Teamwork and People Power: Liberatory Teaching in the Elementary Classroom
Restorative Justice: Gi Hongs Watch
One of the ways teachers can rethink their classroom management practices is by investigating the concept of Restorative Justice. Unlike most discipline models where the teacher decides on who and how students are punished, the success of Restorative Justice requires the participation of the whole class. This cooperative approach tied directly into the Super MPRs understanding of teamwork and People Power.
I was first introduced to Restorative Justice when I heard California State University, Northridge educator, Warren Furumoto speak about it briefly at a community event. I was intrigued how it viewed crime as a breakdown in social ties and how the larger community reflects on what they could have done better to support the offender before the crime. Instead of punishment, it offers the offender inclusion and a chance to grow and change.
Gi Hong was our new student from Korea. One day his watch was stolen from my desk. It was bad enough when Gi Hong told me it cost $300, but I later found out his grandmother gave him the watch as a going away present when he left for America.
As a teacher, I felt like a failure. All year we had worked on issues of fairness and cooperation, but now someone in class stole his watch. There was a quick moment when two Fourth graders came into the room, but more than likely, it was somebody from our own class. It it was depressing to think about because at the time, I felt it wasnt only a crime against Gi Hong, but a rejection of the values I was teaching.
My first reaction was to give everyone a time-out for as long as it took to get the watch back. I didnt care how long it took. But after sleeping on it, I figured only one or two kids took it. It wouldnt be fair to punish everyone. I decided that each morning every kid in class would get a chance to go back into the classroom one-by-one and return the watch. Kids also wrote Gi Hong letters and we decorated a glass divinity candle with words like Teamwork and Justice. I called it a Fairness Flame and said wed keep it lit until Gi Hong got his watch back. But after five days the watch still didnt turn up.
At this point, my friend Michael Murashige told me that if the watch didnt show up by now, it probably wasnt going to. He recommended that I start thinking about a new approach based on Justice being a collective process. It got me thinking. Our class couldnt wait for the offender to come clean. We couldnt control what already happened. But we could control what we did as a class from that point forward.
I also remembered Warrens talk and went on the Internet looking for more information on Restorative Justice. One document I found, was titled Restorative Justice - Fundamental Principles by Ron Classen, Co-Director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific College. I found principles two and three the most appropriate to the situation:
2. Restorative Justice recognizes that crime (violation of persons and relationships) is wrong and should not occur, and also recognizes that after it does there are dangers and opportunities. The danger is that the community, victim(s), and/or offender emerge from the response further alienated, more damaged, disrespected, disempowered, feeling less safe and less cooperative with society. The opportunity is that injustice is recognized, the equity is restored (restitution and grace), and the future is clarified so that participants are safer, more respectful, and more empowered and cooperative with each other and society.
3. Restorative Justice is a process to "make things as right as possible" which includes: attending to needs created by the offense such as safety and repair of injuries to relationships and physical damage resulting from the offense; and attending to needs related to the cause of the offense (addictions, lack of social or employment skills or resources, lack of moral or ethical base, etc.)
Thinking in this new way, I was able to understand that in life, bad and unfair things happen to all of us. My job as a teacher was to prepare students to deal with them effectively. The stolen watch could now be seen as an "opportunity" to come together and "make things as right as possible" for Gi Hong.
I explained the game plan to the students and they were quick to come up with ideas to raise money. One student suggested we sell our Super MPR newspaper, Estrella del Norte to family members. We added a special article for our paper describing the situation. "This isnt just Gi Hongs problem, its a class problem." Each student took a few home and sold them for a dollar a piece. After three weeks, we raised $99.50.
The day we went to get Gi Hongs new watch was exciting. My 20 kids squeezed into the small local watch shop and pressed their faces to the display cases. Gi Hong picked out a digital watch with a giant button you could press to make it light up in the dark. When we left, we took pictures and everybody cheered.
Because the watch was only $64.00 with tax, it meant we had some $30 dollars left over. I told the kids it was money they raised for fairness, so we should all share it together. The next day, their last day of third grade, we all walked to Rite Aid and got double scoop ice cream cones.
What started out as a terrible situation, ended on a high note. Instead of feeling victimized, Gi Hong was supported by his classmates and rather than dividing us, the class was closer than ever. Of course, I could have bought Gi Hong a new watch three weeks earlier. But it would have denied the students a chance to solve this problem themselves.
The Fifth Year: Today
If my fourth year was another step forward, then the fifth year started out as a step backwards. It would be easier to focus on the successes and leave out the rough spots, but classroom teaching is made up of both.
For the last five years Ive been teaching, education policy has moved continually towards the idea of Standards-Based Reform. Policy makers promote high achievement through a standard predetermined curriculum, "accountability" through standardized testing, and a series of rewards and punishments for students and schools based on test scores.
