Why a Restorative Approach Matters

Contributor: Nicole Keltai, Director of MS Social Work and Community Programs at Community Roots

Community Roots is an institution that values deep conversation and problem solving over quick solutions and rhetoric. We examine the whole child when trying to understand big feelings and expressions, and we work hard to give students the proper space and setting(s) to reflect on their choices and actions.


Nowhere is this more evident than in our work around discipline. First and foremost is the incredibly important work of creating and sustaining strong classroom and school communities that foster a sense of trust, love, and belonging, for without this in place, we can not approach discipline in a way that honors our students and builds community.  Our systems for discipline are then put in place under the firm conviction that punishing a behavior does not make it disappear. For example, sending a person to detention to sit quietly may eliminate the distracting behaviors in the short term, but it does nothing to address the underlying disconnect between the wants and needs of the student and the norms and structures of the classroom. It is, in essence, simply ignoring rather than unpacking the (often quite complex and time-consuming ) issue at hand. This more traditional “isolate and remove” strategy simply perpetuates the cycle of relegating students to punitive environments instead of creating ways to have them remain in their various learning communities while simultaneously repairing harm. It is in essence one of the most fundamental building blocks in the school to prison pipeline, an oppressive structure that we work to disrupt through the adoption of a restorative approach.  In fact, numerous studies have shown that “students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year” (ACLU). Not only do students who are suspended or expelled have a higher susceptibility in falling into this school to prison pipeline cycle, but “students of color tend to receive harsher punishments for engaging in the same conduct as white students. Racially isolated schools that primarily educate students of color are more likely to be among the nation’s “dropout factories” and also among those that utilize the harshest, most exclusionary means of discipline” (NAACP Legal Defense Fund). With such staggering statistics in front of us, we at Community Roots firmly believe in the restorative practices approach to shifting behavior in our students.  

In the last two years, we have worked to engage our middle school community in a restorative practice approach to conflict management. This approach has manifested itself in: 

  • Restorative justice circles and conferences when things go awry: This involves uniting all individuals involved in the incident at hand as well as those impacted by it. Asking target questions to each participant with the goal that all voices are heard and creating a plan for restoring the relationships harmed is of the utmost importance.

  • Ongoing didactic and directive staff training: Staff trained in the philosophy and approach of restorative practices supplemented by the resources and space needed to consider how these theories impact their work with children.  This is best done through role playing, read and reflect exercises as well as small group conversations. 

  • Constant review of behavioral management data and efficacy: The restorative practice team meets monthly to review student data detailing behavior, circles conducted, and outcomes to ensure best practices are being implemented effectively.

This emphasis on restorative practices over punitive action not only gives participants voice in moments of crisis, but it also, perhaps even more importantly, provides them with structures and a shared language to confront similar situations in the future. These practices also serve to de-stigmatize problematic behaviors and dynamics by intentionally separating the deed from the doer. Processing difficult feelings and events in an effort to repair harm rather than simply punish dovetails perfectly with our mission to create an inclusive community that works well for all of its diverse members. It makes the creation and maintenance of community standards a shared and ongoing responsibility as well as providing the most organic and effective way for students and staff to gain greater empathy for others and develop ways to implement this newfound empathy with efficacy. We include families in many of these circles and conferences to deepen their level of understanding which gives families a new found lens through which they can see their children in ways that foster repair and unity. 

Since implementing this systematic approach to challenging behaviors in a more overt and consciously articulated fashion in our middle school, we have seen an increase in student and family engagement, and most impressive has been an increase in students making better choices and feeling heard and valued by their community.

A Recent Study by The Century Foundation: The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms

The Century Foundation is a progressive, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to foster opportunity, reduce inequality, and promote security at home and abroad. On April 29, 2019, they published the piece: The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms. Here they identify and outline the Academic and Cognitive Benefits, the Civic and Social-Emotional Benefits, and the Economic Benefits of school integration. A few of those important benefits are listed below but click on the link for a better understanding of why building integrated schools matters!

