TNCS Brings It Full Circle with Restorative Practices!

There’s a trend emerging in U.S. schools currently, including here in Baltimore and surrounding counties, to improve school culture by fostering healthy interpersonal and intrapersonal dialogue instead of by using the more traditional punitive approach to deal with problems. Restorative practices (RP) gives students concrete tools with which to resolve conflicts with others as well as internal conflicts that might be preventing a given student from realizing his or her potential. RP, thus, “restores” both the community and the individual to wholeness.

Although RP is sometimes associated with schools in crisis or as a last-resort way to redirect students otherwise headed for the criminal justice system, it is more accurately applied much more broadly. RP is useful in any social setting because its primary goal is to promote relationships.

Restorative Practices at TNCS

That’s why The New Century School‘s Head of School Alicia Danyali has begun using RP at TNCS. “Restorative practices has been my focus for the whole year,” she said, “because I think it’s beneficial for any relationship. It has been around for about 30 years as a reaction to chronic poor student behavior. Although we do not have that problem at TNCS, I am very interested in giving TNCS students this tool to take ownership of their words and actions—that’s where the ‘restorative’ comes in.”

IMG_2283During the 2016–2017 school year, Ms. Danyali attended three professional development sessions with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) to ultimately become a “Trainer of Trainers,” meaning that she is now certified to teach TNCS staff (or anyone else) how to implement RP within their classrooms. She also attended sessions in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Development (CD) at the University of MD, put on by like-minded educators from Rutgers’ School of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Development (CD) in Schools and After-School Programs. She became familiar with RP through her colleague Barbara Sugarman Grochal, Director of School Conflict Resolution Education Programs, Center for Dispute Resolution at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Said Ms. Danyali:

I’m a longtime believer in restorative practices in education as well as private industries. I read the books; it was life-changing. Hearing [Ms. Grochal] speak is the reason I got so interested in restorative practices. It fits with so many of the other things I was interested in like mindfulness and strong, supportive emotional and social character development. These disciplines all send a similar message but use different tools and strategies to effect their outcomes.

She even brought Ms. Grochal to TNCS as an independent consultant to talk about RP to staff during TNCS’s first professional development day back in October. They learned about the RP ethos and got a “crash course” on how to use RP strategies. Since then, Ms. Danyali has undertaken subsequent trainings, working in small groups as needs are identified to present possible activities that teachers can use. She sometimes works within the classroom herself and other times models an approach for the classroom teacher to start from. Her goal is to have everyone ready to use RP as needed for the next school year as part of an overall increased emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL):

What can teachers do to keep this message of teaching the whole child going? We want our children to be emotionally competent. They are facing things that previous generations haven’t necessarily had to deal with socially. They don’t have that much face-to-face contact, and I think that’s a component that’s missing, to ensure accountability. We live in a society where everybody has a platform to speak their mind. I also want students to know that if they send a message for example on SnapChat airing a certain opinion, they still need to take accountability for that. There is a unifying theme to all of these things I’ve been exploring that I hope will support teaching the whole student. I professionally see equal value in SE/CD for student growth as in the academic portion.

A facet of the “trial run” she has been doing lately is in figuring out how to implement RP in age-appropriate ways. “The research shows that you can plant these seeds very young.” said Ms. Danyali, “If we plant conflict resolution tools even in students as young as age 2, those are not only part of our pillars of what makes a TNCS learner—compassion, courage, service, and respect—but also vital skills that they can use to navigate challenging times in their lives. We’re currently working out how to make it age-appropriate and differentiated, such as with how much time is needed among the various age groups.” Sixth-graders can handle lengthy discussions, but 2-year-olds need a modified approach, such as gauging the pulse of the class during the morning meeting and modeling empathy.

Restorative Practices in the Classroom

Exactly how RP works in application comes down to one essential premise: that we are not responsible for anyone else’s thoughts or feelings, but we can work as a community to raise up a community member in need of support. “We all come from our own personal stories, we take a lot of baggage, but restorative practices reminds us that we’re conditioned to react in a certain way to what goes on around us, while allowing the facts to evolve without the emotion. You may have experienced trauma in one of any number of forms, but that doesn’t excuse treating other people badly. Taking accountability, repairing–it can be as simple as something that happened on the playground when unkind words were used,” explained Ms. Danyali.