The public and especially those in fields like Asian American Studies should not be swayed by buzzwords like "high standards." Similar to attacks on the legitimacy and rigors of Ethnic Studies, at their core of these "reforms" is a conservative agenda "dressed up as a concern for standards."
In class, Id been resisting the trend to narrow the curriculum and "teach to the test." I kept moving slowly towards a liberating classroom. But the stress to maintain it was building. With reflection, I concluded the root problem was frustration over the growing threat of losing the freedom to teach for change. Unconsciously, I was taking this stress into the classroom and taking it out on the students--the very one I was purporting to protect. It was time for some self-criticism.
The threat was real. The District was mandating teaching programs, like the controversial reading series, Open Court that leaves little room for teacher experience and student discovery. Many teachers were finding no time for other subjects. If forced to follow, a student-centered, community service curriculum would be squeezed out. In the past, Id made room for liberatory teaching by publicizing student activities when I knew they were acceptable to school administration and worked quietly when in doubt. But this was troubling. Conditions were changing. I needed to think in new ways.
Instead of feeling trapped, I reminded myself that fighting for justice is a struggle. A long process. When has freedom ever been handed to us? Why should I expect teaching for change to be any different? Teaching to liberate is never linear. It stops and starts and slips and slides. Along with organizing with others, my best offense during this time is continuing to push ahead. Like every other teacher, I need to think creatively in order to make space for liberatory teaching.
While this year got off to a slower start, the Fantastic Bungalow Kids are building success as we go. So far this year students have cooked Teamwork Soup, beautified the school growing vegetables and flowers, drew quadrilingual get-out-the-vote posters, wrote a Fantastic Times newspaper with nine stories in Spanish, mailed letters to Salvadoran earthquake survivors and sing "Which Side Are You On" on the way to lunch. Theyve also drafted a letter to the schools cafeteria. Seems they feel its unfair for teachers to get better food and theyre tired of getting pizza with no tomato sauce. Because, "Thats not pizza, thats just bread and cheese."
One of my favorite quotes from the book Helping Health Workers Learn reads:
"If you want lasting results: POINT..... but dont PUSH. People will move by themselves once they see clearly and discover a way."
Thats been my goal in this article. To point out that liberatory teaching is possible and necessary. Educators must prepare students to question, critique, contribute and re-imagine the world. We can start by redefining the role of education in our society. Instead of an institution used to maintain order and power, once we view education as a tool for change, classroom dynamics takes on new meanings. Learning and schoolwork no longer remain activities removed from reality, but are transformed into social, active, and heartfelt experiences. This approach leads students into reading, writing, and manipulating numbers and ideas while they "sharpen their understanding of the world and the challenges facing us."
When we democratize our classrooms and encourage active learning and self-motivation, todays students become tomorrows critically thinking adults. When we build the curriculum around students lives, problem-solve and address classroom and community needs, we do our part in letting them experience "the possibility of change." This seed of optimism is a powerful weapon. No matter how well students read and write, if we allow them to leave school controlled by pessimism and defeatism, weve failed them. If we dont prepare students to take responsibility for their communities and move them towards self-determination--what are we teaching?
But when we break with the past and offer students and ourselves new freedoms, anything becomes possible. Students who create their own encyclopedia may go on to publish neighborhood-based reading series. Parents who write articles in Spanish and students who learned to appreciate Korean and Bengali from their peers may go on to establish dual-language classrooms throughout the State. Students who sell newspapers to help replace a classmates stolen watch, may someday oversee a community controlled police department. Who is to say? Liberatory teaching is not a magic potion, but a long march we travel together.
Asian American Studies was founded on the idea of using education to build a new world. The urgent challenge to improve our lives and communities remains. After five years of teaching, Ive learned that Asian American Studies is more than just transferring facts and figures to a new generation. Its the transformation of a new society that begins in our classrooms. Asian American Studies can welcome this challenge by reclaiming its mission and expanding its methodologies to include liberatory practices. If third graders can do it, surely college students and professors can too.
Id like to conclude this essay with a quote by Juan Carlos, one of Super MPR students who had a talent for poetry. He dedicated this poem to Yuri Kochiyama and included it in his letter to her. Its one of my favorite student poems because Juan Carlos places himself into the struggles of the past at the same time he describes his life today. It reflects a confidence in himself and a commitment to others. It illustrates why we must teach for change and how the spirit of Asian American Studies can be captured in the classroom:
I am the North Star shining to get you to freedom.
I am the dark so the slaves cant catch you.
I am the rainbow because you are not going to be a slave anymore.
I am a people to vote for our rights.
I am a people to save a world.
I am a kid that does teamwork everyday.