Listening Underneath: How Four Mornings of Dialogue Transformed Two Months of Misery

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Image by Janene Prothro on Hutui6.com

The following is a true story with only a few changes in identifying details.

It was Monday morning and Mr. Keaton was not looking forward to his 6th grade first period.

Johnny and Ricky had been at it for two months, with no sign of letting up.

Last Friday had been typical. In the first 10 minutes of class, Johnny had interrupted other students 3 times to share something urgent. Ricky took it upon himself to teach Johnny some manners:

“Shut up already! It ain’t your turn!”

Johnny spun around and cussed Ricky out. Other kids joined in. Kelli was hissing “shhh”, Louis was laughing at Johnny, and Bernard was attacking Ricky:

“Man! YOU shut up! You making it WORSE!”

From there, things predictably went down hill.

Over the past two months, Mr. Keaton had tried everything in his toolbox to put an end to the nonsense. He:

  • sternly brought the students back to task
  • reminded them of classroom norms
  • talked to each boy separately
  • sent them out of the room multiple times with referrals
  • showed his temper!

Nothing seemed to help. What had been a pleasurable 1st period at the beginning of the year was turning into a daily, dreaded headache.

Mr. Keaton realized there was one thing he had not yet tried.

Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles were a new school initiative and Mr. Keaton had heard circles took time. However, he felt like the conflict had aleady cost a ton of time, patience, and goodwill. They could afford to spend some time building community and peace.

That afternoon, Mr. Keaton emailed Ms. Noble, the school’s Restorative Practices coordinator. She took it from there.

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“Time for Conflict” is derivative of “Time” by Karen / CC BY / Copyright 2016 Conflict 180

Circle Prep Meetings

The goal of Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles is to get to the roots of the conflict. We do this by listening underneath for the deeper feelings and hopes that are not easily seen above the surface.

Mr. Keaton, Johnny, and Ricky first started exploring their underlying needs during individual circle prep meetings with Ms. Noble and Jacki (one of a dozen 8th graders learning to be circle keepers).

Tuesday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Mr. Keaton during his prep period. In this meeting, Mr. Keaton clarified, for himself, that he had been preoccupied with challenging events in his life (a wife on bed rest with twins; a sister back in rehab again) and that maybe he was not giving his students the kind of positive attention they needed.

He wasn’t planning to share all this in the circle, and Ms. Noble wouldn’t “out” him. However, having clarity about his unmet needs would help him take responsibility for his choices later on.

Wednesday morning they met with Johnny, who chose to use a deck of Feelings and Needs cards to help him get clarity on what was happening for him.

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Restorative Card Sort by Conflict 180 (All rights reserved)

Thursday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Ricky, who became clear that he wanted to stay out of detention and be a better student. This conflict was sinking his academic boat.

Friday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with the whole class (minus Ricky and Johnny) to do a brief prep. When the boys came back in, the dialogue-based restorative circle began.
Everyone sat in a semi-circle, facing each other. A set of Restorative Questions were taped to the board for all to see.

Restorative Questions try to shift the focus from “What rule was broken?” to “How do we repair harm and restore community?”

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Restorative Questions by Conflict 180

Everyone took a turn answering each question, with an option to pass.

Many students shared that they felt frustrated and exhausted by the conflict. When Mr. Keaton shared that he sometimes made things worse by not responding to the boys quickly enough, the students seemed impressed that their teacher was taking responsibility for harm. Many students then shared ways they had made things worse.

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When someone spoke directly to someone else, rather than to the whole group, Ms. Noble shifted from a traditional circle-sharing format to a “facilitated dialogue.”

For instance, at one point, Johnny, not meeting Ricky’s eyes, told him that he got to class upset most days because he was teased by a bunch of older boys on the way to school every morning.

“What are you hearing underneath that?” Ms. Noble prompted Ricky.

“That his patience is all wore out by the time he gets here,” Ricky said. Johnny nodded, looking relieved to be understood.

At another point, Mr. Keaton made a long speech to Ricky about how Ricky was a natural leader and even though he did not expect him to always be the peace-maker, he did have high expectations for him, and on and on in that vein. When Ms. Noble asked Ricky what he was hearing, Ricky looked a bit overwhelmed.

“That was a lot of words,” she said kindly, “What is the main thing you heard underneath?”

Ricky replied directly to Mr. Keaton: “That you’re proud of me. And you love me like a son.”

“Yes, you got it” Mr. Keaton said, his eyes a little moist.

During the last round, the students agreed on 7 actions to make things better, including:

  1. Mr. Keaton will meet with Johnny 10 minutes before class every morning to connect and debrief.
  2. Mr. Keaton and Ricky will now have a “peace” signal.
  3. All students will wait for Mr. Keaton to address conflicts before trying to “help”.
  4. Mr. Keaton will have a weekly sign-up sheet for students to join him for a friendly lunch.

Two Months Later

Two months later, Mr. Keaton reports that all is well. Johnny and Ricky have not become friends, but they are civil and there have been no more class conflicts.

In addition, to Mr. Keaton’s delight, Ricky has applied to be a student Circle Keeper.

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