Thus, RP can undo the negative stories students might be telling themselves. “It makes us more aware that ‘I’m not only responsible for myself, but when I’m in a community setting, there’s an expectation of how I treat others’,” she said.

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To reinforce the concept of community, RP generally happens in a circle formation. Circles convey inclusion and equality. Said Ms. Danyali:

Circling is probably my favorite tool among the arsenal because you can see everybody. Everybody is exposed, and everybody’s voice is heard. It forces the issue of really listening to others and reminds us that everybody’s voice is important. There are so many valuable concepts that go along with this, and a lot of it is intuitive, but the most important part to me is that there is trust. What we say here in our community is okay, because we care about our community and everyone in it. Restorative speaks to working with students instead of doing something for them or even to them. I’d rather do with because when we’re working together toward the same goal, we’re making real progress. There’s also the sense that my teacher trusts me, or I’m not just here to please others.

For the last quarter of the school year, Ms. Danyali has been regularly visiting elementary classrooms and circling the students for discussions on a wide range of topics and with varying goals. For example, Señora Cabrera felt that the 2nd- and 3rd-graders were not focusing as the end of the year draws near, and in-class work was not getting completed. She was having to constantly redirect them and ask them to refocus. “RP allows you to be transparent about your goals,” said Ms. Danyali. “I told the class what Sra. Cabrera had observed about their high energy and said to them, ‘I just wanted to come around and check in with you. This is your community. Let’s sit in a circle and talk about it’.” This led to a discussion of “norms”; just as norms would be set in the workplace, they also need to be set in an academic environment.

So I said to them, ‘I know you set classroom rules at the beginning of the year—why aren’t they being followed? We’re going to revisit those rules now. I think you know what they are, but we’re going to talk about what our expectations are in a respectful environment, and that’s called norms.’ Everybody gave suggestions and I wrote them down verbatim on a big chart. The next day I followed up with another circle and brought the norms list to take another look at and provide feedback about what we had created now that they had some time to mull it over. There’s always a reflection piece to restorative practices. ‘Never be disrespectful to your peers or to your teachers.’ I asked how they felt about this–does anybody disagree with anything or want to add something? One student replied that she felt the word ‘never’ was too strong. ‘None of us are perfect, and sometimes we mess up. I worry about the consequence if I mess up. And I don’t want to let down my community.’ I thought that was so deep and reflective and accountable. It turns out that everyone wanted to change the wording, so we agreed on new verbiage and we moved on!

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That example embodies how RP works, but, as mentioned, it has wide-reaching applications. She also circled the 4th- through 6th-graders recently to get their feedback and thoughts on how they felt taking the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE®) on an informal basis as well as what they were anticipating during their upcoming overnight trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School.

See those circle sessions here!

Ms. Danyali explains her approach to circling this way:

I set a lot of boundaries to keep things brief and above all respectful. I gauge the attention span and where we are in the day. Something I’ve been using regularly in circles during class time is the ‘talking piece.’ As a teacher, it’s a valuable tool to get feedback and to, for example, rein in some of the excess energy during hard transitions like playground to classroom. In 60 seconds, you can get everybody on the same page—all right everyone, what are your goals for the afternoon, pass the talking piece and let each student speak briefly, and it resets the stage. You’ve said what you’re going to be accountable for, and you go off and do it. I end with community-building questions: ‘Who found out something new about a classmate? Who found they have something in common with someone else that they didn’t know before?’

To respond to challenging behavior, restorative questions might include:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • What have you though about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

To help those harmed by other’s actions, restorative questions might include:

  • What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  • What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

 

Ms. Danyali wrapped up the RP discussion by saying, “I’m not doing this because I feel that our students are headed down the wrong paths but to remind them of what we have to be grateful for. In general, I believe that we have to combine best practices from a variety of sources. There’s so much invisible curriculum in this school already of tolerance and of understanding and cultural understanding—wouldn’t it be nice if we had a really deep understanding of ourselves and be okay with owning up to it when we make mistakes? The main thing I want our community here to understand is that RP is a mindset of coaching.”

Meet Sakina Ligon: TNCS’s New Parent Council Head

The New Century School community had been moving toward establishing a Parent Council for a couple of years. Originally suggested during a TNCS Town Hall meeting, the Parent Council came together as a formal organization during the 2015–2016 school year. Since that time, the Parent Council has continued to develop its identity and hone its mission. A clear distinction is being made, for example, between Classroom Parents, who will act as communication conduits between teachers and parents, and Parent Council members who serve on a broader team in support of the school at large.

