Practitioner Interview – RJ in Schools

Interview by Kris Miner, with elementary school teacher, Catherine Cranston.



KM:  How has training in Restorative Justice Practices made a difference in your classroom?


CC: The biggest change for me has been the change in teacher language.  I now use the words harm, offender, victims, and community members to describe the students in my school and classroom. I talked to students about fixing the harm they have caused instead of breaking the rules. I explain to students how each rule keeps them safe from harm or keeps others safe.  The whole purpose of the rules at school is so everyone can feel safe and learn.  This has changed the way both the students and I look at rules.  For most students school rules are all about rules set up by grown ups for grown ups.  Looking at rules through a restorative lens means recognizing that breaking a rule may cause harm to everyone in the school community or everyone in the classroom.  Rule breakers are offenders and everyone in the classroom can be victims.  This gives misbehavior a context and the students see how their actions affect others in the classroom and others in the school. Misbehavior is a violation of people and relationships. For seven and eight year olds that is quite a new concept, because up until now everything has been all about them.


KM: How has embedding Restorative Practices in your classroom changed your day to day classroom discipline?


CC: The central focus of behaviors is repairing the harm, not punishing the rule breaker.  We spend time and effort on putting things right by asking these questions:  Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?  Rather than focusing on the traditional methods of discipline such as:  What rules have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve?  The Restorative Questions are a new way of looking at discipline.


KM: What would be your advice to other teachers who are interested in implementing Restorative Practices in their classrooms?


CC: I am certainly not an expert by any means.  I can only tell you how it has worked for me.


First, I just took a class on using the circle process and read two books on Restorative Justice.  I must admit that at first I had a hard time thinking of how to apply this whole thing to classrooms or schools. Many of the publications are focused on criminals, prison, or the courts.  “The Little Books” of Restorative Justice were very helpful for me in making that leap from the criminal justice system to the school system.


There was no awareness in my school of what RJ was, although my entire building is a Responsive Classroom School.  I personally see many connections between the Responsive Classroom process and Restorative Practices so when talking about RJ to other teachers I tried to bring Responsive Classroom into the picture as often as possible.  Most teachers in my school were already using fix it sheets and morning meeting circles so that is where I started to make the connection between RC and RJ.


My next step was to talk about the impact the circle process and restorative practices was having in my own classroom.  I didn’t try to talk anyone into doing it…I just talked about how much of a positive impact it was having in my own classroom. 


I spoke to my principal and asked her to sit in on circles both in my classroom and at the Restorative Justice Center.  This gave her a clear picture of the circle process and how it worked in both settings.  She loved the idea and was ready for the next step.  So I approached her about implementing problem solving circles as a school wide program.  I facilitated the school wide circles on Fridays and asked teachers to refer victims, offenders, and community members to the circles.  The power of the Friday Circles and the excitement of the students who participated prompted other classrooms teachers to begin asking me about Restorative Justice.


The next step was when I wrote a grant to a local foundation for funding to support a one day Restorative Justice Training for the staff at my school.  This was a basic overview of Restorative Justice and a first introduction for most of the staff.  Some teachers were very interested and asked me for more resources.


Many teachers began asking more questions about circles.  So my principal asked me to facilitate a circle for a staff meeting to process a problem the school was currently experiencing.  This staff meeting circle was a first RJ/Circle experience for most of the staff in my building.


KM: Now that you are in the second school year of using Restorative Practices are there any changes between year one and year two?


CC: Yes, the biggest change for me is that my class last year was filled with behavioral issues so most of my circles were problem solving.  In addition to that last year I didn’t introduce circles and restorative justice practices until well into the school year.  I wasn’t really able to begin on day one with proactive RJ strategies.  The problem solving circles really gave all parties strong voices.  I received very positive feedback from victims, offenders, and community members in the school (students and staff).


This school year I have been using RJ practices since the first day of school.  I have continued with morning meetings, but have changed the sharing portion of each morning to include a circle sharing where every student speaks.  I have also added a closing circle to end each school day.  Closing circle only lasts for 10-15 minutes but every student gets a chance to share and story tell.  I have found this closing circle serves two major purposes.  First, it gives each student a chance to process verbally the issues from the day.  It has become a proactive way to solve small problems from the day.  It has also provided a forum for discussion of issues that might become problems in the future.  The students are able to bring up topics they “wonder about” or topics they are “worried about”.  Closing circles help the students get ready for learning because they have less to worry or wonder about.