  • Integrated schools help to reduce racial achievement gaps.

  • Students who attend integrated schools are more likely to seek out integrated settings later in life.

  • Students in integrated schools have higher average test scores.

  • School integration promotes more equitable access to resources.

Students from Community Roots

Students from Community Roots

Do We Talk About "Acceptance" With Our Students?

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots


The concept of "acceptance" is built into our core value of Honor Yourself and Others, and is a concept we address with our students starting in Kindergarten.  We want kids to realize that their perspective is important and we work hard to help them understand where their perspective comes from and to value that. We also want our students to understand that there is never a single story and we emphasize the importance of learning to hear and accept the perspectives of others. We do this in two ways: through our anti-bias approach to curriculum and through our approach to building strong classroom communities.

We use an anti-bias approach to curriculum, one that encourages students to look at history and literature critically and from multiple perspectives.  Starting in Kindergarten, we ask students to think about their identities (in more tangible ways like skin color and hair) and how they are the same or different than their classmates.  This learning builds over time. Each year our students develop an understanding around more complex social justice concepts that continues to reinforce what they have learned the year before.   For example, by the time our students are in 8th grade, they are able study labor movements in the United States, and understand how labor is impacted by a person’s immigration status, race, economic privilege, and other identifiers. These conversations are possible because of the many conversations that have preceded them. Through this lens, students are pushed to consider what “acceptance” means in the context of history and current events.


In our classrooms, we regularly make space for students to learn from one another.  We talk about creating brave spaces where students feel comfortable sharing their stories, expressing their identities and listening to others.  We make time for our students to get to know one another as human beings and to both learn and have fun together. If a conflict arises, we utilize a restorative practices approach.  Children are asked to think about their actions, understand their motivations, and consider the impact their actions may have had on others. After self-reflection, students are then guided to talk to one another (or the group or the class) to share their perspective and restore a sense of community.  We believe that true "acceptance" requires a proactive approach; in order to meet the needs of a diverse group of students, we have to work every day to build strong and accountable communities.

It is our hope and intention that over the course of their time with us, our students build a strong understanding of their own identities and consider ways in which they can be upstanders in their communities.

The Arpillera Project: Art as a Voice and Vehicle for Reflection and Activism

Contributor: Laura Ayam, Middle School Art Teacher at Community Roots

No Mas Guns

No Mas Guns

Activism is an intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change. It consists of efforts to promote or direct reform with the desire to make improvements in society.

Does art have the power to generate change? Can we use our work to raise awareness about issues that are important to us? What impact can this have on ourselves, on others and the issues at hand? Artists have been discussing this for decades, but it seems especially relevant at this time. In our art room, 7th graders actively engage in discussions about current events and explore their roles and their power as agents for social change. Inspired by artists who have used their work as a way to share their voice and vision in times of social or political unrest or in the face of adversity or injustice, motivated by their way to address inequality and to challenge power structures and the status quo, we as learning artists see our work as a vehicle to speak up and to encourage community and public participation as a means of bringing about social change. This is the framework for our Arpillera project.

No Mas Sugar Coating History

No Mas Sugar Coating History

The Arpillera project is an Art and Spanish collaboration. The 7th grade theme is “Who has Power?” and our students explore this question from multiple perspectives in humanities and in both Art and Spanish classes. They learn about military dictatorships in South America in Spanish class, particularly in Chile With this framework, in the art room we start discussing the role and impact art can have as a form of social activism.

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet led a dramatic coup against Chile’s democratically elected government. In the months that followed, many Chilean citizens that opposed his regime were kidnapped, tortured, murdered or made to disappear. These desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) left behind family and friends who were not only frantic with worry and grief about their loved ones, but in many cases also had to find a way to support themselves and their families. Some people began to sew arpilleras (embroidered tapestries) to share stories and say "No más" (no more) to violence.