With the advent of the 2016–2017 school year, the Parent Council welcomed its new head, Sakina Ligon, who brings loads of both professional and personal experience to bear in her new position. Accepting the role, she said, allows her to get involved in a very direct way in her daughter’s first year at TNCS.

Brief Bio

Sakina Ligon is the Assistant Director of Student Life and an adjunct instructor with the Community College of Baltimore County. Having earned an M.S. in Higher Education Administration from Baruch College—The City University of New York, Ms. Ligon’s professional interests focus on student development and equitable access for all students.

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Sakina Ligon, Head of TNCS Parent Council (among many other things!)

In this capacity, she also serves as secretary for the National Council on Student Development and co-chair for the 2016 National Council on Student Development Conference, is a member of the Maryland Community College Association Directors Association, and serves as a mentor for Sister’s Circle™, a local non-profit dedicated to “[empowering] at-risk girls to define success for themselves, make intentional decisions about their futures, and become self-sufficient young women.”

Parent Council Goals and Initiatives

With Ms. Ligon now at the helm, the Parent Council has formalized its mission as well as specific goals for the 2016–2017 school year. They are committed to assisting the TNCS community with enriching the children’s experience by continuing to offer opportunities for their exploration, learning, and development. Their mission is:

  • To foster communication between all constituencies
  • To provide support to the teachers and administration
  • To assist with fundraising initiatives
  • To coordinate special school events to help enrich each student experience as well as subsidize the overall cost of the co-curricular experience

In support of these goals, so far this year the Parent Council has launched a LabelDaddy campaign that has not only at least temporarily retired the Lost & Found bin (because student belongings are clearly labeled—use promo code TNCS!), but also raises funds for the school, as well as the Harris Teeter fundraiser, Together in Education (TNCS can now earn a percentage of each purchase when TNCS families link their VIC cards and shop Harris Teeter brands using TNCS Code 3528).

Ms. Ligon says that an ancillary goal she hopes to pursue relates back to a TNCS Core Value—service. “We want to work on giving back not just to the school but also to the community in general,” she said. This involves both community events as well as service projects. Such initiatives the council will help the TNCS community tackle throughout this year are as follows.

  • Family Dance Night with the Charles Street Fiddlers on November 5th to support the second annual upper elementary trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School (read about last year’s here). See our Facebook event for more information: Family Dance Night.
  • Teacher Appreciation will take place during American Education Week (November 14th through 18th), with the theme that teachers are our real-life superheroes. Parent volunteers will be asked to help out on a teachers’ luncheon, and students will decorate the school and make goodie bags.
  • Project Linus: Provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets and afghans, lovingly created by volunteer “blanketeers.” Our blanketeers will be TNCS 3rd- through 6th-graders, collaborating on the “No-Sew Fleece Blanket” shown below.tncs-parent-council-initiative
  • Random Acts of Kindness: This initiative will target service from TNCS’s younger students and involves decorating bags and filling them with items that might brighten someone’s day.
  • Rice: “Most cultures use rice, and they each have particular ways to prepare and eat it,” said Ms. Ligon. So, during Sprit Week in February, the last day of the week will be a cultural day and could serve as a potluck, highlighting rice. Details to come!

In these ways, the new Parent Council adopts a three-pronged approach to much-needed school initiatives: fundraising, community events, and service. In closing, Ms. Ligon very rightly reminds us to stay involved. “I hope everyone will embrace the Parent Council. I’m happy to help out wherever I can, but it’s more than me—it has to be a collective effort,” she said. That collective effort will provide all manner of assistance to the school and to our local community. Importantly, it will also model community-oriented behavior for our kids, helping them to develop into the citizens this world needs.

TNCS Upper Elementary Bond in the Great Outdoors!

Last month, The New Century School 4th- and 5th-grade students went on an overnight field trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School, in Warton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Chaperoned by teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal, girls bunked together in a cabin, and boys bunked together in a separate cabin. “I did this trip when I was in Middle School,” said Ms. Stasch, who initiated the excursion, “and it was a fantastic bonding experience.”

