Restoring Community

This article by Deanna L. Webb, an eighth-grade special education teacher at a middle school in Easton, Pennsylvania, USA, and a June 2009 IIRP Master of Restorative Practices and Education recipient, talks about how her creative, day-to-day implementation of restorative practices have helped make her classroom a thriving community where staff and students help each other to learn and grow.

Deanna L. Webb earned a Master of Restorative Practices andEducation in June 2009 at the International Institute for RestorativePractices (IIRP) Graduate School, through the one-year FastTrackprogram. She is an eighth-grade special education teacher at a middleschool in Easton, Pennsylvania, USA.

Deanna L. Webb When I graduated from college with a degree in special education, I wasprepared to offer students specially designed instruction, programmodifications and a variety of teaching techniques to match theirindividual learning styles, as well as tools and techniques they coulduse to be successful with academics. What I was not prepared for,however, was the need to fill in the blanks in their lives that werenot a part of the typical academic school environment. This becameespecially evident when I began teaching in the emotional supportsetting. My students all lacked a sense of community, and consequentlythey also lacked a sense of accountability. During my first few yearsas a teacher in this setting, I struggled to connect with students andto keep them engaged in the school environment. Some students did verywell, but I was unable to reach others. The tools I acquired in IIRPclasses and then used in my classroom allowed me to build community andteach accountability and respect to a very challenging population ofstudents.

The first change I made to begin building community was to rearrangemy classroom management system to reflect the new focus of ourclassroom. I created “Community, Inc.,” a classroom management systemthat was “publicly owned; created communities; invested inrelationships and made a profit from the positive growth andrelationships it created.” In this new system every student had a job,along with responsibilities to the overall “company.” My classroom had“corporate meetings” at least twice a day, and sometimes morefrequently if we needed to address an issue in the classroom.“Community, Inc.” pushed the typical boundaries of classroom rules to asystem where the students decided the norms of behavior in theclassroom, along with how each student would be held accountable, notjust to the teacher and administration, but also to the community as awhole.

During this process, I implemented many of the tools I learned fromIIRP into “Community, Inc.’s” day-to-day workings. The first tool wefocused on was the Restorative Questions( Whenever there was anincident in the classroom in which someone engaged in challengingbehavior, that child was asked the five Restorative Questions (Whathappened? What were you thinking at the time? Who was affected and how?What are you thinking now? What can you do to help those who wereaffected?) After answering the questions with the help of the supportstaff (myself and my partner, a mental health worker), the studentchecked in with the class. This check-in process involved talking aboutthe answers to the questions and then listening to the group as theyoffered insight or feedback on the situation, including what theywanted to happen to make things right.

An example of this process involved Tony, a student who wasdeliberately defiant with the staff and intentionally disrupted hispeers as they attempted to complete a test, because he had been given apoor grade for failing to complete his homework. As the day went on,Tony’s behavior became more and more uncontrollable. Even after almosttwo hours of counseling with his parents, social workers, therapistsand teachers, Tony continued to engage in dangerous and threateningbehavior until he was taken by ambulance to a hospital to be evaluated.

When he returned to school a few days later, Tony answered theRestorative Questions and checked in with the community. At first heseemed reluctant to check in and was nonchalant about his behavior,accepting only limited responsibility. However, when his peers begananswering the other set of Restorative Questions, relating to how theyhad been harmed, what they had thought about when the incident washappening, what impact it had on them, what had been the hardest thingfor them and what they wanted to happen to make things right, itcreated an emotional outpouring.

Tony’s peers told him how frustrated they were with his behavior andhow embarrassed it had made them. They said they were afraid that theirnon-disabled peers would view them differently because they were in thesame class with Tony, who had been taken away in an ambulance. One boysaid he felt unsafe around Tony because of his behavior and because hewasn’t sure how Tony would react to other situations.

