Recently, a couple of things happened that made me reflect even more deeply on the state of dialogue in our world. A community member who I have publicly and respectfully disagreed with on Facebook unfriended me. Normally, this wouldn’t feel like such a big deal, but today it makes me wonder; we haven’t even exchanged words on a post for the past several weeks. So, the timing feels off. Then, I happened to be having a conversation with a family member who said he was looking forward to a conversation about the 2nd Amendment hosted by a local business that has been involved with organizing a vigil in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery. The Zoom meeting was scheduled because community members were upset that the business owners asked people, particularly white people, not to bring firearms to an upcoming protest out of deference for the feelings of those who have had traumatic experiences with guns or who find them frightening. I was so proud of them for hosting this conversation. Yet, I know that people decided not to even ask to attend because they couldn’t imagine that they would be heard, they simply chose not to engage, making the conversation less rich and meaningful for those who did participate. I am so disappointed by these missed opportunities and I am tired – so tired I can’t imagine how hard this time is for people of color, how exhausted they must feel from sharing and carrying too much of the weight of educating people who need to do the work for themselves.
It has made me think deeply about the need to help people sit with the discomfort of hard conversations. How do we teach people to do that? How can young people learn these lessons before they become adults so steadfastly resolved to their own points of view that they are uneducable about other people’s experiences? My own son, at 17 avoids hard conversations and I always find myself striking a balance between respecting his boundaries and pushing him to stay with it just a little longer. Yet, I believe that hard conversations and relationships are the only things that can save us.
Since my colleague Angela and I engaged in our Rowland Fellowship and helped our school transform our Advisory model I have come to believe even more strongly that care, empathy, and dialogue are critical in any community setting and our schools are the communities that educators work in most. Daily practice, whether it’s sitting in circles in Advisory, Socratic Seminars in classes, and being exposed to differing perspectives in writing and in our communities helps our students to be more engaged learners who can explore the ways in which they will use their own voices to make an impact in our world. This is not glamorous, quick fix, education work; this is a day to day grind, and it is often not easy, but it can be done.
Advisory is an important cornerstone of our work at RU. Not only is this the place where students connect with an adult who is the liaison between school and family for several years, but it is also a place where the skills of empathy, listening to hear another person’s experiences rather to respond, and being heard are practiced. We worked closely with the Restorative Justice Center at Suffolk University to determine the best ways to lay a foundation for our community through Advisory. We learned about them after a visit to the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter and Public School in Adams, MA. The school had recently implemented an Advisory model and was seeing its impact throughout the building. 8 staff members from Randolph Union visited and witnessed conversations that we wanted our own students to be able to have. Regardless of who their advisor was they were having authentic, sometimes emotional conversations, about grades, family struggles, and their own experiences. Not only were they willing to have these conversations with their classmates, but with total strangers from Vermont in the room. Angela had worked with John Kidde and been exposed to Circle Forward in a restorative justice setting, so we decided to make this the cornerstone of our work.
Part of my work as Advisory Coordinator has been to work with Advisory groups when they struggle. Two years ago a student violated the schools norms related to respect. Using racially charged language he told a “joke.” When it angered his classmates and Advisory mates he suggested one of them should kill themselves. Although the Advisor is a very strong facilitator and had worked with the group for multiple years she admitted she was in over her head when the group said he couldn’t be with them anymore; they were done. And, while I can empathize with the hurt and anger, our job, as educators is to help keep our school community intact. The advisor and I agreed that there should be a cooling off period during which time the student did not work with the advisory. Instead the student worked with a member of our Student Services team who specializes in behavioral support. There, they could process and prepare for restorative meetings that would take place, after he accepted responsibility for his actions.
The advisor ran a few circles with her group, and knew that they were still deeply concerned. They worried that the student would not truly apologize or understand the harm caused. They were tired of explaining how they were impacted by his words, but they also knew that traditional school discipline systems were not effective either. The advisor and I asked them if they would take part in a silent restorative circle. This is a circle pulled directly from the Circle Forward book. They agreed. Students are all given identical paper and pencils, and asked to explain, in a low inference way, what happened, then each question moving forward asks them to share more of what their thoughts and feelings have been since the incident. We collected all of those papers and the advisor and I read them and developed a plan. We learned that there were a variety of thoughts on the situation in the group, from people who knew the student who did the harm well, to those who did not feel like they knew him at all. Some students genuinely missed him while others were still very angry. We decided to take our time and facilitate all of this well. This wasn’t about making nice or prolonging a process just to feel better about it, it was about students knowing that their voices were heard and developing greater understanding of each other.
Over the span of 2 and a half months we were able to carefully scaffold restorative conferences. We also enlisted the help of a school counselor who the student had worked with and trusted. We determined the sequence of events. The first meeting was with the group of students who missed the student’s presence in advisory. This meeting was about re-affirming that the student who offended was a part of the community and that even though things were challenging he was missed and cared for. This allowed him to feel some connection, and it allowed students who he knew and trusted to share their perspective on the events that led to his time away from the group. From there we moved on to a circle with students who had more general concerns about the way communication unfolded and wanted to process with the student who had left the group, before he was able to return. At each of these circles he was able to have one or 2 of the students who supported him with him. In addition to letting all parties be heard and gain greater understanding, we were also building the offending student’s ability to sit through hard conversations and really hear what other people were saying. This was a necessary step before he met with students who have experienced loss through suicide and who were more directly impacted by his words. One of the impacted students chose not to participate, while one of her very close friends did choose to participate. It is important that students are allowed to set their own boundaries and limits. We had one student who had not originally wanted to be a part of the final circle but then decided it was important and asked to join right before the final circle. He was included. We held that final circle in the school counselor’s office, and it was intense. Each student shared their truth and acknowledged each others’. The student who harmed others was able to hear and see the impact his words made. The advisor thankfully planned a lighter activity for the first day that they were all back together and the whole group played basketball, with some of the students who felt they could never accept that student back into their group choosing him for their team.
These skills are challenging for adults, as outlined by Glenn Singleton and Cyndi Hayes, there are four agreements for courageous conversations about race. They are especially necessary for conversations about race, but can be applied in many places when we face challenging conversations today. 1) stay engaged, 2) expect to experience discomfort and settle in with it, 3) speak your truth, and 4) accept a lack of closure. The world is a challenging place full of strife and ugliness but also hopeful signs of people engaging in hard conversations in unprecedented numbers and ways. Fortunately, there are tools and resources available to help us through this process of building a more just future where people feel a sense of belonging and empowerment. We must teach young people how to engage in these conversations and not to shut down or turn away when they get hard. Even when and especially when the adult world does not model this behavior. All of this work does not necessarily make the group into a cohesive unit without struggle, but what it does do is help our students and faculty to understand the utility of staying with hard conversations, listening to one another and growing stronger as a community.
Boyes-Watson, Carolyn, and Kay Pranis. Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community. Living Justice Press, 2015.
Singleton, Glenn E, and Cyndie Hayes. Beginning Courageous Conversations about Race. static1.squarespace.com/static/52abb3efe4b0324b1f628a03/t/54d8e3afe4b02e6a5470cc2a/1423500207157/Courageous+Conversations+-+NEW.pdf.
Lisa Manning Floyd is the Head of Lower Grades at Randolph Union Middle/High School in Randolph, Vermont. She lives in Bethel, Vermont with her husband, son, niece, and two pups (they may be advancing in age but they will always be puppies to her!). Her passions in education are literacy, justice, and community building. Lisa is a Rowland Fellow (2015) focused on developing a cohesive, student centered Advisory program. Her principal’s certification was attained throughthe Upper Valley Educators Institute.