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Writing through Conflict: Restorative Practices in an ELA Classroom

This post is by NCTE member, Matthew Homrich-Knieling. 

MatthewKnielingWithout a safe, affirming, and empathetic classroom environment, students cannot and will not authentically learn and engage. One of my biggest struggles in cultivating this sort of classroom community is effectively navigating conflicts: conflicts between students, conflicts students carry with them into the classroom, conflicts between myself and students, etc. And, as a white teacher in a racially and linguistically diverse school, I am especially sensitive to my own conscious and unconscious biases and the ways in which those play out in interactions and discipline within an already oppressive system. Understanding that punitive-only approaches to conflict resolution often result in broken relationships, resentment, and continued conflict and behavioral challenges, I started exploring the ways in which I could bring restorative justice practices into my classroom.

An approach that continues to be a powerful and effective tool for restorative conflict resolution is what I call “writing through conflict,” connecting literacy practices with resolving conflicts in the classroom. This specific strategy has taken multiple forms and can be practiced in many ways. At the core of writing through conflict, however, is addressing conflict by giving students the opportunity to express their thoughts, perspectives, and feelings through writing, with no pressure or expectations from the teacher. It allows students to share what is happening in their lives, “their side of the story,” or anything that they feel is important. Regardless of how this looks, I always respect my students’ privacy and autonomy by giving them the option of writing and the option of whether or not to share.

As teachers, however, the first step toward creating a classroom where justice is restored is honest and continuous self-reflection. As such, I believe that these approaches can be best explained through my own classroom stories:

I was bracing myself for my most challenging group of students to enter my room, mentally preparing to wear a mask of “toughness” as an attempt to disguise my vulnerability and nervousness. I quickly learned that, for urban educators, strictness and toughness are paramount. The students entered, rowdy as usual, as I feebly attempted to begin class: “In your seats, please. In your seats! SIT DOWN!” In my first-year teacher scramble, I was unknowingly only escalating the situation by shouting. Two students in particular, however, were relentlessly continuing to talk over me throughout the lesson.

By the end of the lesson, these same two students appeared to be maintaining their defiance, and as the bell rang, I demanded that they both “stay back.” I proceeded to yell at them, pointing out their disrespectful behavior, and while they initially protested, they eventually just listened, subdued. As they left my classroom, I quickly became ridden with guilt and shame. I had done nothing to resolve the conflict. And already at the age of 11, my students of color were becoming desensitized to and normalizing white authority figures shouting at and arguing with them. This is a profoundly troubling and important realization. But whereas punitive approaches perpetuate such oppressive structures in the classroom, restorative approaches work toward dismantling oppressive systems and dynamics.

The next day, I asked these students to come to my classroom at lunch. When they arrived, I first apologized for the previous day’s situation and acknowledged my own role in escalating the situation. I then invited the students to write down their thoughts on the conflict, and explained that I would do the same. One of the students in particular began writing very intently. After a few minutes, I shared my own writing and invited my students to share, too. The aforementioned student confidently and earnestly shared his writing, which explained how, while he had been talking during the beginning of my lesson, at the end, while I was “only yelling at [him],” he was actually telling the classmate next to him to be quiet. With that, I was able to offer a more sincere apology and demonstrate a commitment to building positive, fair, and honest relationships. Moreover, I learned that the principles behind writing through conflict—open dialogue, compassion, and relationship-building—can be more effective than a tough guise.

While this story highlights a more structured approach to writing through conflict, I have also enacted similar practices through more informal structures:

“Alright, you’ve got 15 minutes to complete this handout, then we’ll discuss as a group.” While I roamed the classroom, offering help and support to students struggling with the work, I noticed the same student who hadn’t done any work in weeks sitting in her seat, alternating between doodling, staring around the classroom, and talking with peers. By this point, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with her refusal to do work. “Do you have any questions or need any help?” I asked, thinking perhaps her frequent absences were causing a barrier. “No,” she replied quickly. Then, instead of my futile “Get to work!” demands, I said, sensing that something was wrong, “If you want to write about why you aren’t working or anything that is going on, here is a piece of paper. If you want to share afterwards, you can, but if you want to keep the paper for yourself, that’s fine, too.” The bell rang, and as the students handed in their worksheets and walked out of the classroom, this student handed me her writing. I sat at my desk, opened the letter, and immediately my eyes swelled with tears. She shared how her mother is very sick and how she wants to make her proud by getting good grades, but feels like she can’t.

At the end of class the following day, I thanked her for sharing, and we briefly discussed her mother’s health issues. While this student did not suddenly become motivated to engage in class work, the experience of writing through conflict allowed me to act more compassionately and empathetically, and in a more intentional way. As a result, our interactions became more cordial and understanding, and my classroom became a safer space for her.

These stories, I hope, highlight the profound potential of restorative practices, and particularly of writing through conflict. Our students enter our classrooms with simultaneously separate and inseparable life experiences, perspectives, and voices. I believe it is our role as teachers not to “give” students a voice, but to co-create space for students to share their voices unabashedly. Writing through conflict is one way to create that space, while promoting the oftentimes therapeutic experience of writing and self-expression, the importance of building honest relationships, and the process of resolving conflicts peacefully.

Matthew Homrich-Knieling is an early-career English language arts teacher from Michigan. He is particularly interested in restorative justice, culturally sustaining and social justice pedagogies, and language and literacy. He can be reached at matthewknieling@gmail.com.