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Restorative Literacies: Creating a Community of Care in Schools

reviewed by Kristen Pennycuff Trent - September 15, 2021

coverTitle: Restorative Literacies: Creating a Community of Care in Schools
Author(s): Deborah L. Wolter
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807765201, Pages: 144, Year: 2021
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Deborah L. Wolter, M.A., is an author of considerable experience as a former early childhood educator and literacy consultant to public school districts focusing on underserved and underrepresented populations. She has written three other works exploring the multiple literacies and languages of students from diverse populations, including Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing the Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction and Ears, Eyes, and Hands: Reflections on Language, Literacy, and Linguistics. Perhaps nothing better qualifies her to write about restorative literacies and creating caring communities in schools as her own encounters with ableism and opportunity gaps, as someone who has been deaf since birth.

In her latest publication, Restorative Literacies: Creating a Community of Care in Schools, Wolter immediately reminds us that while all individuals have narratives they tell themselves and others relay about us, those two stories can be, and often are, divided. She writes For some people, however, this disconnect is significant and can result in misunderstandings, microaggression, marginalization, and discrimination. People, from the very young to the very old, desire to be heard. And fully heard with empathy, connection, and restoration (p. xv). Not only is this topic universal to all humans, but Richard Milners foreword to the book helps us situate this urgent need in todays time as he writes:

At a time of immense cultural and racial disconnects; pervasive inequitable structures, institutions, and systems; and deeply ingrained uncertainty inside and outside of education, this book offers a refreshing perspective on the power of story in cultivating emancipatory, restorative, and transformative contexts of learning, teaching, and development. (p.vii)

Broken into nine chapters plus foreword,  preface, and conclusion, Wolter challenges educators to acknowledge their own ethnocentrism and ask difficult questions about the stories we tell and the stories we are told, as well as those we never hear: those that are expressed instead by silence. She moves into Chapter 1 by defining restorative literacies as a strengths-based approach founded on acceptance and validation of the stories, lived experiences, and perspectives of individuals, as well as their multifaceted literacies in and outside of school through response, repair, and restoration (p. x). By openly acknowledging and listening to students stories of violence, shame, stigmatization, and alienation as a result of struggles (p. 4), practices such as restorative circles help educators to learn with their students, not teach to or provide for their students (p. 13) through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking together. The true purpose of restorative literacies is not only to create community and connection in classrooms, but to also repair and restore relationships between classroom members, teachers, and even authors and texts.

Chapters 2 through 9 begin with the stories of students and teachers that provide opportunities for the reader to Notice the Language of Stories (Chapter 2), practice Compassionate Listening (Chapter 3), implement Thinking about Literacies (Chapter 4), build Restoring Relationships (Chapter 5), start Repairing Harm (Chapter 6), move into Strengthening Learning with Agency (Chapter 7), instigate Developing Leadership and Sustainability (Chapter 8), and fulfill the call for Recognizing Literacies and Identities (Chapter 9). These vignettes give us a glimpse into the unheard narrative of the student, often told through disengagement and undesired behaviors. They also help us to align our thinking about what we can learn from these students, not what to do about them (p. 17). Simultaneously, these scenarios encourage us to listen to [our] inner voices and to share stories ourselves (p. 120).

Chapter 2 translates the unspoken language of need (p. xii) and provides educators with tools for pausing, noticing, and contemplating the stories told with behavior, silence, and disengagement. Wolter reminds us to build and strengthen positive relationships between backgrounds and perspectives, as well as the variable skills, proficiencies, and fluencies of the readers, the multiple texts readers encounter, and the authors of such texts (p. 20). We do this as we eliminate deficit language and the identity-blind attitude to step into sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the impact of racism in the classroom, which appears with the texts we include and exclude, the strategies and assessments we practice, and the remediations and interventions we use. We also begin this process as we notice and respond to students actual needs, build on their unique strengths, be culturally responsive, and provide the opportunities necessary to give every student a fair chance at academic success (p. 25) by listening to goals instead of systems.

