Restorative Approaches in ELT


Cheryl Woelk and Abby Long will be our facilitators for Restorative Approaches in ELT on September 23, 2017!  This is one you don’t want to miss.  The following interview provides a taste of things to be covered in this full day workshop from Cheryl, but you should mark your calendar and participate in the main meal!

1) How did you get connected to English language teaching?  

I have always loved learning languages for sharing stories and connecting with others. When I had the opportunity in university to do a summer travel program teaching conversational English to middle school teachers at a teacher’s college in China, I jumped at the chance and fell in love with the classroom. Since then, I’ve found every opportunity to continue sharing my love of languages through helping others to learn English.

2) How did you come to Korea?

After returning from my summer in China, I found the ESL department at my university and connected with a number of Korean students who wanted to have some extra English practice. I enjoyed these sessions immensely, began learning Korean, and even acquired a bit of a taste for Korean food. So when I had to do a formal internship for my degree and there were no opportunities to return to China, I was happy to say yes to an invitation to teach English with a peacebuilding focus through a non-profit organization in Seoul. What began as a 6-month internship has become a life-changing experience for which I’m always grateful!

3) What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is one aspect of peacebuilding and a field in its own right as well. It’s a concept that refers to a way of thinking about justice when harm has been done and in promoting just relationships in communities. While this began mainly in the legal system in dealing with crime, it’s been expanded to educational settings as well. The term is explained in more detail by Howard Zehr in his book Changing Lenses as a contrast to mainstream society’s general understanding of justice as retributive justice. In other words, if an incident occurs, retributive justice usually asks “Who’s fault is this? What punishment to they deserve?,” restorative justice asks “Who has been harmed and in what way? How can things be made right again?” As opposed to the cycles of violence and revenge that often results from retributive justice, a restorative justice perspective promotes healing for victims and oppressors and the development of healthy and safe communities.

4) How does it apply to the language classroom?

Like in any educational setting, language classrooms are places where people interact, and conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Students and teachers bring their own unique identities, experiences, and ways of communicating and behaving to the classroom which may not be what others want or need. We often call dealing with this “classroom management,” but a restorative justice paradigm moves beyond “managing” behaviour and towards creating healthy, resilient learning communities in which students and teachers can learn to interact in ways that support each other and support each other’s learning.

5) How does it benefit the language classroom?

When students are focused on conflicts and figuring out relationships in the classroom, they can’t focus on learning and their brains are not in a learning mode. Creating a healthy learning community means that students can be free to focus on acquiring language and participating in the interaction that a language class requires. Even more so, language classes are an excellent place to work at learning positive communication skills and for talking through conflict and negotiating differences. Restorative approaches can add real and relevant content to our courses to provide students with practical language skills for real-life problem-solving.

6) Can you describe one or two restorative practices that you think are particularly good for the language classroom?

One typical practice used in restorative justice is a Circle Process. Circles are basically a way for everyone to hear each other’s voices. The students and teacher sit in a circle and have one item as a talking piece. Whoever has the talking piece and speak and others should listen. A question is asked and the talking piece is passed around the circle. Circles can be used for a variety of purposes. While one purpose could be dealing with a class conflict or problem to solve, it’s helpful in the language class even for sharing stories or opinions on a topic.

Another practice related to this is holding regular class meetings. These take place in a regular time set aside weekly. Meetings can be facilitated by the teacher to begin with, but with scaffolded training in process and language students can also take turns being facilitators. Students can put their ideas for topics to add to the agenda in a box during the week and the facilitator can sort through them to choose which to address in the meeting. The meeting might be a place to deal with a problem in the class, to plan a special class day, to reflect on a local event that is affecting everyone, to do community-building activities, or anything else the students want to talk about. It’s an excellent opportunity to practice language for facilitation, following an agenda, taking meeting notes, as well as problem-solving, sharing opinions, and negotiating. Even students in high beginner or low intermediate classes can benefit from the routines practiced in the class meetings to build on their skills for English and for addressing conflict together.

7) How can restorative practices facilitate learning?

Recent research in neuroscience shows we learn in safe envinroments with strong social connections. Many teachers know this intuitively and work towards this in our classes as much as we can, but restorative justice provides a larger paradigm through which to create structures, policies and routines that can support a healthy community, not just in times of conflict, but before conflict emerges. We can also share this paradigm with colleagues and administrative teams to create the kind of whole school change to make our efforts sustainable.

8) Do you have any stories about restorative practices facilitating learning?

I’ve used restorative practices in a variety of language classroom settings. In one intensive English program at a university, we used a series of mediation and conferencing to deal with conflict in a group work setting. As a result, a group that had given up working together managed not only to complete their project, but share their experience of working through conflict with their group with the whole class. In another setting with young learners, teachers meet together weekly to discuss the dynamics of each class and how it affects the learning progress of each student. The results of the meeting may lead to finding ways to support individual learners or to facilitate circle processes with all members of the class to sort through problems before they become critical. There are more stories in the book I wrote with Jan Dormer called Teaching English for Reconciliation which is coming out soon, and I’ll share more from my experience with restorative justice in language teaching at our workshop Restorative Approaches in ELT in September.

9) Do you have any other comments on restorative practices that English teachers would be interested in?

I think it’s important to remember that restorative justice is a way of thinking about conflict and interaction, supported by a variety of practices that we can use and the ones we develop from this paradigm. Restorative practices are not magic, and anytime we work with people we are working in adaptive systems that can have any number of outcomes that we can’t even imagine. So while we may not always get what we want by using restorative practices in the language classroom, we will always follow a process that builds stronger relationships, models healthier communication, and values the voice of each person in our class. This is working to create better educational settings, which will then have larger implications for our curriculum and programs. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities!


Cheryl Woelk

Cheryl Woelk is a language instructor and peace educator who currently serves as the head teacher at Connexus language institute and coordinates the Language for Peace project, integrating language and peace education curriculum. Cheryl is active in TESOL International and co-author of the book, “Teaching English for Reconciliation” (forthcoming). She holds a BA in English, a certificate in TEFL, and an MA in Education and Conflict Transformation.


Creating healthy learning communities is a goal that many language teachers share. Christian English teachers have a clear motivation for this as we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). However, our training often leaves us on our own for figuring out how to do this in our classrooms in practice. Restorative approaches in English language teaching, built on the paradigm of restorative justice in education, can help teachers and students to better communicate with each other, solve problems together, address conflicts that arise in class, and find empowerment to use this skills beyond the classroom as well. This workshop aims to introduce restorative approaches in ELT and give participants a few concrete tools that can be practiced in their classroom settings.

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