No Mas School Segregation

No Mas School Segregation

No Mas Homophobia

No Mas Homophobia

Through these tapestries they claimed their freedom of speech and the return of their disappeared loved ones under the military regime. It was under these difficult circumstances that arpilleras were born— a unique form of protest as well as art. The first arpilleras were made from fabric scraps, and in some cases, pieces of cloth from the clothes of the missing people. Arpilleras were mostly crafted by women who worked together in cooperative groups to make and sell their art. Through their work they were able to say what they could not say in words.

Today people continue to make arpilleras to tell stories about daily life in Chile and other parts of South America. Through the arpilleras these women found a way to express themselves and also share with the world the tragic events that were taking place in their country. Looking at those arpilleras today allows us to learn about a particular social, political and historical context through artwork. It also allows us to hear individual voices and learn about personal stories of people in that context.

In our art studio we discuss the role and impact art can have in carrying out a message and the empowering possibilities it provides as a way to reach all audiences. Together we examine our current social, cultural and political climate and think of what messages we want to share with each other and our community. Our 7th grade artists engage in meaningful dialogue about power and explore issues that they find important, pressing or urgent and want to bring change to in their communities or in the world at large. We talk about things that happen near and far, about situations that systematically advantage some members of society and systematically disadvantage other members of it, about democracy, freedom and access, to name a few. Just like these women in that particular context had these experiences and told their stories, we think about and share our own stories as individuals, as members of our school community, our neighborhoods, our city, country or the world.

No Mas Sexism

No Mas Sexism

We make connections with our personal voices and choose topics that we feel the need to address and say “No más” (no more) to in our present time. The prompt has empowered some students to speak about issues they felt directly affected them firsthand, and other students to research, listen and learn more about issues they felt they wanted to support and be upstanders  for, while exploring appropriate and effective ways to do so.

As they worked, students researched and learned more about their topic of choice, and had the opportunity to share with their peers. As many other activist artists, we continued to think about the power of the arts to create awareness and bring change.

Just like arpilleras have allowed us to learn more about the stories of people in Chile during the dictatorship, I like to think that one day the work they create in our art studio will also serve as artifacts for others to understand what this particular group of young adolescents in Brooklyn was experiencing and standing up for in our time.

I am hopeful that their voices will be heard loud and clear and that they will continue to work towards change. It is my dream that the issues that we are individually and collectively working towards changing will be outdated for future generations, and that these creative and brave learning artists will grow to be adults in a more just, fair and equitable world.

Starting with Identity

Contributors: Third Grade Team at Community Roots

We recognize that for students to be able to look back in history, they first have to understand their own identities and how that impacts their perspectives. 

In third grade, the first of our social studies units is the Identity Study. We begin this study by defining identity as who we are and how there are many things that make up the different people that we are. We dig deeply about the different layers that make up who we are by studying the concepts of race, ethnicity, gender, sex (whether our body is male or female at birth), gender identity, gender expression, religion, access, variability and class.

Identity Cubes

Identity Cubes

Third graders are introduced to these terms and concepts through class read alouds and discussions and then work with partners to define the term in their own words, understanding that these concepts are fluid and only matter as we connect them to our experiences and the experiences of others. After doing this deep thinking, third graders then get ready to share aspects of their own identities with a larger community. They create identity cubes with different parts of their identity on the faces of the cube.

Students also write "I am" poems about themselves. Before sharing with our school and families, student share their poems and cubes with partners to learn more about other students’ identities within our classroom community. They then discuss the similarities and differences they noticed about each other’s identity. Afterward, we make an identity tree that features those similarities and differences. The identifiers that students share become branches of our tree and students add their unique thumbprints to the branches to create leaves.

Finally, students choose one identifier that feels important to who they are and choose to share that in our "I am" video. This identity work builds a strong community and sets a foundation for our year together.

