In New York, kids are fighting to stay alive; in Seattle kids are contemplating suicide.
This is one way to describe the vast differences in the student populations I have spent my career working with. As a high school teacher for the past eight years, and facilitator of restorative justice (RJ) for the past three, it has been my honor to help guide and coach students through the extremely tough years of high school and adolescence.
I had first taught in New York, then the Seattle area. And now I was returning to New York with an expanded mindset and a new set of tools and philosophies.
Though the life of a teen in the Pacific northwest might seem the opposite of a teen’s life in the South Bronx, they’re quite similar in many ways. They struggle with acceptance, poverty, racial issues, bullying, sexual identity and a host of other concerns that seem ubiquitous and universal these days.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have found the Big Picture school model, where student ownership, interest exploration and project-based learning are the norm.
Working as what is called an advisor at Big Picture schools with small groups of students who are encouraged to find their passions and direct their own learning has changed the way I look at how schools need to function to serve our children.
Discovering this model was a turning point for me, and probably the only reason that I remained a teacher. My previous work in traditional public schools in New York City was very discouraging. Neither students nor teachers seemed very happy with their daily duties. The school buildings had the look and feel of prisons.
Having two parents who worked for many years in New York state prisons, I was well aware of the failures and inequities of that system, and I was not interested in maintaining that status quo.
When I first encountered the Big Picture model in Brooklyn, I was asked to use my experience as a hip-hop recording artist to help three students with a school project on hip-hop. I was amazed a school was offering them the ability to do serious and credit-worthy work on something they loved.
Both the students and myself as the teacher were excited. We were working hard and having fun. I was acting as a mentor, a learning coach, rather than an authority figure. I was hooked!
The next big discovery was restorative justice practices and principles.
It was not until I relocated to the West Coast that I was fortunate enough to work with incredible people who believed in these practices. I was able to take a leadership role in developing and implementing these practices at my school, as well as spreading the message to other schools in the district. Over the past few years, our work has been recognized by several organizations and landed us on the cover of the Seattle Times.
Just as Big Picture changed the way I looked at schools, so did RJ shift my thoughts on discipline.
However, the conversion to RJ did not happen overnight. While earning a master’s in poetry at night, I spent three years as a substitute teacher in countless inner-city public schools. Often, students’ behavior was at their worst because their regular teacher was out.
Being a novice in the classroom, when a student was disruptive, disrespectful or violent I would often call a school security officer to have them removed. I saw myself as the authority in the room who they needed to respect.
Even as I began to have my own classroom, these notions of power dynamics remained: They were all I knew. I did not see my role, as I now do, as that of a guide to my students, a public servant, there to see through their anger and rebellious attitudes, to listen to learn about their lives and help them navigate their many difficulties.
I failed to see that the classroom could be a place of coaching and learning from our mistakes, rather than a place of strict rules and external assessments. And more than anything, I had seen through my first years as a teacher that students were often suspended for behavior they continued to repeat. I also saw from the stories my parents told of prison inmates who got out, only to return a few months later, that these punitive tactics simply did not end the problem behaviors.
It was not until I began to work as a Big Picture advisor that I began to see school as a community built on honest relationships, and to view student mistakes not as punishable offences, but as a valuable opportunity for coaching, leadership, community service and self-empowerment. I was working with the same group of about 20 students for an extended time, exploring their interests, writing autobiographies and engaging in community-building activities in the classroom.
By allowing students to hear from the community, to feel loved and valued, and be given the chance to create ways to repair the harm they may have caused, I have seen discipline at our school provide consequences that greatly enhance a student’s feelings of self-worth and their chances of future success, rather than alienating them, holding them back and disenfranchising them as traditional punitive actions often do. I have seen firsthand how RJ councils, the resulting contract items and schoolwide community building can drastically reduce harms committed, improve the holistic health of a school and empower students to own and self-correct their actions.
Big deal, you may be thinking — of course this approach works in Seattle, at a small school of 180 students, where only 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
How would RJ function in the South Bronx, in a school of 450 ninth- to 12th-graders who are contained in a building of more than 3,000 students, where 100 percent of the students are low income and often come from some of the most violent neighborhoods in the country?
That is exactly what I was asking myself on the airplane as I flew to New York, where I began this fall as the restorative justice “anti-dean” at a public school (one that incorporates many of the Big Picture distinguishers) in only its fourth year of existence. A school with passionate leaders who were seeking to change the education system at the same time they often felt stifled by that system’s limitations and rules.
Already, it has been a fascinating journey, one that I hope to communicate in real time through this column. I am excited to share particular anecdotes, practices, successes and setbacks along the way.
In only two months I have been touched by the talents, the intellect and creativity of students at this school in one of America’s largest urban centers. I have also been moved by the heartbreaking tales of violence, poverty, police brutality and incarceration that float through the halls like ghosts.
I believe there is a way forward, that we can improve outcomes and save lives. “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is what they say in New York. I don’t plan to.
David Levine holds a teaching certification in English Language Arts grades 7-12 and an MFA in creative writing. He has worked as an educator in Big Picture public high schools for the past eight years in Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, and now in the Bronx, where he is currently a Restorative Justice facilitator, dean and teaching coach.
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