Echo Hill Outdoor School’s mission is “to provide students with positive experiences in the outdoors that are exciting, interesting, and fun. Through [their] programs, students learn more about the wonders of nature, the value of history, and the diversity of individual qualities. [They] are dedicated to creating a safe and supportive environment for students to feel challenged and successful with the freedom to think, question, and express themselves.”

Ms. Stasch explains that of the many different kids of curricula EHOS offers, team-building was what she wanted to focus on to tie in with what they had been doing in class to strengthen their ability to work together. There’s also an adventure course with ziplining and other activities, bonfires, hikes, etc. TNCS students would have loved to stay longer and participate in some of those activities, but they managed to fit a lot in even with their short stay. Their first day started with a basic team-building activity, in which they each had to get to a platform opposite where they were standing without crossing a line drawn on the ground—the “hot lava.” Their means of conveyance was a 5-foot rope, but the rope hung over the platform, meaning that they first had to figure out how to obtain the rope. They eventually arrived at the solution of tying their shirts and jackets together in a long line and sort of lassoing the rope in their direction.

“They found this very challenging at first and were expressing negativity about their ability to see this through, but once they pulled together, it was really great to see them come up with a successful solution,” said Ms. Stasch. Each then caught the rope and swung across to the platform, which was part two of the challenge. They all had to assemble on the small square platform without falling into the “lava,” which meant catching each other and helping each other steadily dismount onto it. This got harder and harder as more students reached their goal and space inversely decreased. It’s not only a great solution, using what materials they had at hand, but it also demonstrated their collective efficacy when working as a unit. “No one fell in the lava, joked Ms. Stasch. “At this point in the exercise, they were working very well together and encouraging each other. It was a flip-flop from the beginning of the challenge when they were having difficulty working together. When they figured it all out, there was this sudden switch, which is exactly what we wanted to see with this group, and this great collaborative spirit has continued back at school.”

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Another fun exercise they did was to practice echolocation in which one blindfolded student pretended to be a bat in search of food. This was pretty much a dry version of that pinnacle of pool games, Marco Polo. “Food” in the form of the other students, formed a circle and clapped to indicate their whereabouts for the hungry bat, who had to tag his prey to be successful.

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Their next activity was a night hike, and they loved that. The teachers let their students embark on that activity with the staff alone so they could feel as far removed from school as possible and really embrace the environment they were in. They heard owls and other wildlife.

The next day started with canoeing, another activity that requires a certain degree of cooperation in order to be able to move across the water purposefully. This was their “survival day,” which also included building a fire and experimenting with what material burned best, what building technique to use (e.g. “log cabin” style versus “tent style”), and what could be done to make the fire stronger. It took TNCS students a bit longer than usual due to the long stretch of rain that bookended their trip and dampened the kindling, but under normal circumstances, Echo Hill campers would also build a shelter from wood found on the beach. Nevertheless, this was nearly unanimously voted to be the best activity. They even used the ash to decorate their faces afterward in a show of . . . tribal solidarity? Creative expression? Plain old outdoor fun? (Probably all three.)

For dining, they mingled with other non-TNCS campers and tried to meet someone new at each meal. They also minded their intake very carefully so as to prevent unnecessary food waste. “They loved the food, but took only what amount they were certain they could eat. If they were still hungry, they could get more.” At the end of each meal, plate scrapings went in a slop bucket, which was then weighed—the goal being to reduce the weight of the bucket contents. “They were constantly aware of the bucket and their desire to keep it light, which was a nice reminder of food waste.”

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“I wanted to do this trip,” said Ms. Stasch:

because I knew we’d all get to see each other in a different setting. It was a lot of fun. We all hope to do a longer trip—more than just a night—next year. The staff were amazing. They were so well trained, and every activity was so well planned out and so well structured. The students were really enthusiastic and happy that we had gone. Overall, it was a great experience, and I’d like to take them again. They reflected verbally afterward on how important collaboration is. Some students were starting to ‘check out’ out of frustration in the beginning, but when they came back and worked together, they saw that that’s when it all comes together. We had some good discussion on that theme. It was a good age to be away from home for a night. They’ve grown and matured a lot this year, and hopefully they will internalize what they learned about collaboration from Echo Hill and can take it with them in their future endeavors.

Mr. McGonigal agreed: It was really great—a cool trip. We got to see the kids outside their element from a different perspective, and we could see the kids really working together. At first there were a couple of kids who were apprehensive about joining in, but by the end of the trip, everyone was into it and having a great time.”