In history teacher Travis Bouldin’s room, students are seated in a circle, engaged in debates.
Bouldin can be found seated in the circle among the students, listening and tracking where the discussion goes. Travis is young, so he blends into the class easily. But, his class doesn’t have a “leader” in the typical sense. Nobody at the chalkboard; nobody instructing the students to turn to page 143 in their textbooks. That’s not how this classroom works … it’s not how Travis works.
“I’m not leading it. We’re all within our circle and the students are keeping it going,” Bouldin says.
This type of collaborative, student-led dialogue is something that thrives in the learning environment Bouldin fostered. To prepare students, Bouldin starts each semester in a highly structured way, laying out routines for how to respond to directives as well as how to treat one another.
“After the first few weeks, the classroom is very much a space where all students feel comfortable,” Bouldin says. “It’s really one of those classes where it’s safe for everyone to be themselves and dig into the learning in a way that really stands out to them as opposed to the more traditional structure of the teacher up front, doing the lesson, and the student responding.”
Bouldin has worked in education for 17 years, as a teacher, instructional coach, dean, and principal. Several years ago, in an effort to spend more time with his teenage sons, he stepped out of leadership and back into the classroom, with all of the experience he has amassed along the way. In his current role as a classroom teacher, he focuses on building a learning environment where his students can thrive.
If you had to boil down the nuance of Bouldin’s magic into just a single concept, it would be “agency.”
By incorporating student choice in everything, even in seating arrangements, Bouldin masterfully creates a learning environment that meets the individual needs of his learners.
“Students have to be part of this classroom environment. They have to feel like something is their own to make them want to be in that space and be themselves in that space,” Bouldin said.
A Unique Atmosphere
Outside of a structured debate from time to time, his students are able to pick their seats within the circle. But seats themselves aren’t even predictable. The room is littered with unconventional options like bean bag chairs, mats, and even a trampoline.
These options do not distract from student learning, but rather facilitate it, allowing for student choice and increased buy-in.
“If we’re not having a structured debate, students can just sit or lay on those things. [When they are on them,] they will engage as a student as normal,” Bouldin said. “I really do try to bring choice [into the classroom] as far as furniture goes. I think with the freedom of knowing that they can sit anywhere, the circle structure just works for everyone. They know that if [a particular seat] doesn’t work for them, they have other places that they can go.”
The circle arrangement in Bouldin’s room isn’t just an unconventional classroom seating arrangement, though. It’s the optimal arrangement to work through restorative justice, a strategy that permeates everything at the school.
Ron Brown High, a college-preparatory high school in its fifth year, is focused on serving young African-American boys in a different way. Data consistently shows that black and Latino boys are suspended at higher rates and struggle with more behavior problems — both of which have a dire impact on achievement. Ron Brown set out to better serve their student population by creating a school culture and climate in which students feel safe and comfortable and, from there, focuses on developing students’ social-emotional skills, in addition to their academics.
“It’s really focusing on: Are we going to perpetuate this data or are we going to do something about it?” Bouldin said. “That’s why we give kids multiple chances and multiple opportunities to really make sure that we are serving this population of students differently.”
In an effort to serve their students differently, the school focuses on restorative justice, a practice which aims to empower students to resolve their own conflicts through peer-mediated small group conversations.
“At the same time, every single day, everyone comes — every teacher, every student, every school leader, every support staff. Everyone goes to these circles for 20 minutes a day, to celebrate, to give shoutouts, to restore some harm. If there was a large, whole-school issue, it was acknowledged in the circle,” Bouldin said.
“Things that you might get sent out, suspended, or expelled for in a traditional school, we try to focus on restorative work. It’s all about restoring and keeping the students in school. It’s different,” Bouldin said.
In the circle, students greet one another, share feelings and storied, and talk about the day’s news before moving into the activity, which is the content lesson for the day.
“For the greeting, we may just greet in a different language every day. The share might be ‘What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend?’ The news might be something that happened in the news that day. The activity is simply the content lesson for the day,” Bouldin said.
This opening circle goes in place of a warm up activity and provides students with consistency, as well as an opportunity to express themselves.
“The students know that every single day, we have the same exact drill. They accept it and they get a chance to express themselves on things that are not in the curriculum. It’s the consistency of this circle that they look forward to,” Bouldin said.
The circles have positive themes, such as opportunity or respect, which help elaborate on or reinforce these ideas. But they can be used when issues arise as well. The circle time, in these instances, is built to help students address a challenge head on and recover from it.
“We try to make it positive with the themes and lessons and, when necessary, acknowledge what’s going on,” Bouldin said.
“With us, the students’ voice is just as equal as the teacher’s voice. Even if the student says ‘I didn’t like what the teacher said,’ we have to sit in these smaller circles with the student and support staff. The student gets to say their piece, then the teacher says their piece, with a focus on restoring the harm,” Bouldin said.
