Grade Six students in Krista Goulding’s class sit in a circle in the wood-panelled library at historic Bishop Feild School.
This is no ordinary day. It’s almost time for the science fair; the eldest students in the downtown St. John’s school are about to present their projects to the children in the lower grades.
Ms. Goulding has called the students together to talk about how they’re feeling, and share any last-minute jitters. She invites them to speak, and hands go up.
Bishop Feild is one of two schools in the pilot program, Relationships First: Restorative Justice in Education (RF-RJE).
It’s supported by a consortium of partners in education and the broader community and is led by Dr. Dorothy Vaandering, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial.
‘Worth and dignity’
Dr. Vaandering launched the project in 2015, building on work from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project, and the Faculty of Education’s EDGE 2013 Conference: Creating Direction for Peace and Justice.
“Relationships First culture works to uphold the worth and dignity of all who are involved,” said Dr. Vaandering, who has a doctoral degree in restorative justice. She says she wanted to bring this way of being, influenced in part by various traditional and contemporary Aboriginal cultures, to an educational context.
“I’ve seen the devastation of harm, and the wonder of healing. I’ve seen both sides. Relationships First: Restorative Justice in Education is not about behaviour and social control. It’s about how we thrive when we are in relationship with one another. It’s a philosophy, a way of being.”
It’s an approach that works for students of all ages and stages of their educational careers, whether in the younger grades at Bishop Feild or with older children at Gonzaga High School, the other school participating in the project.
Relationship building is the common theme, and the reason why each school asked to be part of the project.
‘Most important factor’
“I think it relationship building is the most important factor in teaching and having success with children, not just academically, but socially and emotionally,” said Michelle Reynolds, an instructional resource teacher who works with Grade Three students at Bishop Feild.
She requested to be part of Relationships First when she heard it was coming to the school.
“We have to maximize our connections with children, and everything else comes out of that,” said Ms. Reynolds, who begins every school day in her class with a friendship circle.
“Everyone gets the opportunity to speak. We pass the talking piece and every child who wants to share can share. They love it. Young kids always want to tell you things. Children come to school with different home lives, different needs and different abilities, but in the circle we are all equal and we are all one.”
In the Grade Six classroom, Ms. Goulding brings children together for friendship circles, but also for math circles and to cover other aspects of the curriculum, such as the science fair discussion.
But she also uses talking circles to help resolve conflicts that can sometimes develop in a diverse group of older children.
“For example, I noticed a student sitting out by the door who didn’t want to come into the classroom. So our circle that day was based on alienation,” she said.
“I talked to students about what the word alienation meant and if they’d ever felt that way, or if they’d ever seen anyone alienated from their class.”
Students were able to see how their actions had real consequences, she says, and that they developed greater empathy for each other. The conflict was resolved without Ms. Goulding directly intervening.
“That relationship with the children was, and is, key to earning their respect,” she said.
“Without it, you don’t develop the same rapport with them.”
This sort of talk is thrilling to Dr. Vaandering, who works with other consortium members to spread the Relationships First approach through workshops with educators, and the broader community.
“It’s about making connections and being human.”
She also relies on her volunteer co-ordinators, like Roxanne Skanes, a retired elementary school assistant principal who attended Dr. Vaandering’s initial two-week Relationships First session in 2012. She left the session fired up and ready to get things started at her school, Coley’s Point Primary.
“It’s a way of being,” said Ms. Skanes, who works these days to help knit the Relationships First philosophy into the daily life of other schools, like Bishop Feild.
“It’s not a fad, far from it. It’s about making connections and being human.”
To learn more about Relationships First, its members and services, please visit the website.