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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Restorative Practices in the Music Room

As we consider anti-racist practices in our teaching practices, one key element to consider is our "behavior management". It's relatively easy to take out offensive songs from our literature, throw some posters of non-white musicians up on the walls, and add some books with non-white characters to our libraries. But the real work begins when we start to look at the human interactions in our classes. The framework of Restorative Practices has a lot to offer teachers as we continue this work, but it can often seem difficult for music teachers to implement because of the number of students we teach and the short class times we have. I've gathered together some music teachers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to share how Restorative Practices can be implemented in practical, concrete ways in the music classroom (including in a distance environment).


I'm so grateful to the wonderful people who shared their insights with me to include in this post! Be sure to read to the end of this post to read more about who they are and find ways to connect with them: David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris, the founder of Amplify RJ, Alice Tsui, elementary instrumental/ choral/ general music teacher in NY, Czarina Francisco Jimenez, elementary general and choral music teacher in CA, and Michelle Rose, secondary virtual music teacher in NC.

What is Restorative Practices?

Let's start with the basics: what are we talking about when we use the term "Restorative Practices"? 

David: "I don’t use the words Restorative Practices on their own. RP is often referred to as a social science, or a system of behavior management, or alternative school discipline, but that’s such a small part of the picture and it doesn’t acknowledge the roots of the work.

In short this work is about remembering and embodying the value of interconnection and interdependence that indegnous people all over the world have held as their core beliefs for generations (ubuntu, in lak’ech, mitakuye oyasin, kapwa, etc.) Colonization and now global capitalism have removed us from those values, so this work is reclaiming those and figuring out how to build, maintain, and repair relationships and meet the needs of the people in our communities.

I define Restorative Justice as “a philosophy and set of practices, rooted in Indigenous teachings, that emphasize our interconnection by repairing relationships when harm occurs while proactively building and maintaining relationships to prevent future harm.” Restorative practices can be a part of that. Many people think of RP as the proactive things that you do to build and maintain relationships and help people heal. The Restorative Justice Process is when we are addressing conflict and harm in a way that meets the needs of all the people involved. Doing this work first requires teachers (and everyone who calls themselves a practitioner) to do the internal work of embodying a restorative mindset and values, not just asking a different set of questions or sitting in a circle with students."

As David points out, Restorative Practices / Restorative Justice is not a quick-fix or a simple program that can be summed up neatly in one blog post. It requires ongoing reflection and internal work by the teacher. If you want to explore the framework further, I highly recommend David's video here. You can also sign up for one of these workshops he hosts on Zoom to deepen your understanding.

What does Restorative Practices look like in actual music classrooms?

Beyond developing an understanding of Restorative Practices, one of the most common reasons music teachers don't implement it in their teaching is because it's hard to picture in concrete ways what that looks like! As David mentioned already, Restorative Practices is focused on relationships. It impacts every single part of teaching. So truly, my thinking about students, their families, my colleagues, and the community, the way I speak to others, the way I conceptualize the logistics of running my classroom, my lesson content... everything is affected in different ways by approaching teaching from this framework. But here are some concrete ways this plays out in different music classrooms, to give you an idea of what this looks like in day-to-day life.

Alice: "As students are empowered with language, I have asked students to listen carefully to each other whenever something comes up, and without interrupting each other in doing so. This includes in music making as well and expression: why are we playing this this particular way? How do we feel when our entire section isn’t getting something “right”? What can we do to build our team up instead of tearing each other down? My opening and end chant for my Orchestra is two words: “ONE ORCHESTRA”. I say “One”, and the students say “Orchestra”. It reminds us all that we are all part of this one team actively creating, making, interpreting, and expressing music together to create one whole sound."

Michelle: "Checking In is a really simple way to build relationships with students and to help them where they're at. As a virtual teacher, I usually have a bell ringer displayed on the screen as the students enter. I also take the time to message at least 2-3 students privately. I'll ask them how they're doing, what's happening for them, or follow up on something they've mentioned to me previously (an interest, event, etc.). I also include check-in questions as warm ups or exit tickets. For example, in Nearpod, I'll use the "collaborate" feature and ask students to find a gif or picture of how they're doing. On exit tickets, I'll ask questions like "How did your week go?" "What are you most looking forward to right now?" "What support do you need right now?"

Additionally, at the beginning of the year, students work together to come up with class expectations. They also come up with teacher expectations to hold me accountable to their learning. I guide students through a series of questions including "How do you want to be treated in class by your classmates?" "When and how should the chat feature be used?" "What is the most/least helpful thing a teacher can do?" Instead of setting the rules myself, I give students to collectively come up with these expectations. This creates much more buy in and trust right at the beginning of the year."

Czarina: "One of my favorite Restorative Practices is to co-create classroom values with my students. It's all about creating a culture of care within our music room. We talk about who and what we value and the way we show that they are valuable to us. Our class values this year are "We value ourselves, each other, and our room." I then invite the students to share the way those values would play out in their choices."

You can read more about some specific examples I use in my elementary music classes in these posts as well, including a range of circle discussion ideas and specific ways to talk to individual students:


This may seem like an out-of-touch topic to be discussing in this moment when our entire profession is being flipped on its head, but I want us to be careful not to lose sight of what really matters in the midst of all the craziness, and to start to think about how these ideas can be translated to the new ways we will be doing "school" in this upcoming year. Look for more posts on specific aspects of this topic in the future, with further input from the wonderful teachers who shared their insights in this post- be sure to connect with them:

Czarina is an elementary classroom music and choir teacher in Southern California. Her passions are creating culturally responsive music lessons and incorporating anti-bias/anti-racist social emotional learning into her curriculum. Connect with her at https://instagram.com/littleupbeatclass.


Michelle Rose works at a full time virtual school where she teaches middle and high school music and directs the extracurricular virtual band and choir. You can connect with her on Instagram @the_musical_rose or by visiting her website themusicalrose.com.


Alice Tsui (pronounced TSOY) is an Asian American/Chinese American pianist, music educator, scholar, activist, lifelong Brooklyn, New Yorker, and the founding music teacher at P.S. 532 New Bridges Elementary, an arts-integrated public elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a product of the NYC public school system, Alice is passionate about decolonizing, anti-racist, abolitionist public music education and empowering the individual and collective voices of youth through music as expression. Learn more about Alice at www.alicetsui.com and on Instagram at @MusicWithMissAlice.

My name is David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris (he/him). I am the founder of Amplify RJ, a digital platform dedicated to educating folx about Restorative Justice philosophy, practices, and origins. Find us on Instagram at @amplify.rj or amplifyrj.com


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