“This doesn’t look like any detention I ever seen!” Marcus says about the ring of chairs I’ve set up for our school’s daily in-school detention.
I welcome him to the group and ask him to take a seat.
“Welcome,” I say, “I am so happy that I get to work with you today. Today we will be discussing some topics, but really it’s an opportunity to practice our personal and social skills — skills that help us become successful in life!”
As a restorative justice (RJ) facilitator at a high school in the Bronx, the staff and I had the job of creating a detention program that would help reduce the need for out-of-school suspensions. The goal is to help so-called “at-risk” students identify and explore their intense emotions and challenging circumstances.
Rather than the “traditional” style of detention, which seems simply punitive, with students sitting in rows in silence for an hour, I decided to apply my passion for social emotional learning to reimagine what a constructive/instructive detention might encompass.
My approach starts with acknowledging the students as amazing, young works-in-progress, suggesting that they see their mistakes as rich opportunities for introspection and growth, rather than as signs of flawed character. The rapper Tupac Shakur wisely points out that “roses grown in concrete” will undoubtedly bloom with bruised and damaged petals. Rather than focus on student flaws, however, I encourage them to celebrate their tenacity and ability to grow in the harsh conditions that many large cities provide.
“Marcus,” I ask, “since you are new to the group today, please read the Fab 5 of Good Discussions posted on the wall.” Marcus looks at the large colorful poster and reads: 1) Be kind / Be respectful; 2) Participate; 3) Ask good questions; 4) One voice at a time; 5) Don’t hog the mic.
“Thanks, Marcus, that was well done. These will be the skills that we will practice today. Attempt to use these skills in the classroom to become more successful in learning and in interacting with your teachers and peers. If you follow these simple rules, you will rock it like I know you all can.
“So here’s the deal, this is the item we will use as our 'talking piece' — this old wooden spool that I have used for years. This object will help us practice. Anyone may speak when holding this. When you are not holding it, you have to use self-control to listen and not to interrupt. Why might this be hard sometimes?”
“Someone could say something mad stupid and you would want to yell at them or hit them,” says a student, raising his hand.
“Exactly! Thank you, Junior. It can be hard not to yell out or lash out when someone says something you don’t agree with or that makes you angry. So let’s give it a try. We are going to start with a simple but proven exercise. I am going to pass this “talking piece” around, and each person will say only their name, then pass it respectfully to their left.”
Sometimes this works perfectly, and I ask students to reflect on what went well; what were their observations/thoughts. Many times, the opportunity to show off is too great; someone in the circle will break the protocol. For instance, instead of saying their name, they will make a farting sound just to get a laugh, or they may make a rude comment about a peer’s name.
Rather than get upset at this, I smile and try to say something like, “This was a great example of how difficult this activity can be. It can be uncomfortable to sit like this. Some people can handle feeling uncomfortable; other people react to it by making jokes or getting angry. That’s why we are here — to support each other, to practice ... to grow.”
Sometimes a rude comment made can lead to a back-and-forth argument in the group. This is another great learning moment.
I may ask, “Can someone tell me what happened after Sarah made that comment to Isiah just now?”
“Isiah got angry and swore at her,” commented Junior. “Then she got mad back and they started yelling at each other.”
“Exactly! Junior, that is such a good example of how one comment, made out of turn and in a hurtful way, can cause a whole chain-reaction of destructive behavior. We all have seen how simple things like this can escalate into full-blown fights.”
This is not a blind assumption. The school population during the 2015-16 school year was approximately 430 students, with more than 300 RJ referrals to the dean’s office for behavioral problems. Our school has seen more physical fights than I can count, a fact that dismays me and concerns the administration and the community. We have also dealt with everything from the cutting of classes and long-term absences to drug sales and use, bullying, sexual activity and weapons use and possession.
The restorative justice approach means that we try to mediate, hold Fairness Councils (community circles to address harm), and craft creative RJ contracts, including community service projects, and connecting families with social services to address the above violations. Unfortunately, we have had to apply out-of-school suspensions for the most severe violations.