The Perfection Comes from Not Being Perfect

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

blog picture sahba.jpg

In the last couple of years, we have had a number of people come through our doors: educators, policy makers, researchers, all asking us about our practice at Community Roots.  We share our lessons learned around approaching curriculum with an anti-bias lens, teaching to the inherent variability of learners, staff professional development, working with families to build community, talking about race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability (among other things) with all of our stakeholders, and what goes into doing this within an intentionally racially and economically diverse and inclusive school community. And it is a joy to share what we have learned.  

For over a decade, we have followed a cycle of planning, action, and reflection.  Planning by taking into consideration the aspects of our community, our limitations and strengths, and our human resources and capacity.  Moving those plans into action by trying something new with thought and intent.  And, most importantly, reflection afterwards to consider what we learned, what we want to build on, and what we need to work harder at.  

For example, when we first began to relook at our curriculum through an anti-bias lens, we felt it was important to share this approach with our families.  Our decision to hold a workshop to share the research behind an anti-bias approach, to share curricular shifts and examples, and to have families engage in some of the conversations we were having as staff members, yielded about 10 participants and did not represent the diversity of our community (and it was a really good presentation!).  We  then took time to reflect on this, to ask ourselves how could we engage families about our approach to curriculum and instruction and reach a more diverse and larger cross-section of our families. As we reflected, it became clear that deepening the understanding of our families has to happen through their children and their work.  We have now shifted our culminations (end of social studies project shares) to be the place where teachers not only talk about our approach, but families see that approach in action and often engage in conversations alongside their students about topics connected to equity, identity, and social justice.  

This cycle of planning, action and reflection has allowed us, over time, and with much hard work, to refine our approach, to consider multiple avenues of action, and to build on strength. 

teaching pic.jpg

When we share our work, our lessons learned, and our best practices with others, we do so with an understanding that we ourselves are in a continuous cycle of learning.  It is the flaws and imperfections that allow us the opportunity to learn, and therefore, the opportunity to develop in practice.  We position ourselves as learners, as practitioners who are seeking to hone and develop their own skills and capacities.  Therein lies the perfection.  

Sharing About the Life of Dr King with Our Kindergarteners

Contributor: Susan Park, Kindergarten Teacher at Community Roots

As a diverse, inclusive, and culturally responsive school, we feel that it is important that conversations about powerful leaders, advocates, and activists of color are not limited to the month of February, or confined to only honoring Dr. Martin Luther King's life's work and beliefs at one time during the school year.  However, as our students do not attend school on Dr. King's birthday, we do find it important to acknowledge, celebrate, and talk about his life, beginning in Kindergarten. 

Last week I sat with my Kindergarten class, and we read a book entitled: Happy Birthday Martin Luther King, and we watched a clip about his life from BrainPop Jr.  The following is the email we sent to our families, sharing with them the conversations we had with their children, and encouraging them to continue these conversations at home.  You will notice in the language of the email we use words like "peach" and "chocolate".  These are words that the students themselves have used to self-identify when we talked extensively about skin tone in one of our earlier units.  

Dear families,

Today, we talked about why we don't have school on Monday and about Dr. Martin Luther King.  We talked about how back in time, but also still today, there are some people who think that having white or peach skin is the best - some people believed that if you have peach/white skin, you are the prettiest, smartest and "bestest". Then we asked the students, "What do you think about that?". Our whole class quickly responded with, "That's mean!" and "That's not true!" and "Everyone is beautiful and everyone should feel honored."  And we agreed that you have to get to know someone by spending time with them, not by just looking at how they look on the outside.

The book brought up some of the laws that were unfair back then - these laws gave freedom and choice to those with peach/white skin but not to others who looked different than them. Martin Luther King Jr. worked hard, along with other leaders, to change those laws (rules) with his powerful words and leadership. he emphasized love and not hate to make these changes. Many people who had chocolate skin knew this wasn't OK and joined together to make change. And some people who had peach skin, were allies, and joined in the "fight" to make changes. Children, also were brave and marched alongside the grown-ups, even though they got yelled at and some would even get hurt. The end of the book does talk about how MLK died and we talked about how sometimes being so fearful can lead people to such hate. But many continued to honor his life and his work by continuing to "fight" until finally, some of the laws did change.