Starting RJ practices from the first day of school has created an incredible sense of belonging and safety for all the students in my classroom.  I just finished Parent-Teacher Conferences last week and received positive feedback from every parent about the circles and how much their children absolutely love school. I invited several parents to participate in the morning circle and they were amazed at the process.  I truly feel the sense of belonging and sense of safety is why the children are excited about being in school.


Thank you Catherine! 

Tip of the Week – emotional climate

When you start to “keep” Circles, there are many skills to develop.  In trainings I often tell learners “nobody gets to be a blackbelt overnight”.  I am trying to convey that like all new skills, you’ll need practice!  I also try to convey that we should always keep learning.

So once you’ve have an understanding about the basic philosophy and premise of a Circle, and you’re aware of the the four phases, you can start to practice.  You can practice your circlekeeper skills without even being in a Circle!  For example, “imaginary talking piece” – next time you are in a conversation, imagine the other person has a talking piece.  Center your mind and body to be fully aware and present.  Just thinking this will help, it only takes a second.  Focus on just being there to listen to other person.  Hold any questions, comments or thoughts, wait for the other person to finish completely.  I’ve given this assignment out and heard the next day, very positive and surprised responses.

Here’s another skill important to Circlekeeping – monitoring the emotional climate.  You can practice this skill at the same time as imaginary talking piece.  It simply means developing an internal meter.  Making sure that people are feeling the appropriate level for the Circle stage you are in.  There is no right or wrong, monitoring the climate helps you know when to move in between stages.  Keep in mind that a particular stage may have an emotion that is strong.

The goal is not to control or direct the emotional climate, but to be aware of it.  The relationships building stage, may have tears as people tell stories.  You as the keeper may even tear up or cry.  The emotions are part of the process.  RJ and Circles recognize that humans are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual so it’s important to have those pieces in a Circle.

I’ll even use emotional climate, as a means for Circle discussion.  I’ll have people share a one word response about all the stories.  If we’ve had a deeply emotional round, then I have a transitional round or even a light hearted round.  I make sure it’s not trying to rescue or leave strong emotions.  If I’m facilitating a RJ process, I don’t put in a lighthearted round.  I guess it’s hard to say, because no two circles are the same.

By being aware of emotional climate, you’ll get a better sense of what kinds of questions to use.  Monitoring emotional climate helps you as a keeper, understand the experience of a Circlekeeper.  I am a firm believer in Emotional IQ and the work of Daniel Golman.  Practicing your skills at emotional climate will help!

Peace – Kris

Teaching Teachers to Circle – embedding RJ philosophy

SCVRJP began with the goal of “embedding the philosophy” of Restorative Justice.  I have our board chair and local senate cadidate Alison Page, for holding true to that.  She reminded us often of this goal, and I balanced it with providing direct service.

We’ve learned valuable lesson along the way in promoting and implementing RJ in schools.  Minnesota has approximately 32% or schools using RJ.  They funded grants from 2001-2003 and provided staff positions and learned that when the grant ended the position ended.  That’s part of grant funds reality – typically you get three years.  With over a decade of human services experience, it happens time and time again that a great program comes and goes based on funding.

So I teach people to fish.  The old cliche . . . “take a man fishing you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

July 23 email (refrencing assigments because she took the class for 1 credit from St. Mary’s University).  I really have to thank North St. Paul District 622, they provided teachers a stipend for coming to the training.:
Hi Kris,
Thank you for a wonderful two-day training this week on using Restorative Justice in Classroom Circles. I really learned a lot and am very excited to use this in my classroom and with our staff at Cowern.
Attached is my introduction to circles and my talking piece, as well as an action plan for how I hope to use circles with my staff. I think you mentioned that this would work for the two-credit option, followed by a reflection when I do my first circle. I really do also hope to get out to see some of your circles as a community member.
Please let me know if there is anything else you need for the class requirements.
Thank you again for being such an inspiration. I also had the privilege of doing small circle yesterday with your dad, and he is an inspiration as well.
Best Regards,
Then I got this email on September 28:
Hi Kris,
I took your Circles class through ISD622 this summer, and I just wanted to let you know that i have been using Circles in my classroom with my 4th and 5th graders, and I am amazed at the respect they show one another during that time. It is truly a scared, special time that we share and I want to thank you for introducing me to it.

