Mindfulness and Interpretive Discussions

by John Nolan

Last year, in considering classroom environment, I dug deeper into the concept of respect and the culture of restorative justice. Fortunately, I had a very helpful coach who had a lot of experience in building a greater culture of mindfulness and respect through practices related to restorative justice.

She explained that all humans have a need to be heard and respected. I agreed but knew that making it actually happen was quite challenging. She introduced me to the “restorative justice circle.” Significantly, Inquiry By Design also values grouping students in a circle in its recommended protocol for having an interpretive discussion in class.

The restorative justice circle rests upon several concepts that I articulated to my students explicitly and that I continue to review regularly:

  1. In any workplace, workers need to know each other. Without this knowledge, the work suffers.
  2. All humans need to be heard by others, so it’s important to listen to others with an open mind.
  3. What you say in the circle stays in the circle. We want to hear what you have to say, but you’re not obligated to say anything that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

I started the restorative justice circles last year as a weekly activity that takes about ten minutes, and I continued at the start of this year. When the students all offered, “respect” as a class norm, I explained that we would use the restorative justice circle to help us build respect to make it a part of the environment of the classroom.

As we got on with the year and found ourselves going through the sessions of an Inquiry By Design unit, the stars aligned. When we got to the part of the unit for the first interpretive discussion, we also had our restorative justice circle scheduled. After we finished with the restorative justice circle, I simply invited the class to bring their texts and notes back to the circle to have the interpretive discussion.

It was by far the best Inquiry By Design interpretive discussion any of my classes have ever had. It was a designated ELD class, and I was impressed with how much they talked. Still in the mindset of the restorative justice circle, they were comfortable and respectful, authentically offering claims and genuinely listening to each other. They built on each other’s remarks, and my facilitation was minimal.

Just the other day, as the same class got to our second interpretive discussion for the unit, I intentionally moved the restorative justice circle to the same day. This time, with a longer, more complex text that they had struggled with, they again had a respectful, interesting, and collaborative discussion.

I’m finding these efforts to be helpful in creating a classroom environment conducive to authentic discussions centered on complex texts. Students seem more willing to give more authority to their own voices and to the voices of their peers.

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