However, I am proud to report that this is usually used as a last resort and only in extreme cases. I see the RJ after-school detention model as a powerful buffer, working with troubled students and trying to help them develop the personal and social skills they need to remain in school and to deal with life circumstances.
“OK!” I say. “I’ve given some of you cards with questions on them. Rather than me asking all the questions, I want to give you a chance to practice number 2 of the Fab 5 — asking good questions. Isiah, will you ask your question?”
“All right,” Isaiah begins, “it says if you were a parent, how would you feel if your child was like you?”
Several of the students giggle; I remind them to hold their thoughts and comments until they have the talking piece. One girl confesses, “I’d feel mad and disrespected. I’m crazy. I’d wanna beat my ass.”
She passed the talking piece and the next girl says, “Yeah, I agree, because I’m not always doing what I should be doing. But I’d also try to be understanding. Like my mom, she just straight yells at me; she doesn’t, like, ask me how I’m doing or why I did what I did.”
The point of the circle is not to give advice. I am there just to listen and ask good questions like everyone else. The productive and fulfilling aspect is that I can “hear” my students thinking out loud about their life and their actions. Usually, I will freestyle the next question based on their responses. In this case I might ask, “OK, so a lot of you admit that you are often making some bad choices, but that you know your families want good things for you. So, my question is: Why is it so hard to do the right things in life?”
Then the talking piece is passed around again. If the topic seems to lose their attention, I’ll ask another student to read from their card or to create their own question for the group. I am constantly thanking students for their thoughtful questions and responses, pointing out the courage it takes to share their thoughts and feelings so publicly, and using any outbursts as opportunities for learning.
Naturally, students often will want to discuss how and why they’ve become part of this unfamiliar after-school detention. If the mood is right, we will pass the talking piece and share what brought us here.
Usually, at least one person in the group will be upset, sometimes justifiably so, and they may share angrily, “I was in class and the teacher told me to stop talking. But I wasn’t even talking! So, I cursed him out and walked out of the class. Then he gave me detention! Can you believe that shit. I hate that bitch!”
It’s opportune that I don’t need to know whether the teacher was right or wrong about the behavior, because the student’s response was absolutely unacceptable. We focus on that. I never argue that a student shouldn’t be angry. We all get angry sometimes; it’s just how we deal with and express our anger.
First, I’ll correct the language that students use as they share in the group. I might say, “Thank you, Simon, I can see how upset this made you, and I appreciate your sharing. Now, before we discuss what happened, let’s look back at the Fab 5 poster. Number 1 says to Be kind / Be respectful. Simon was really mad at his teacher today. Instead of calling him a b-word, which is not kind or respectful, how could he have let us know how mad he was without using words that could get him in trouble?” Students are often very helpful in coaching each other; a few hesitant hands go up. “Yes, Sarah, what could Simon have said?”
“He could have just said that it was mad rude the way he came at him for no reason,”
“Awesome! I totally agree. If Simon had just told us that he felt that his teacher was wrong and rude, that would have made his point without breaking any of the rules of the circle and the school. Once you start cursing, most people get angry with you; most people stop listening.”
“Now,” I say to the group, “Let’s analyze and discuss what happened to Simon: The teacher tells him to stop talking, he feels like the teacher is wrong. What might he have done instead of cursing out the teacher in front of the whole class and getting detention?”
I am not explicitly telling him that what he did was “bad,” I am pointing out that there were other options, other actions that would have had different results. Results that he may actually have preferred.
A student in the circle offers, “Maybe he could have gone up to the teacher at the end of class and explained that it wasn’t him talking, and let him know that he felt disrespected by that?”
“Fantastic! I was thinking the same thing,” I say. “I bet the teacher might even have apologized, if he felt he had made the mistake, and he would have respected Simon for approaching him like an adult.”
Simon shakes his head, “But that’s hard. How am I supposed just to sit there for the whole class after that happened?”