It’s been a learning experience for me as a trainer.  I have to thank Catherine my co-worker for tips on teaching teachers.  I also used the Ten Minute Trainer and Beyond Icebreakers as solid resources to help me develop an effective training curriculum.  I love training, please keep me in mind if you need someone to bring RJ or Circle to your school or community.

Happy Fishing!


Guest Post – Catherine, 3rd Grade teacher

Catherine posted this story as a comment and I am moving it to a post.

Peace – Kris


Here is my circle story of the day. I teach 2nd grade in an urban Minnesota school. I open each school day with a circle (Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting Circle) and end each day with a Closing Circle (15 minutes). The Closing Circle provides a chance for students (and me) to process what went well during the day, and what maybe didn’t go so well. It also gets my students ready for learning the next day. To my surprise the Closing Circle has also been a powerful proactive tool for solving small problems before they become a classroom disruption or become a distraction to student learning.

I asked the question, “What is something that didn’t go so well today?” When passing the talking piece one little boy responded, “Well, reading buddies didn’t go very well for me today, because I didn’t get to take my turn reading. My reading buddy didn’t listen to me read because she was busy coloring her own story instead. So that really made me feel bad about reading buddies today.”

Everyone in the circle knew who his reading buddy was because the buddies are assigned and stay the same for the entire month. Needless to say, everyone in the circle looked directly at the young girl (Sarah) who was obviously the offending buddy. The boy then passed the talking piece to his neighbor who said, “Wow, Kelly (not real name) that must have really hurt your feelings. I am sorry for you.” The talking piece continued around the circle with children making comments back to Kelly about how they felt about his missing his turn to read. When the talking piece came to the Sarah”offender/buddy” she just looked wide eyed at Kelly and said, “But I just wanted to color. I didn’t know he would feel bad.” Then she passed the talking piece.

When the round ended I took back the talking piece and said, “Well, it looks like we have a problem to fix. How can we make Kelly feel better? Let’s pass the talking piece and see if we can help Kelly and Sarah fix this problem.”

A little girl started the talking piece with this statement, “I think that Sarah needs to say sorry to Kelly.” The talking piece continued around the circle with each student making suggestions such as, “Sarah needs to tell Kelly she won’t do that again.” “Sarah can make sure that next reading buddies she gives Kelly a really long turn.” Etc.

By the time the talking piece got to Sarah she was looking like a deer with headlights shining in her face. She looked at everyone and said, “I guess I better give Kelly his turn from now on so I don’t hurt his feelings. Sorry, Kelly.”

This was an amazing process because Sarah at age 7 had no idea that her actions had hurt Kelly. She is an average 7 year old who is still “all about herself”. Empathy has not developed within her yet. It never occured to her that someone else might not appreciate her actions. She was not being mean…it just hadn’t occured to her. It was very obvious that her peers holding her accountable made the difference for her and helped her understand what she had done and why it was important that she promised not to do it again.

Prior to using circles I would have taken Sarah out into the hallway and had a private respectful conversation about hurting people’s feelings. She is a nice girl and would have nodded and gone back into the room without really understanding or internalizing anything new. In the circle process her peers and the victim helped Sarah to internalize her actions and develop empathy. It was a raw experience and very eye opening for me. In the past I have used circles for problem solving but now with the daily closing circle a new process is developing….pro active problem solving of small issues before they become major issues.

I am looking forward to more experiences of this nature. And with 7 year olds…nothing surprises me anymore!

Circles in my week

Here is a review of Circles that I held this week and a few of the outcomes.   I hope that you can pick up some tips or see the power of using this process.  Post an example of your own Circle!