Bouldin said that having a structured conversation about the infraction is hard for students at first because they thought, no matter what, the adults would believe what the teacher said. Teachers also struggled to adjust, because students were, at least occasionally, less than honest.
“I’d get pissed having to sit there and listen to some of the bogus stuff that kids who didn’t want to get in trouble would say. Sometimes they can stretch some things or say things that aren’t true,” Bouldin said. “But it was about getting into practice with that. This was not about me having to feel inferior or having to listen to them lie but really letting them know that we are here to hear you.”
But, as time went on, both students and teachers adjusted to this restorative practice, and the need for circles for minor offenses diminished.
“And soon after, students didn’t feel the need to lie anymore, or stretch the truth, or come with all the attitude or anger,” Bouldin said. “There were even some who, before we even made it to the circle, were like ‘Bouldin, you know what, I was wrong. We don’t need to do the circle if you don’t want to. That was definitely me, my fault, I’m going to do better with that. If you recognize that I look off one day, tell me to go take a walk or something.’ That’s when you really start seeing the restorative circle working. As they grew older and they knew we would not expel or suspend them, they really started to focus on changing their behavior without us really having to ask or sit in the circle.”
Responsibility & Agency
Getting students to accept responsibility for their actions and work to change their behavior is something that many teachers might be interested in. Although not all schools are ready to adopt the practice of restorative circles, Bouldin offers some advice on what ordinary classroom teachers who are interested in starting a similar practice can do.
“Start with your classroom first. It’s not going to be easy, but start giving up some of your power,” Bouldin said. “When there is a disagreement with a student, ask to come back to it later on. Even if they walked out or got put out, before they get back into the classroom again, have that conversation with them. Like ‘Hey, I just want to debrief what happened. I want to hear your side of it. Let me know how I can do better in the future.’ When students hear that kind of language, they’re more open to giving suggestions or owning their behavior.”
“Then, partner with other teachers and see if others are interested in some sort of circle,” Bouldin said. “A lot of teachers will be interested if they see you making progress with the students who no one can make progress with. As you get that data, people will logically want that type of interaction.”
Bouldin warns that this practice is an adjustment, however, and won’t be an immediate fix.
“We have our bad days. Don’t get discouraged because your culture didn’t shift within the first week or first month,” Bouldin said. “It took us two years of hell. We had small wins throughout that, but it was like two years of fighting an uphill battle before we really felt like we were changing lives. You’re going to have bad days, weeks and sometimes months when things don’t go as planned. Just stay with it.”
To maximize success, Bouldin says circle norms must be established early and enforced. In a restorative circle, one of those norms is the existence of a talking piece, which anyone wanting to speak must have in their hand. Having that, Bouldin said, facilitates everything else. He suggests letting the student start, then the teacher elaborate. The process should continue until everyone feels that they are fully heard.
At Ron Brown High, restorative practices are even used among the staff when issues arise. Bouldin said that this experience has been helpful in resolving issues, as well as resetting expectations for kids.
“If we’re grown adults with degrees and we had to send this thing around eight times, you may have situations with students where that thing keeps going around,” Bouldin said. “You have to acknowledge and honor that, if we couldn’t figure it out within the first three rounds, let’s not expect students to have it perfect on day one or within round one.”
Bouldin was careful not to sugarcoat anything. Things weren’t perfect on day one, and they still aren’t. But, reflecting on Ron Brown High’s first class, which graduated last year, Bouldin believes that the hard work was worth it.
“They came with a lot of baggage. I think, around their junior year, that’s when the lightbulb started going off,” Bouldin said. “Like, ‘You guys are not going to let up on us. You’re going to keep supporting us, no matter what. No matter what we do, you’re going to keep giving us chances.’”
Breaking the Cycle
Bouldin, an avid traveler who has been to more than 40 countries to date, even extends these chances to students in the form of offering opportunities for them to go on international trips.
“I help urban students travel the world, especially in depressed neighborhoods and in school communities that may not have the resources. So far, for four consecutive years, I’ve been able to organize international trips for my high school students,” Bouldin said.
Bouldin recalls the closing circle during a trip he took to Honduras with students. It was time for one of his toughest students to speak, a student who Bouldin said almost did not get the chance to go on the trip because of the amount of support he needed. Although Bouldin thought that this student might be a challenge to manage overseas, he gave the student a chance. It changed this student’s outlook on everything.
Bouldin asked what a Saratoga baby was and he was informed that it was “one of the hoods in D.C.” His student, before knowing Bouldin and being afforded the many opportunities that he had through education, did not see a way out of his neighborhood. But, thanks to Bouldin and the others at Ron Brown High, and the chances that came with being at the school, the world opened up to him.
“That’s a powerful testimony for others who really didn’t see a future beyond hanging around D.C.,” Bouldin said.
As for the students and others in Ron Brown High’s first graduating class, they have taken the skills that Bouldin and their other teachers have taught them to college.
“Now all of these students are freshmen in college and we keep in touch. They text every day and call often,” Bouldin said. “They have gone from being students to being like [family] now.”