“Simon makes a great point. It would be very uncomfortable for him to sit there, waiting until the end of class to have that talk,” I admit. “It would be hard, and it would take a lot of self-control, right? But, I bet it’s not impossible. I bet if I paid Simon a thousand dollars to sit and wait until the end of class, he could do it,” I say with a smile. Simon and the others laugh. They get my point.
“So, that would be hard, sitting in this circle is kind of hard; it’s a bit uncomfortable. But sometimes we do hard things in life to get something we want. It might be worth waiting to the end of that class to avoid all that anger and a detention.”
I continue, “What is another hard or uncomfortable thing you do in life to get something you want? Sometimes when I’m at the gym, I just want to go home and eat cookies instead, but I want to be in great shape, so I keep exercising.” The talking piece is passed around the circle, and students share things, such as:
“I go to basketball practice in the morning, because I want to make it to the NBA.”
“I babysit my little brother to help out my mom.”
“Coming to school. I want to graduate, but some days it’s hard to get out of bed.”
I comment, “Wow, guys, these are really great examples. I think Simon can see how sometimes doing something a bit hard or uncomfortable can actually make his life better. And that’s why we are here, to practice that skill. You guys are doing awesome at it. OK, the hour is almost up. I want to end with shout-outs. Is there anyone who wants to shout out someone in the group that they think did really well at the Fab 5 today?”
“I want to shout out Simon,” Sarah says. “When I first saw that he was in this group, I thought, no disrespect, ‘Oh no, he is going to be crazy and not take it seriously.’ But, Simon, you actually did real good and were respectful the whole time.”
“Great! Anyone else agree that Simon did well?”
We all put our hands up. Simon blushes a little. I cannot imagine how many times he has been criticized for not doing well in school, and now, in detention of all places, he is being celebrated for doing well. It is unexpected; hopefully, it may change the way he views himself as a student in our school and as a human being. It may offer him hope that he can grow, can do better, can deal powerfully and constructively with life ... even when he gets angry.
I ask all the students in the group to give themselves one point out of five for every skill on the poster that they did well. A few students share out to the group why they did or did not give themselves all five points. Together we work towards accurate self-assessment and acknowledge the work that was done.
On occasion, with a coy smile, a teacher might come up to me the day after detention to ask, “How did my Simon do in detention?” This question says a lot. What they might have said is that “Simon is a handful — it must have been exhausting for you to deal with that for a full hour. Now you know how hard it is to be his teacher!”
This is not to criticize the teacher, who has quite a demanding role, in fact, this teacher could have been me when I first began teaching in Brooklyn.
I’ve now been an educator for nearly 10 years, and I have a great deal of respect for the challenges and frustrations of the profession. But educators are sometimes taken aback when I explain that not only did their student participate successfully in an hourlong discussion, but that s/he was, in fact, a centerpiece — a celebrated success in that discussion!
Simon and many other so-called “at-risk” students have spent too many days, even years hearing about their “bruised and damaged petals.” After dealing with his behavior issues on a daily basis, this teacher may have, understandably, started to lose sight of Simon as an amazing “rose growing from the concrete.”
I am happy that I get to remind this teacher, and Simon, that he is exceptional and equipped with all the necessary abilities to become a success in our school and skillful in life outside the school building. It is imperative that we keep working as a community to empower Simon and all students to define and achieve their goals, not simply to comply with the rules for fear of punishment. I am fortunate to work with an incredible group of educators, administrators and support staff who are deeply engaged in this work of transformation.
Conducting a restorative circle with an ever-changing, multigrade-level group of students who often arrive angry, due to their after-school detention, is not an easy task. But when the dialogue is productive and constructive, and when these kids get to shine at the precise moment that they thought would be nothing but darkness, it is an uplifting and inspirational experience for everyone. This is the revolution that detention can be.
All student names have been changed for the purpose of this article, and events are a composite of multiple occasions.
David Levine holds a teaching certification in English Language Arts grades 7-12 and an MFA in creative writing. He has worked as an educator in Big Picture public high schools for the past eight years in Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, and now in the Bronx, where he is currently a Restorative Justice facilitator, dean and teaching coach.