Lastly, we touched on how we still have laws and practices that are unfair today (some based on skin color or gender, as examples). And some people still believe that white/peach skin are the best. We all can honor Dr. King  and his work by being brave and being an ally and supporting others who are being treated unkindly and unfairly. Dr. King and all his supporters were for ALL kinds of people, and we can live and act with that belief as well.

The conversation that followed was very thoughtful and powerful. We encourage you to carry this talk to your table today at home and find one big or small way to honor Dr. King on Monday.

If you have any questions, our door is always open.

Dia del los Muertos: Unpacking Cultural Appropriation in My Middle School Spanish Class

Contributor: Lena Dalke, Middle School Spanish Teacher at Community Roots

When I started teaching Spanish eight years ago, very few of my students knew about Día de los Muertos and those who did had family or friends who celebrated the holiday. Over the past few years, though, I’ve noticed that more and more students had some familiarity with the holiday, although they often described it as the “Mexican halloween.”  But it wasn’t until some of my own students excitedly told me that they were going to “dress up like day of the dead” for Halloween a couple of years ago, that I realized that I needed to change something about my approach. In additional to learning Spanish vocabulary words related to Día de los Muertos, I wanted my students to grapple with the ramifications of taking elements of a culture that wasn’t their own, and to think about how that might affect others, especially in light of power dynamics between the United States and Mexico. I also wanted them to think about the connections between how colonization changed the pre-hispanic cultures and current issues around cultural appropriation.  Yet, I also knew I wanted to tread lightly so as to not stifle my students’ enthusiasm about learning about the holiday, or other cultures in general.  

To build background about cultural appropriation, I used Nik Moreno’s article called The History of Día de los Muertos and Why You Shouldn’t Appropriate It, and I also showed segments of Franchesca Ramsey’s 7 Myths about Cultural Appropriation DEBUNKED!.  We explored the difference between assimilation (when someone is forced to take on another culture in order to fit in or survive in a different country) versus appropriation (when someone takes parts of a culture or holiday that’s not theirs for their own enjoyment or benefit). At the beginning of our discussions, most of my students’ sentiments were that it was okay to celebrate a culture that is not your own, but they recognized that there is a fine line between being respectful and disrespecting the holiday.  

As the conversations continued, we discussed whether or not it felt respectful to take parts of one holiday and celebrate it during another holiday.  It was interesting to me to find that many of my sixth grade students had already been thinking about cultural appropriation in different contexts of their lives.  One student shared a personal connection about going to the Chinese New Year’s Day parade as being respectful appreciation as a white person, but dressing up in a costume worn during the Chinese New Year’s Day parade for Halloween as not being respectful.  Another student shared that she had with a friend of hers who was not Jewish but wanted to celebrate Hanukkah in a way that felt more like Christmas. She said, “You can’t do that. I have no problem with her celebrating it, but you can’t celebrate a different culture and change it.”  Throughout the conversations, students who initially did not think that there was anything wrong with celebrating other holidays started to show understanding for the times and situations in which it wouldn’t be respectful.  A student summarized our general consensus that we came to: “It’s not okay to take one part of a holiday and put it into another holiday because it’s kind of disrespectful because you’re not celebrating what that other holiday is really for.”  


The most powerful moment for me this year was with my 7th grade class, with students whom I had started these conversations with last year.  One of the students shared an incident that had occurred on Halloween when she was trick-or-treating and saw someone dressed up as a stereotype of the holiday.  She asked the person why they were dressed like that, and she informed them more about Día de los Muertos.  She explained that it’s not a costume, it’s a holiday. In this small interaction, it was clear to me that this student was embodying one of our school’s core values of honoring ourselves and others, and was also empowered to act as an upstander when she saw that someone was not being thoughtful about the holiday.  By sharing her experience with her class, she inspired her classmates to identify other ways that they could be upstanders in the face of cultural appropriation, by educating others and using social media.

