Diversity, Equity & Inclusion News

Communicating with Empathy through Restorative Circles in Upper School English

For over a decade, Upper School English teacher Julia Workman has taught students from grades 7-12 on two continents and in three states. She is passionate about honing students' written and critical reading skills. Inspired by new Head of Upper School Kris Ryan’s interest in Restorative Justice and Restorative Education and with funding from Shipley, Workman recently attended a workshop at Bard College called “Restorative Words, Restorative Practices.” Learn more about restorative circles and how Workman is using the practice to create a more equitable, thoughtful, and inter-connected classroom in this Q&A.

Q: What are restorative circles? 
A: In a restorative circle students engage in dialogue that honors all voices. Simply put, students sit in a circle and adhere to a community agreement. A community agreement is a set of guidelines to which we hold ourselves accountable. In a restorative circle, everyone has the opportunity to speak. Whoever wishes to go first begins, and then passes to their left saying “I pass to [student name here].” As an English teacher, I enjoy having students do focused free writing first and then do rounds of circle sharing. By giving everyone a chance to speak we create a more equitable, thoughtful, and inter-connected classroom. 

Q: How can they⸺paired with free-writing⸺create a more equitable, thoughtful, and inter-connected learning environment? 
A: All too often students write alone. Only the teacher and a few trusted peers see student writing. In a restorative circle, all students are encouraged to share what they’ve written. In this way, we celebrate writing in its rawest form, encourage students to use writing as a means to explore, and affirm students’ abilities. 

Q: If you have already put this into practice, what results are you seeing? 
A: I love watching students “shout out” or affirm each other. After we do a round of sharing, we have students comment on what others have written. It’s wonderful to hear a student say, “I was really interested in what [student name] said, because I had never thought about it that way before.” It is also great to hear the thoughts of students who tend to be on the quieter side. 

Q: How did you learn about this practice?
A: Shipley graciously gave me the funds to attend a summer program at Bard College called “Restorative Words, Restorative Practices.” Prior to the program, I learned about Restorative Justice Education from our new Head of Upper School, Kris Ryan. After learning more about why Restorative Justice Education was important to him, I wanted to delve more deeply into the work. I’m grateful to the School for their generosity and to Kris Ryan for helping me put some of the practices into place. 

Q: Is there anything else about this work that you would like to highlight?
A: Writer and activist bell hooks says it best: “Learning and talking together, we break with the notion that our experience of gaining knowledge is private, individualistic, and competitive. By choosing and fostering dialogue, we engage mutually in learning partnership.” I love the idea of working together rather than competing. Teachers and students work together to co-create knowledge. Only then does learning stick. 

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion News

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.