This week’s question comes from Donna, an educator & diversity programs facilitator in Illinois.

Hi Dr. Brenda,
Do you have ideas on how to get high school students interested in RJ Peace Circles.  
When I started at my high school in 2001 it was 60 % white/30% black/10% other. In 2014 it is 85% black/15% white & other. As part of my diversity program we sponsor an annual diversity dinner & a mix it up at lunch day with very little interest. I want to get the students talking. Thanks for any suggestions.

What a great question, Donna!  And what important work you do!
In order to get high school students interested in anything, I think you need to focus on 2 things.

  1. Stories
  2. Experiential Learning

These two things actually apply to anyone but it’s especially applicable for high school students, I think.


In order for a person to be invested in something that is outside of their usual sphere of interest, they need to hear the stories of others.  Narrative is an especially powerful way to share who you are and where you come from.  People connect with narrative and stories in a way that they cannot connect with book learning.    Find a way for your students to share their stories and I’m certain that you’ll see an uptick in interest.


Everyone learns best through personal experience.  Reading about how to ride a bike isn’t near as effective as actually getting on a bike and figuring it out through experience, right?

I discovered this first-hand as a high school student in New Jersey.  I was going into 11th grade and my summer job was being a counselor for underprivileged kids in Trenton.   There were 6 African American student counselors from Trenton (myself included) and 6 White student counselors from nearby Pennington.  Needless to say, we did not all see eye to eye!   To make a long story short, there was frustration and anger and defensiveness playing out among us counselors at every turn.  We were basically at a stand-off with one another and it wasn’t pretty!

But our supervisor, Mrs. Katz?  She knew exactly what to do.  She arranged for us to go on a weekend camping trip together.  I kid you not, she loaded us all into a truck and dumped us out in the woods!  It was horrible for THIS city girl!  I’m serious when I tell you that I hated every minute of it.   But you know what?  We had to learn how to work together that weekend.   We had to drop some of our defenses in order to figure out how to survive.

At the very end of the weekend, on our walk out of the woods, I was miserable.  I had fallen behind the rest of the group and I found myself struggling to climb up a small rock face to get back on to the main trail.  I was really struggling.   My hands were bleeding, I was near tears and nobody had noticed that I had fallen behind.   I was feeling desperate.

All of a sudden, this hand reached down to help me out.  A white hand.  It was Mrs. Katz’s son, Danny.  He reached down and pulled me out.  Our eyes met but we didn’t speak a word.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know how to talk to a white guy; how to like someone so fundamentally different from me.  But when our eyes met, something broke inside of me.   I had been socialized to believe that there was no way that someone like ME and someone like HIM could have a connection, much less work together.   I haven’t seen that guy since but that moment changed my life.  The experience taught me something that I never could have learned otherwise.

hs_studetnsSo I don’t know if you want to drop your high school students off in the woods alone for the weekend but find a way for them to learn through experience.  Find a way for them to share their stories with one another.   That is how OUR stories become part of someone ELSE’s stories.  And that is how we cultivate interest in something beyond ourselves, high schoolers and grown ups both.

You’ve got this, Donna!  We’re all rooting for you, girl!


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