May 28, 2023
Ian Carney, RPIA Teacher
When I was placed in our school’s Restorative Practices PLC in the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, I had my share of doubts. I’ve been teaching for 10 years at this point so I could make a pretty big bowl of alphabet soup out of all of the different acronym-named programs I’ve seen in education. With each one, the faculty learns the new buzzwords and reads a lot about how “this one will change everything.” But then the programs quietly fade away over time to be replaced by the next big thing, and we get a whole new set of buzzwords. I’m not placing blame on the administration, by the way, for trying out these new initiatives. The world is changing frighteningly fast, and schools are simply trying to keep up.
But even in the beginning of the year, I could tell that Restorative Practices was different. It isn’t a collection of empty educational jargon, it’s a reframing of priorities that we have as educators. Restorative Practices has one commandment that I think is key: empower your students. Again, I came into this as a bit of a skeptic, but this resonated within me. When I think back to my own schooling, I find that I don’t tend to remember individual lectures or worksheets or classroom discussions. You know what I do remember? I remember 10th grade Social Studies when we chose a country and then had a mock United Nations where we researched current events and debated with one another from the points of view of our chosen nations. I remember in the 4th grade when I constructed a Rube-Goldberg device out of simple machines that would launch wine corks across the room. I remember my 7th grade English class when we wrote short stories and workshopped them with our peers, giving and receiving feedback and making the best story that I could. I remember how these projects made me feel. The times when I could choose things, when I became a leader in the classroom, or when I could flex my creative muscles, those were the times that stuck with me and shaped me as a person. Restorative Practices asks you to empower your students more often, whether it be through giant projects like the ones I referenced above, or through smaller in-class activities. This was something, I thought, that I could see working.
So, I tried it out this school year. I came up with a plan to create “student coaches” in my classroom during our poetry unit. In a usual year, students tend to struggle with poetry and analyzing verse because it’s not readily apparent what a poem means when one first reads it. Students have to work hard to dig into the symbolic or metaphorical meanings of these poems in order to understand them, and to some students it was overwhelming. On the other hand, in an average year I would tend to have a handful of students per class period that just “got it.” To them, analyzing abstract stuff was easy and fun. With Restorative Practice’s prime directive—empower your students—in mind, I decided to promote those students to become “coaches” during the unit. I assigned a pre-assessment for the poetry unit to figure out who my “natural born poets” were. Afterwards, I approached them with an offer: if you help your classmates analyze poetry during the independent work time for the project, I’ll waive all of your homework assignments for the unit and reduce the requirements for the big poetry portfolio. 2 out of 3 students I approached accepted, and then we were off to the races.
The way the unit was structured, the students picked a poet or lyricist, chose a number of works by that artist, then analyzed those works in class. I circulated around the room during this time providing assistance as needed. However, as I alluded to earlier, the students tend to get really needy during this assignment, and there’s usually a “line” of students that are waiting to get help from me with their song lyrics. The student coaches alleviated this problem by having two more “experts” in the room to help their peers figure out what their poem was really saying. As an added bonus, I found that some students were more willing to ask for help from the student coaches than from me. In the end, the experiment was a success. My student coaches were more engaged than they’d ever been, and I found that the overall quality of the poetry portfolios had a noticeable increase. Both of my student coaches told me about how they really liked helping their peers and feeling like they were respected within the class. I ended up using the student coach idea for a few other units this year and each time I found that it raised engagement—not just with the coach, but also the rest of the classroom, as well. I’m planning to implement this practice into a lot more units next year to see if I can get the same results.
Restorative Practices isn’t a panacea for our education system, nor is it some revolutionary program that’s going to change the way you teach forever. It’s a way to give students agency in the classroom and get them invested in class. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but educators are at war with cellphones and social media for the students’ attention. If we empower students, we make them care about their own education which gets them to want to pay attention in class. Maybe if we as educators do this more often, then The Great Attention War will feel a little less unwinnable.