At a time when unspeakable acts of horror and random acts of violence have been happening in schools across the country, students at P.S. 114 have been learning about kindness, feelings, positivity, spirit and teamwork, which was celebrated in the First Annual Spirit Week with an Emoji Parade that took place on the morning of Wednesday, May 25th in the schoolyard of Ryder Elementary, located at 1077 Remsen Avenue.
“P.S. 114!” the teachers called out. “That’s our team!” came the response from the hundreds of children in every class, from Pre-K3-5 and K-5 – 20 classes in all. They raised balloons containing pictures they drew portraying how they were feeling, as they marched around the schoolyard during the Emoji Parade, one of five daily activities to celebrate Spirit Week.
They continued the school mantra by saying, “I am a Ryder Elementary student. I believe in respect, honesty, fairness and in helping others. At my school, I feel safe, excited to learn and inspired to be my best self. I am a proud Ryder Elementary student.”
The school is a participant in New York City’s Restorative Justice (RJ) Initiative, which helps promote a safe and supportive school environment for children by creating a positive and kind school climate that steers children away from behaviors that result in harsh disciplinary actions or punishments and more toward learning about positive social behaviors, how to handle their feelings and emotions, and how to use RJ techniques to de-escalate themselves when tensions arise. They are also aided by an RJ curriculum, staffing support systems and activities throughout the year.
According to RJ team coordinator Lauryn Arena, the initiative is strongly supported by school Principal Latina Tention. A team of seven teachers have been training in RJ for the past five years and have formed the RJ team in the 2020-2021 school year. They meet every week for one hour before classes start at 7:30 a.m., and on weekends. Every Friday, they have a one-hour RJ block where the entire school does Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) lessons from 8 to 9 a.m. Teachers do different activities with the children based on mindfulness, breathing, coping skills and mechanisms, for when their life or things aren’t going their way, and other RJ practices throughout the week.
Arena said that when the children feel like they’re in crisis or need a break to cool down, they’re allowed to go into the “peace place” where there are different “feelings” materials. “We have breathing exercises, journals where they can just write and take a five-minute time-out,” she said. It’s something the teachers created and implemented into their classrooms. She said it’s important because it’s used as a de-escalation piece. They try to prevent any crisis before it happens.
Another method the team uses is a restorative lunchroom where students can win prizes and the principal announces the winners every month. “It also encourages random acts of kindness, I’ve noticed,” Arena said. “So the children come and say, ‘Ms. Arena, I helped somebody at lunch today’ or ‘I held the door,’ and they get really excited about that.”
Arena thinks the methods and curriculum work. She noticed a reduction of discipline problems in the classroom and throughout the building.
P.S. 114’s RJ team members are Lauryn Arena, Fran Cohen, Nicolette Nolan, Rachel Porcellio, Alison Schaeffer, Christina Tavares and Clara Thomas-Jefferson.
“Our school really needs that lift right now,” RJ team member Fran Cohen said. “We’ve had a lot of hard times and we‘ve had a lot of deaths.” She explained that their principal passed away and then right after that, COVID came; it hasn’t been a regular year since 2018.
One especially positive and uplifting story she had to share was about her former student Maya Williams from 15 years ago when Williams was only 8 years old. Now she is going to be 23 and has returned to Ryder Elementary as a sub-para.
“I remember you and you were so kind,” Williams told Cohen when she saw her. It was the kind of lift Cohen needed. She remembered Williams and had a picture of her that she found in her classroom, when Williams was her student so long ago.
“It’s a feel-good story,” Cohen said. “It’s all about kindness and positivity, and not COVID positivity, kindness positivity.”