole process really flowed.
  • In this case, I was floored at how one circle pretty much cleared everything up, for example, at the end of the 45-minute Talking Circle, when asked if we should schedule another circle, students were pretty much: “Naw, we’re good.”
  • My permission and acceptance of their need to stop and dedicate a class period to just talking feelings, thoughts, and beliefs out respectfully meant so much to these young people.

Achievements

What we achieved, ultimately, in this class and in the program:

  • Four concerts of dance (between October 2016 and May 2017)
  • Over sixty pieces of Students’ own choreography (performed in the studio or on the stage.) Many are documented in the Why I Dance film. Filmed and edited by Chandler Keyes, pictured below.
  • Somatic/Emotional explorations of movement (particularly in Fifth Hour)
  • Artists created our own costumes (Fifth Hour) or selected their own from the Costume Closet.
  • Mentored and included special needs students, in full. The kindness and support these teens could offer each other often astounded me.
  • Created a safe space for everyone to grow artistically, intellectual, physically, socially and emotionally.
Peer Mentor, Filmmaker, Student and Youtube and Instagram Sensation and Influencer, Chandler Keyes.

Everett Dance Program Photos: Why I Dance

Personal Photos captured by CM Sears, 2016-2017. All Dancers signed waivers.

In summary, my experiences thus far in Restorative Justice have been positive, even though they can be a bit uncomfortable. These experiences have led me to believe and advocate for a greater expansion of RJ techniques into interpersonal disputes and relationships. It is a helpful tool for educators to remember that mindfulness and impeccable communication enrich the learning environment, the students and the educator’s experiences.

Works Cited:

  1. WeAreTeachers Staff on January 15, 2019 .contest-social .share-links svg. (2019, January 17). What Teachers Need to Know About Restorative Justice. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.weareteachers.com/restorative-justice/.
  2. Yusem, D. (2019, October 23). Restorative Justice in Schools: SEL in Action. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.mindfulschools.org/inspiration/restorative-justice-in-schools-sel-in-action/.
  3. Everett High School. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Everett-High-School/108610615830071.

If you enjoyed this post, please like, subscribe and follow to support the arts!

  1. Follow Chandler Keyes here.
  2. Follow Christina-Marie Sears, former Director of Dance at Everett High School/ Lansing Public Schools/People Dancing Artistic Director here.

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