College Class Circle – I have 19 students in my UWRF Class – Introduction to Restorative Justice Class.  This was our 2nd class meeting.  The students had the desks arranged when I arrived.  I unpacked my talking pieces for the Center and brought the plates with values written on them (from the week before).  These plates will be brought out at the start of every class.  We started the class by handing around the plates, and then stating the value and placing the plate in the center.  One of the class assigments is to bring a reading for an opening and closing.  A student selected the MN Public Radio Story “Finding Justice in a Tragic End”.  The story set a really great tone for the Circle, especially with todays topic on the history of restorative justice.  We did a round on how you saw the value you placed in action this week.  Most students were able to formulate a story and I could tell our circle was still “getting acquainted”.  I mentioned some general class related housekeeping items.  I have a “Memory” game that I made.  I put either a date, a person or a place on a set of two paper plates.  So two plates with the same word or date.  I mix them all up and place them in the middle face down and we go around the Circle, taking turns and matching pairs.  It gets the students used to getting up and going to the middle of the Circle, and once you have your “pair” you can sit out of the game.  It is a good ice breaker.  Once all the pairs are picked up (and I keep my pairs to the number of students), we pass the talking piece around and reflect on playing the game.  It’s a safe topic and gets the students used to a self reflection.  There is typically some humor as people share the anxieties.  I then reviewed a photo laden powerpoint, highlighting the dates, the places and the names on the plates.  Our last round of the Circle (for that day) was on what students took from today’s class. 

2nd Grade Circle – I visited a 2nd grade, end of the day Circle.  My co-worker Catherine teaches and utilizes Responsive Classroom and Restorative Justice Circles as part of classroom management and teaching tools.  The children gathered and made a Circle shape easily and quickly (given it was the 3rd week of school).  The Circle guidelines were posted nearby and students started the Circle by responding which guideline they were going work on.  The guidelines included: listening with quite hands and feet, looking at the speaker, etc.  Catherine might do a post for us.  Catherine introduced her guests and then did a round on what students thought was important for guests to know.  I learned who liked to play outside, or with X-box.  We did another round on what the students favorits subject were.  Catherine then closed down the Circle asking students what they were wondering about.  This allowed students to express something they were curious or worried about.  Catherine was able to address these at the end of the Circle.  You could sense relief or a calm, as the students were prepared for the next day at school. 

Victim Offender Conferencing Training – Circle – SCVRJP hosted a volunteer training this week, we held the first session classroom style, and the second session in Circle.  The volunteers wanted to see me role model and holding a Circle was a good way for me to do that.  I briefly explained the process and read an opening, we did values on plates, committed to the values and answered the question: “if you were a flavor of ice cream what would you be?”.  The participants were really open and had explanations to why they selected a particular ice cream.  The first speaker was one of our most experienced volunteers and someone who really respects Circle.  That helped the new college students, in their first Circle see how sharing and listening work for everyone.  We really enjoyed that round because the answers had so much explanation.  We heard from our experienced volunteer, as he reviewed cases and answered questions.  We reviewed more information on handouts.  At the end of the Circle, volunteers wanted to meet again for another training session so we scheduled that.  I was really touched that people were willing to give more time.  We had one member tell us she was holding her first circle the very next day.  When we closed the Circle some of the college students shared how much they enjoyed the time being able to share.  The students were really excited to be part of RJ.  One young person said that the two hours already transformed how she viewed herself in relation to others.  It was a very positive experience, for all of us.

Victim Empathy Seminar – In situations where a victim offender conference is not possible we have an alternative program to teach empathy.  We use the Circle process and a surrogate victim.  Storytelling, accountability and healing are part of this process.  The Circle today had 3 male offenders, a mom and daughter (daughter was referred), and two community members/volunteers.  We did not have a speaker today so I showed a video tape of our local “Recovery Month” panel discussion.  This was taped at our local Public Access Channel.  Due to confidentiality I can’t go into identifying details.  It was a really nice Circle with positive comments at the end.  I felt really good about taking my Saturday to work (I didn’t go into it with such a postive attitude).

Another Circle training was lined up this week – having a group of students from our local alternative school be trained in the process.  This will be the third year in a row of doing this.  The students grow so much and it’s really rewarding.  I then have this group help me lead other circles in our community.  We have 2 or 3 church groups/confirmation classes already scheduling a visit from us. 

It was a good week!  Next week starts with two Circles on Monday, a drivers ed Circle in the morning and UWRF Class Monday afternoon!