Nonfiction Friday: “Unbroken Circles for Schools” by Ken Johnson

Apologies for being away so long from Shiny Book Review, folks. To partially compensate for that, I’m starting a new category for reviews called “Nonfiction Friday.” Expect there to be more nonfiction reviews on Friday in the not-so-distant future.

Tonight’s review subject is Ken Johnson’s UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS: Restoring Schools, One Conflict at a Time. This may sound like an unenticing title, but Mr. Johnson’s book is among the most thought-provoking works I’ve ever read because of his premise. Simply put: the criminal justice system, along with our public school system, is doing juvenile offenders wrong.

Why? Well, Mr. Johnson’s background is in conflict resolution, and over time, he’s noticed that when an offender — particularly a juvenile offender — is punished, the offender doesn’t usually learn anything except how to re-offend. This is because most of our current justice system is set up for something called “retributive justice,” which means if someone does something awful, he or she is going to pay for it. But that’s not enough to help the offender figure out how to repay the person who’s been harmed, nor does it do much to help the offender figure out how to be a better person in order to never, but never, do the same things that landed him or her in jail in the first place.

In other words, the need for our criminal justice system is to change the paradigm entirely. We must stop throwing our youngsters away like garbage, and at least try to teach them how to do better rather than simply punish them.

But Mr. Johnson explains this concept far better than I. From p. 108:

An America Journalist, Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) once said that, “True remorse is never just regret over consequence; it is regret over motive.” In other words, true justice means that the punishment must fit the motive rather than just the crime. However, such beliefs, for well over 200 years of American history, have been lost on lawmakers and criminal justice officials. The belief of social retribution is the prominent paradigm of choice. Social retribution occurs when offenders are punished for being deviants, miscreants, and other terms used to socially stigmatize offenders…According to Steven Dellaportas, a writer and lecturer on white-collar crimes, recidivism is one indicator of the failure of a system to meet demands. (Bolded section by BC.)

Restorative justice is different from retributive justice. For one, restorative justice tries to make the victim as whole as possible in addition to punishing the offender. And for juvenile offenders, this is extremely important; as Mr. Johnson says, young people who’ve committed crimes (especially minor ones), but are willing to reform, cannot afford to be stigmatized as their whole lives are ahead of them. Becoming an empathetic person who cares about others is part of the restorative justice process, but teaching the juvenile offenders to make better choices and not to re-offend is the second part.

That’s where the schools come in.

Johnson says the Unbroken Circles (SM) program differs from traditional, retributive-based justice for juveniles in this way (from p. 6):

The Unbroken Circles (SM) program is intended to unify schools, build character, espouse good citizenship, improve grades in low performers with a history of disciplinary issues, and reduce recidivism rates. The skills and lessons espoused by this program give the students the tools they need to diffuse problems both at school and at home.

The program covers a wide array of tactics and methods that run the gamut from simple daily class circles, to peer mediation, conferences, and other forms of Circle Justice. The plan slices through every aspect of a child’s life, whether in the classroom, on the playground, on school grounds, or even in the juvenile justice courts. A community of care is created. This is a veritable unbroken circle that will hold the offender accountable and seek for the child to make things right when wrongs have been committed.

But what does this mean, boiled down to brass tacks?

Simply put, if you use the Unbroken Circles for Schools (SM) method, everyone plays a part in helping the juvenile offender learn how to become a better person. It’s something like the old “it takes a village to raise a child” idea, but it has more teeth in it despite being an outwardly gentle process. Here’s how Mr. Johnson explains a morning circle (from p. 124):

Morning sessions are a great way to build the Community of Care (class) while also relieving stress, learning communication skills, and collectively collaborating on meaningful ways to solve various issues and problems. Usually, the Circle Keeper (i.e., school resource officer, teacher, and aide) gathers the students in a circle and has the students go around the circle saying one nice thing about the person to the left of them. Once the student has said the one nice thing, he/she cannot use that comment ever again in the circle sessions to refer to that same person. By doing such, the students are forced to engage each other and learn more about the members of their own Community of Care. From there, the Circle Keeper may ask questions about how the students are feeling, what happened to them over the weekend, what is happening in their lives this week, or other questions.

Note what Mr. Johnson said about being “forced to engage each other.” This is the important, core concept, because it gets the juveniles out of their own heads. They must learn about one another, and in that learning, they most likely will grow to care about at least some of their fellow classmates.

Midday circles and end-of-the-day circles are intended to defuse any issues that have cropped up during the day, then set up the student for the next day’s learning process. As Mr. Johnson says, “The goal of the end of day circle sessions is to solve problems that have happened, thwart problems before they occur (i.e., a fight after school), relieve tension, and afford students an opportunity to engage in community building.” And he asserts that while using even one of these three circles a day will help, using all three will be incredibly beneficial.

The circles, you see, are intended to work with whatever the kids are learning about. If it’s Japanese proverbs, the starting point of the circle may be to talk about that. If it’s a test day, the starting point may be something having to do with stress relief, as nearly every student feels overstressed on a testing day. And by tying in the circles with the learning, that makes it possible for juveniles to better focus themselves and defuse their anger.

Best of all, Unbroken Circles (SM) works to help all students. It is cost-effective, is proven, and the system works.

Bottom line? UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS, despite its simple title, is one of the most important and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read on any subject. More nonfiction books should be like this.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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  1. Two New Reviews up at Shiny Book Review (SBR) | Barb Caffrey's Blog

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