The students’ feedback left an indelible mark on Tony. He listened,then quietly left the circle to sit in a separate area of theclassroom. After a short time, I went to talk to him alone and saw thathe had been crying quietly. He said he hadn’t realized how upset he’dmade his peers and that he was embarrassed by his behavior. He decidedto write a letter to each of his peers, apologizing for how they hadbeen negatively affected. He also made a plan, which was posted on hisdesk and made known to all, about how he would handle his frustrationthe next time he was upset and would seek their help to do the rightthing. This situation allowed the class to grow together as acommunity, be more comfortable expressing their feelings aloud, andhold each other accountable while still being supportive and willing tofix harms that occurred.

The second tool implemented and practiced within “Community, Inc.”was the Compass of Shame. This tool, created by Donald Nathanson,allows people to see shame as a common feeling and to identify theirown negative ways of handling shame by examining the four poles on thecompass: Attack Other, Attack Self, Withdrawal and Avoidance. Weexplored these concepts in the classroom by identifying scenarioswithin popular music videos and songs and discussing how the charactershandled their shame. We also did short role plays demonstrating whateach pole might look like. Soon we encountered a real-life example.

Each eighth-grade student is required to take a variety of classes,including sewing. John had been doing fine in sewing class until theteacher asked him to sweep the floor at the end of class to clean upthe sewing scraps. John adamantly refused, cursing at his teacher.Viewing his reaction as defiance and disrespect, she contacted me, hiscase manager, to deal with it or refer it to the principal. I returnedwith John to the classroom and gave him space to calm down. First wediscussed the Restorative Questions. He then physically processed hisfeelings by standing on his chosen poles of a large Compass of Shame,placed on the floor.

This is the story John told about what had happened: He admitted thathe had been embarrassed to be seen cleaning up after the other kids andsaid he thought they would make fun of him because he came from a verypoor family and didn’t always have clean clothes to wear like they did.Using the Compass of Shame to identify his feelings of embarrassmentand isolation as part of the “umbrella” feeling of shame, John couldsee that, in lashing out verbally at his teacher, he had gone directlyto Attack Other on the Compass. He recognized that this did not solvehis problem but only created more problems for himself. As he continuedto talk through the Restorative Questions, he decided to write a letterof apology to the teacher. In it, he expressed how he felt and tookresponsibility for the inappropriate way he had handled the situation.He read the letter aloud to the teacher and volunteered to help herclean up after school. (I offered to go with John to approach her, buthe wanted to do it on his own.)

The teacher was very receptive when John approached her, telling himhow she had felt when he swore in her classroom and refused to followher directions. She was able to see where he was coming from andaccepted his offer of assistance. John spent almost every day afterschool in her room for the remainder of the semester, cleaning up,setting up the sewing machines and making extra-credit projects to giveto his family and teachers. The open and honest discussion and the useof the two tools allowed John and his teacher to establish a strongerrelationship, built on trust and communication. John not only earned anA+ in the class, but he also created a permanent ally in the teacher.

Throughout the year, other tools and practices were implementedwithin “Community, Inc.” leading to great success and a strong sense ofcommunity and accountability within the classroom. The students were soproud of what they had accomplished that they decided to document theirsuccess by creating a symbol of what was important to them. They workedtogether during study halls to build a handmade wooden puzzlerepresenting their core values and then created a video about what theyhad learned. They debuted this video in the auditorium on a jumboscreen for the administration, teachers, parents and other students. Itwas a remarkable declaration of their success and growth.

Not only were these students’ academic needs met through speciallydesigned instruction and program modifications offered in a specialeducation classroom, but they also learned ways to handle toughsituations and to support each other as a community. They learned aboutaccountability and how their actions have ripple effects on peoplearound them who care about them. Ultimately, I think the most importantthing they learned was that even if they made a mistake, they possessedthe tools to repair any harm. I, too, had now found my own set of toolsto successfully work with these challenging students and help fill inthe gaps in their lives.