For me, the insights that come from these conversations confirm the importance of talking about these issues with this middle school students.  Additionally, it also gives me hope that if people start to contemplate the implications of cultural appropriation at the age of 11 or 12, that they will be able to gain a much deeper understanding of the complexities of cultural exchanges as they get older.

Part of a National Movement

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots


Two members from our team joined hundreds from across the United States at the conference of the National Coalition on School Diversity #NCSD2017 held in New York on October 20.  The conference was entitled A Struggle We Must Win: Advancing School Integration through Activism, Youth Voice, and Policy Reform. It brought together educators, school leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners, and community organizers in the fight towards educational equity. 

Roots ConnectED presented a workshop on Engaging Families in Diverse Schools: Innovative Approaches to Community Building, where we shared our I.N.T.E.N.T. framework.  We believe that additional spaces need to be created for families to come together to share perspectives, engage in community building activities, and connect to their child’s experience in school in order to develop deep relationships with one another.  Dr. Siddle Walker, Professor of Educational Studies at Emory University, stated that parents are not accidentally involved, but intentionally involved.  In this same vein, I.N.T.E.N.T. captures the structure and approach we adopt when working with our stakeholders:

Intentional and safe spaces

No one shot deals

Thoughtful outreach

Explicit space for connection, reflection, and sharing of identity

Numerous entry points

The numbers matter: keep it small

Previous blog posts give specific examples of our I.N.T.E.N.T. framework in practice.  It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to share practical tools in the implementation of creating integrated school communities. 

Prism: Students Broaden the Concept of Allyship

Contributors: Jillian Morgan & Sarah Solomon, Prism Advisors at Community Roots

It started with a simple phrase from a 7th grade student, who we will call Z. “We need a GSA”. Z wanted their peers and the adults at school to understand and validate their experiences. They felt that a student group dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues would help bring about positive change in our school community. After a year of self-advocacy and perseverance, Z was granted permission to start a GSA, which left us adults with a big question:

“How do we start a GSA led by middle school students that honors our school’s core values?”

A group of adults committed to helping Z launch the group met to brainstorm. We decided that the group needed to be student led, diverse, and a safe place for students to express themselves.

Z identified two of their classmates as allies who would help them recruit and lead the group. They went into the cafeteria, not knowing what to expect, and came back with a full page list of students who signed up as being interested. They were motivated to get started.

First, the group chose a name: Prism. They felt it was inclusive of all identities and experiences, but still symbolic of their vision. A prism is multi-faceted, brings light, and projects rainbows! We agreed that it was a very fitting name.

Meeting topics were generated by student participants, and the adult advisors supported them in finding resources and gathering necessary materials. The group discussed current events, experiences inside and outside of school, and ideas they had for events and projects.

The students of Prism worked on two major projects throughout our first school year together. The first project was an education campaign to raise awareness about different LGBTQ+ identities. The students designed posters explaining the definitions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer+ and hung them around the school. Before they posted their work, we discussed and processed as a group how we would feel and respond if a poster was defaced or ridiculed. It turned out that, instead, the posters not only remained in tact, but they also generated conversation in the school..

After their first action, the students of Prism wanted to do something that would promote action among their community members. The concept of an “ally” is present in our curriculum and conversations at Community Roots, and the students wanted to educate people on how this idea is relevant to people who identify as LGBTQ+.

Working together as a team, the students researched, planned, assigned themselves roles, wrote and edited a script and created a storyboard, brought in outside help (a producer friend of our community), and they stayed after school to shoot the film, record voice overs, and illustrated their ideas. The first time we watched the video all the way through, we were glowing. We knew that we had made something powerful and wanted to share it with the whole school.

The day we showed the video “How to Be an Ally” to Community Roots Middle School, Z got up in front of everyone and made a statement introducing the group and the video. While everyone watched the video, Z watched them and felt that they had achieved what they set out to do, and more.

Z is in 9th grade now and is an active member of the GSA at their high school. We can’t wait to see what they do next.