Book Reviews, Reading

Book Review: Touching Spirit Bear By Ben Mikaelsen

Today’s post is in response to an awesome article I read yesterday over at Cult of Pedagogy about Restorative Justice.  Have you heard of it?  


A little background:


Restorative Justice is a set of beliefs and actions intended to modify student behavior.  It comes from the detention system, and, guys and gals, it’s controversial!  Many of us teachers grew up expecting punishments for breaking rules.  That’s what school is about, right?  Other than teaching and learning, schools also teach life skills and what the “real world” is like.  Because of this, many teachers take the stance that students must be punished for wrongdoing.  How else will they learn their lesson?  It’s only what’s fair.  I’m teaching them an important lesson for their future.  Well, that’s the mentality of our corrections system–not schools.  Schools are places for learning, not punishment.  See, I told you it was controversial.  


Restorative Justice seeks to examine undesired behaviors and their consequences for others.  Students are required to make amends as appropriate for their actions.  For (very simple) example, if a student takes and breaks their classmate’s pencil, that student will not be given a detention for the deed.  He or she will be tasked with the responsibility of replacing the pencil to the best of his or her ability and likely apologizing for the action.  Rather than a detention that penalizes the student, Restorative Justice teaches us responsibility for our actions.


Circle Justice is a tool that’s used in conjunction with restorative justice.  It asks students to confront their peers in a calm and safe manner and discuss the behaviors.  There’s no hiding behind the punishment here.  A victim can share how they’ve been wronged.  The wrongdoer has to listen, reflect, respond, and make amends.  It isn’t always a smooth process, and it’s one that takes modeling and coaching from expert adults, but it’s wholly worthwhile.  Jennifer Gonzales at Cult of Pedagogy says in her overview of Restorative Justice:


This shift toward restorative justice has led to reduced recidivism (repeat offenses), greater satisfaction with the outcomes from all stakeholders, and reduced post-traumatic stress caused by the crime.


Sounds good to me, right?  Sign. Us. Up.


I recently worked with a school just starting out with Restorative Justice.  We did a few activities as a staff to see what this process might entail, to include viewing and participating in sharing activities in a circle.  While it was an effective way to understand what we were going to ask of our students, our assigned reading was, by far, the most effective preparation strategy for implementing Restorative Justice.  


Now for the book:


Touching Spirit Bear.  From the back cover:


Whatever you do to the animals, you do to yourself. Remember that.

At fifteen, Cole Matthews has been fighting and stealing for years. The punishment for smashing Peter Driscal’s skull into the sidewalk—his most recent crime—is harsh. This time, Cole will have to choose between prison and Native American Circle Justice. He will live either behind bars or in isolation for one year.

Cole chooses Circle Justice. But in the first days of his banishment to a remote Alaskan island, he is mauled by a mysterious white bear and nearly dies. Will the attack of the spirit bear destroy Cole’s life or save his soul?


Touching Spirit Bear is a fantastic book for an administrative team considering Restorative Justice, a staff that’s ready to implement but wants more ideas, parents who are interested in your new initiative, and most importantly, students who may be struggling with their own actions or the actions of another.  It’s entertaining, easy to read, and informative.  I read it in two evenings in preparation for a faculty meeting discussion on it.  It won the Napra Nautilus Award and comes highly recommended.


Do you think Restorative Justice is something that would work at your school?  Give Touching Spirit Bear a read and see.  


After that, if you’re still looking for more, Cole’s adventures continue with Ghost of Spirit Bear.  


Happy reading!