This past year, my high school transitioned to the complete integration of restorative practices – which means we center our days on the relationships we have with our students. We show our kids we want to hear and honor their voices. But when we had to close our school building and shift to e-learning, we had to adjust with the times. And now, as we reunite for blended learning this fall, we’re adapting anew to support our students.
We start every morning in Advisory with a peace circle, which is a time for shared dialogue, support and growth. These relationships make it possible for us to navigate tough moments – from internal conflicts to external issues – as a community.
When we shifted to e-learning, every day started with a virtual peace circle, just like every day in our school building. By staying connected, we were able to support our students through anxious days of quarantine. And when the news of police violence reached our community, and protests erupted around the country, our daily video circles gave our students a place to talk. Those conversations haven’t always been easy, but that’s exactly why they matter.
Before we introduced restorative practices to our students, my team and I committed to a deep training process. We built a base of community support and growth, and that’s what we continue to model for our students. For example, as a Black educator, if I hear something hurtful, I know I can take a moment to step back and process it. And I know the white allies on my team can take a step forward and gently say, “Hey, let’s look at our community guidelines and make this conversation safe for everyone. And let’s look at some history and do some learning together.”
At first, students may not feel a lot of trust or confidence about participating in peace circles. So, to build trust, we asked our kids to work with us on choosing topics and setting up community guidelines. We took care to respect their suggestions and, in turn, our students became more invested in the daily circles and our community in general. Over time, we have seen our students become more comfortable having difficult conversations. They see the ways in which these discussions help them to grow and prepare them to have deep and meaningful conversations outside of our space.
Keeping up those strong relationships with our kids and with one another made it easier to plan for this year, too. When your school community is facing so much uncertainty, connection is key! As we begin a new year of online and in-person learning, I’m building regular check-ins into our routines. During each day of distance learning, my admin team and I met with each teacher one-on-one, and our teachers met with each student one-on-one – and we’re continuing that practice as we go back to school. Sometimes a check-in with a student lasts five minutes, sometimes it lasts an hour, whatever our kids need. Staying connected keeps us all energized to tackle the challenges that may lie ahead – and it keeps our students motivated to show up for new learning. Our attendance rate for online classes was 95%, and that makes me so proud of my school community – and it gives me so much confidence about supporting and empowering our students during blended learning this fall!
If we don’t create a school environment where students are comfortable bringing their life experiences and their stories, they won’t be able to learn – from educators or from each other. However, if we build a culture that supports student voice and community growth, our kids will become lifelong learners, high achievers – and changemakers.