Compassionate Listening is described in Chapter 3 as focusing our attention on active listening, response, and action (p. 29). Authentic listening and observing occurs when we seek to actively see and hear the message transmitted without appraisal, consider a response based on what was observed and noted, while recognizing that multiple value systems may be represented, and bridge the gap between positions to make sustainable changes in our practices for the benefit of all. Wolter encourages us to do this as we also listen to our own voices as humans and as educators (p. 32), eliminating ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, identity-blindness, multiculturalism, and ableism to develop relationships revolving around an ongoing quest for intercultural competence. This life-long pursuit will lead teachers to recognize and expand the strengths of students current literacies while acknowledging and connecting experiences in and out of school.

Chapter 4 expands responsive literacies to include individual, social, cultural, geographical, historical, linguistic, and political interpretations (p. 43). Wolter writes:

When schools embrace and empower an expanded view of literacies, restorative practices can promote learning about, responding to, and strengthening language, linguistics, literacies, and identities, in addition to decoding and encoding proficiency and fluency, for all students and even for educators. (p. 45)

One practice is workshopping the literary canon, whereby teachers enrich a traditional classic Western text with multiple high-interest genres in a multitude of formats in a reading and writing workshop. In addition, educators can also shift from text levels and labels to student choice and voice in text selection; emphasize multiple genres as well as disciplinary literacy; shift from noticing the outcome or achievement gap to the cause or opportunity gap; build metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness; value translanguaging and code-switching, even with non-standard dialects; and magnify vocabulary.

Restoring Relationships not only among students, educators, and the community, but also among students and the literacies surrounding them (p. xiii) is the theme of Chapter 5. Focusing on the authentic literacy opportunities of individuals instead of test scores, educators can start by accepting students where they are instead of where we think they should be. As Wolter states, In our current climate of standards and testing, people have forgotten this love for curiosityfor other people and for literacies (p. 60). One way teachers can do this is to model their own love of literacy, both professionally and personally, for their students. The author reminds us:

Teachers who are avid readers talk about books in the context of pleasure, are seen to read independently in school, and read aloud to their classes with expression, emotional connection. Models of keen recreational book reading may be particularly important for children who lack such a model at home or in their friendship group. (p. 61)

This can be especially significant for those who face difficulties with access, library culture, and lack of diversity in the book selection available, which will in turn impact students motivation and engagement with text. Self-selected texts, deliberate inclusion of books by diverse authors and illustrators about diverse characters and situations, and reading ladders of related texts that progress through gradually more complex development are three ways teachers can move toward restoring relationships, as are promoting inquiry and project-based learning and focusing on processing and meaning instead of mistakes. Most importantly, students need time for reading in class to practice and refine strategies while settling in to feel like they live in, rather than just visit, the classroom spaces in which they read and write (p. 73).

While restoring relationships is momentous, educators must not simply stop there. Instead, we should use restorative literacies for Repairing Harm (Chapter 6), particularly the damage caused by systematic remedial and retributive practices common in schools such as testing, ability grouping, tracking, and even institutionalized racism (p. 75). The first step of action is to dismantle and disrupt negative labels and categories&to help students and the community of educators around the students begin to see themselves as readers and writers (p. 76) with restorative circles. During this time, teachers observe and listen as students speak, listen, and reflect to one another in an atmosphere of safety, decorum, and equality, allowing students to tell their own stories and offer their own perspectives (p. 78). While the purpose and topic of the restorative circle typically centers on a social justice issue, it could also explore the multiple texts readers encounter and the authors of such texts, as well as the cognitive and metacognitive processes of reading proficiency, fluency, and comprehension, and writing encoding and effectiveness (p. 79). As students listen to all views presented with a critical ear, educators should acknowledge frustration and pain discussed, help students make connections between shared experiences, and make their own vulnerability and perspectives visible. They should also note literacy practices that are mentioned for future mini-lessons on needed topics based in empathy and empowerment.

Chapter 7, Strengthening Learning with Agency, helps teachers to move from acting for under-represented and marginalized students to taking action with students. Rooted in inquiry and equity, skills are promoted alongside identity, critical thinking, and intellectual development to move students toward agency for their own learning. Wolter writes:

Therefore, students spend time in school doing what readers and writers do: learning to

understand their physical, social, and emotional world, and growing toward being informed global citizens. They think, talk, read, and write about their world through access to a huge volume of texts that provide rich, diverse examples of genre, theme, topic, setting, and other literary qualities. (p. 94)

Making space for students to explore their own perspectives, increase their own metacognitive capabilities, and expand their reading and writing realms also allows for meaningfully authentic opportunities in an active, inclusive community of learners.

