One of the challenges of being an Arts Educator is the relatively limited time we have with our students. Whereas Math or L.A. teachers see their students every day, music teachers often see a class once or twice a week. Teaching a year’s curriculum within these curtailed contact hours can be daunting. A common response to this “time crunch” is to “hit the ground running,” teach fast, and push through to cover as much content as possible. While this may seem like a good idea, it frequently works out less satisfactorily than one would have hoped. The overbearing presence of the teacher, and limited opportunities for practice and application result in teacher and students alike carrying more anxiety than successful teaching and learning from one class meeting to the next.
Add to this the many personal issues students bring into the classroom that delays them from being ready to learn, and music teachers can easily become even more stressed as they try to settle a class and get straight to teaching amid a classroom of students who are troubled, agitated, or any number of other things, and feel the need to talk about it before even attempting to apply themselves to your lesson. It is in these first few minutes of class where the tone for the whole class will be set. Badgering a class to calm down and stop talking rarely works if there are hot topics in progress. While it may delay getting to the planned lesson, a better use of those early class minutes is to provide students with the opportunity to decompress, focus on ethical, cooperative behavior, and practice demonstrating respect to you and their classmates.
I have come to enjoy starting some of my classes with a restorative justice circle. As the name implies, the idea is to get a class together and restore whatever is troubling or problematic in the students relationships at that moment. When I greet a class at the door, I tell them to please be seated on the floor in the front of the room before going tho their assigned seats. Once seated, I will present them with a question that can be answered in a word or two, and that will start them listening to and respecting each other.
The school in which I work is a Comer school, and our focus pathway this week is the ethical pathway. With this in mind, I asked them, “what is one thing you have done today for the good of someone else, or if you haven’t done anything good for someone else, what is one thing you would like to do for someone else before the end of school today?” We then go around and each child gives an answer. We have a “talking piece,” an object that is passed to whoever is answering, and only that person may speak. All others just listen, without responding or judging what others say. With smaller groups, or subgroups of a class, responses can be to draw a picture or construct a craft that is glued to poster board. Students then use their talk time to explain the artifact they have created. Just the act of listing to each child speak does wonders in getting a class ready to learn. Focusing on others helps them forget about what was disturbing or upsetting them when they came into the classroom.
Having done the circle, I will remind students of the respect they practiced during that time if they begin to do otherwise later in the class. All of this only takes 7-8 minutes, and it paves the way for much more effective teaching and learning in the remaining time of the class. In this case, showing respect was a theme, a thread, that ran through the entire class. Each time the class performed, or individuals performed, it was framed as an opportunity to demonstrate respect which would make another person feel good, and which would invite them to give return the respect.
Teaching appropriate behavior and habits using restorative justice transforms classroom management from punativeness to positivity. it makes correcting behavior part of the educational plan instead of an interruption of it. This is not to say that interruptions will be eliminated or that negative consequences for bad behavior will not longer be needed. It is to say that the need for those strategies will be reduced, and teaching will become more enjoyable for the teacher, and learning will become more enjoyable for students.
It is easy to assume that students know how to behave and are always choosing to do otherwise when they misbehave, but that is not so. Many students do not realize they are being disrespectful, because what they are doing is accepted or tolerated in other settings, including home, daycare, and even other classes. Students are often grateful for leaning a better way to manage their behaviors and emotions, and realize an improved quality of life within the school community as a result of the teacher practicing restorative justice circles.
If you are thinking you don’t have time to devote 8 minutes to a restorative circle at the beginning of each meeting of some or all of your classes, consider this: how much time does managing student behavior take away from time spent teaching your planned music lesson? I’m fairly certain if you actually timed it out, you would find you spend at least 8 minutes correcting or dispensing consequences during at least some classes. Occasionally , you might even spend more. If so, then why not use the same amount of time to teach them something positive with a restorative circle, a strategy that will probably pay dividends in time saved class after class.
To see how restorative circles work, here is a short video. The question being used is a good one for getting students used to the circle because it doesn’t ask them to divulge anything too personal. Notice how the students relax and look like they start to enjoy the circle after the first few students take their turn. Their sense of community and of enjoying the opportunity to share what they think is awakened during the first few seconds of the circle. In the last segment of the video, the artifact produced could then be the basis for another round of answers, as they share what is in their artifact with the circle.