Shifting toward shared governance and power leads students and educators to a collaborative and sustainable literacy movement for everyone. In Chapter 8, Wolter cautions us against mistaking students leadership behaviors for disruptions, reminding teachers and administrators that characteristics such as problem solving, verbal communication skills, empathy, prominence, self-confidence, energy, flexibility, independence, responsibility, and organization (p. 100) can be negatively interpreted, particularly by marginalized students. She writes that the goal of developing sustained leadership opportunities is to create structures that allow students meaningful processes of analyzing teaching and learning so that their voices and perspectives inform classroom practices (p. 101). Tools such as the antibias framework can help encourage motivation and participation in timely, culturally relevant, and sustainable practices that allow for all students to share power.

Recognizing Literacies and Identities, Chapter 9, calls out the assumptions of the single story, often perpetuated by well-intentioned teachers, to make sure all narratives matter. Strategies such as decentering Whiteness, challenging White fragility, listening to the unspoken stories, searching for parallel narratives, confronting fake news and toxic positivity, and fostering readers identities help to create metaliterate individuals who are prepared to tackle misunderstandings, microaggression, marginalization, and discrimination (p. xv). After all, Wolter states, Language and literacy are among the most humane of all practices; speaking, writing, reading, and imaging are the ways we tell human stories, forge relationships, and make sense of identities as humans (p. 116). Teachers can harness this power by using restorative literacy to restore, repair, and reconcile the relationship between the backgrounds and perspectives, as well as the variable skill, proficiencies, and fluencies, of readers; the multiple texts readers encounter; and the authors of such texts (p. 117).

The book ends with a conclusion on Restorative Literacies and Restorative Care, reminding educators that nurturing the authentic voices of students and teachers means shifting our own thinking and actions first. Taking steps such as noticing the language of stories, compassionate listening, expanding the concept of literacy and what it means to be literate, restoring relationships, repairing harm, strengthening agency, developing leadership and sustainability, and, most of all, recognizing literacies and identities (p. 119) are essential in moving closer to restorative literacies. Each stride we take leads us one step closer to a validation of the authentic lives and literacies of not just the marginalized learners, but all learners and teachers. Restorative literacies can cultivate the genius, brilliance, intellect, ability, cleverness, and artistry that already lie within (p. 118).

Those who take the time to explore this text will find themselves the beneficiary of the wealth that plurality of literacy can yield. Those who take the time to apply Wolters work will find themselves shedding ethnocentrism and opening a treasure trove of identities, communities, abilities, and literacies that students already own. Readers will discover not just how to begin the work of creating caring communities in schools, but also why restorative literacy is important for our students and ourselves as well. As she reminds us, Most likely the lessons on restorative literacies from their students stories will benefit the educator and the schools, as opposed to lessons to be instructed directly to the students themselves (p. xi). Wolters book brings restorative literacy to the foreground of conversations to foster cultural, linguistic, economic, political, and dis/ableist view of literacies (p. 121).


Wolter, D. L. (2021). Restorative literacies: Creating a community of care in schools. Teachers College Press and IIRP Graduate School Publishing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 15, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23843, Date Accessed: 10/6/2021 10:20:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Kristen Pennycuff Trent
    Tennessee Technological University
    E-mail Author
    KRISTEN PENNYCUFF TRENT, Ph.D., is a professor of Literacy Education at Tennessee Technological University. A former elementary educator in high poverty rural areas, she has spent the last twenty years working with undergraduate and graduate programs both on the main campus and in the 2+2 program. She has worked closely with underserved rural and metropolitan schools as a literacy consultant promoting classism conscious strategies for teachers in grades K-5. As a grant writer, Pennycuff Trent has been awarded over 2.4 million dollars for her work with literacy professional development for PreK-12 educators from agencies such as Reading Excellent Act, Reading First, Tennessee Higher Education Commission Improving Teacher Quality, and Math and Science Partnerships.
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