One of the more powerful things I’ve incorporated into my teaching practice over the years is the power of a circle. The first time I can remember experiencing circling up for proactive or restorative purposes was in a graduate-level philosophy and feminism course. The professor suggested a circle arrangement for our course of approximately 15 people and we, at first, grumbled at having to be exposed to our peers (everyone can see and be seen -- no hiding behind your privilege or opting-out). Our circles confronted intersections of identity and orientation through the lens of philosophy and contributed to many late-night discussions that were (amazingly) open, nonjudgemental, and even, at times, silent, as we collectively considered concepts and questions raised by members in our group. To this day, ten years later, I can still picture many of the faces of my peers and remember what was said. The key thing about this process is that I remember not just the professor (as in other classes), but the people with whom I was co-building understanding as well. Because I could physically see and be seen by each person, I could ask myself questions about how I understood what was being communicated as well as be more cognizant with the way I was communicating. I wasn’t just being held accountable by the professor, I was being held accountable for what and how I was communicating by the entire group. It was a powerful exercise in building community that I was able to learn from and integrate into my school’s daily practices. For me, I've found that three incredibly important factors go into my planning with regard to circles: Ritual, The 80/20 Model, and Trust.
Quote from Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning
I always start each day with a ritual (a formal routine we commit to each other, daily). Kids come into our school and, in our pre-K through 5th grade multiage setting, they take ten minutes to engage in leisure (they play, read, draw, journal, color, talk, eat, etc.) -- during this time, parents are socializing, interacting with their kids, or just drinking coffee and warming up for their day. All of the teachers have time to check in with all of the kids and with each other before we start morning circle.
Our morning circle begins with the day’s circle keeper ringing the morning bell, a small handheld bell that signals the start of our first circle of the day. The group (students, teachers, and volunteers) gather around and sit together on the carpet, greeting the people on either side of them. We share news, discuss the day ahead, and set our intentions for learning together. This is the first proactive circle of our day.
Our mid-day circle comes just before we break for lunch. We close the book on our morning work, with each child having an opportunity to share their work from the morning -- every piece of sharing is valued -- from the successes “I finally finished my story today!”, to the frustrations “I still don’t get the coordinate graphing and I’m tired of trying,” and even the distractions “I keep thinking about my cat -- I am still scared she won’t come back.” Kids can speak truth to what is on their mind and they can absorb what is on others’. For the adults, it gives us a chance to check in on a child during lunch or make a note to follow-up later in the day. We also model appropriate ways to share frustrations, "I am also a bit frustrated because I feel like I didn't have enough time to meet my goal today. I'm going to use my free time this afternoon to keep trying." This is the second proactive circle of our day.
At the end of our day, we always (really, always; ritual, ritual, ritual) make time for our rock circle. I once partnered a fabulous teacher (who also happens to be a co-founder of CRREW!) who introduced me to the power of rocks. Kids love them. So simple and kind of funny, but so powerful for what they can symbolize in their simplicity. When I do our final proactive circle of the day, we circle up in the same place we opened the day, each child picking a rock from a bowl in the center. Here in Costa Rica we made the bowl fit our own style -- it’s a hollowed out coconut and the rocks are painted in bright tropical colors, but in Seattle I used a gorgeous glass bowl that reflected light, allowing some to shine through the colored translucent glass rocks inside. It’s something to focus a soft gaze on at the end of our long day and reflect on the purposes we set out for our day. Each child selects one rock to hold as they think through and review their day, then they choose a thought or memory to share with the rock. As we go around the circle, the kids tell what created happiness for them in that day, placing the rock back into the center. When we return to where we started, the circle keeper rings the bell again and our class is dismissed.
The importance of the rituals of our circles is to communicate and reaffirm the importance of three key foci: 1. We are all valued (everyone has a place in the circle) 2. We are not hiding any part of ourselves (everyone can see and be seen)
3. We are all connected (our happiness, freedom, and learning is wrapped up in everyone else’s)
The 80-20 Model.
The ratio of proactive to reactive circles should be 8:2. That’s 80% of your circles as proactive, community-building experiences, with only 20% addressing harm caused in the community. Many teachers who are new to circles make time only for responsive circles, and only for issues they are wanting to address, but if you don’t build the trust with your group, and respect their concerns, too, you will turn your responsive circle into a lecture or reactive circle. I can feel (and students can feel) when our class may need a circle to respond to harm done in the community and we let anyone call a circle if they feel it is needed.
I like to use a non-sequential circle when we do these types of circles to allow the conversations to develop organically. I first ask the group to consider what harm was caused and to consider how they contributed to that harm. This is interesting because it puts the ownership of the group back to focus #3: We are all connected. If two kids were arguing and one threw something at the other, what was your role, as a bystander? How did you react? How did you choose to respond to your bearing witness to that event? As this is unfolding, I pay close attention to who isn’t speaking and I may ask them why they’ve chosen not to share. The “may” in that sentence is important because I have to make a decision based on what I know about the child and how they’ll respond to being cold-called. Usually, the response to why they’re not speaking is incredibly helpful in understanding more to the story. In my experience, it is frequently the quieter students who have noticed the most! The wrap up to a responsive circle comes when I can feel a physical shift in the room -- kids are smiling more, leaning in to the conversations, building on each other’s thinking more confidently, and generally more clear-minded than when we began. It is at this point that I like to ask how we will move forward. “What commitments can we make to each other today?”
Trust the Circle.
I remember a circle I facilitated at the start of the school year with a sixth grade class. We had discussed labels the day prior -- talking about the labels people put on us and how we can choose to respond to those labels. The next morning one of my students, we’ll call him JR, used the first ten minutes of his morning to write labels on sticky-notes and put them all over his body: “loser”, “gamer”, “loner”, “idiot”, etc. It was heartbreaking to know that these words represented his interpretation of how his peers saw him. Another boy in class asked if we could have a responsive circle because he didn’t like having to see all of those words all over his peer’s body, saying that it was “distracting.” “Of course we can, but we should check with JR first to make sure he’s comfortable with it.” I answered, curious about how that would be received. I pulled JR aside privately and asked him how he would feel about having a circle to talk about the labels. He was eager to, which surprised me slightly.
The circle began with the student who called the circle, describing the problem. Then he passed the talking stick around the circle, at which point nearly all of the students who spoke said something negative about JR’s daily behavior -- that he is distracting when he hums during class, that he wastes a lot of supplies with his doodling and fidgeting, that the way he talks is always long-winded and it disrupts the flow of the conversation. I felt as though I was losing the group into a negative spiral and I was terrified of where this was going for the emotional safety of JR. The thing that I knew, which nobody else in that room knew, was that JR’s behaviors were part of his personality, easily accepted by me as modified learning resulting from his Autism diagnosis. He listened intently to the group as they shared their frustrations, student after student, and I continually looked at him, to read his reaction, to try to see an excuse to stop the circle, tell everyone to be nice, carry on with the day, and to toss this circle experience in the failure bucket. To my surprise, he waited for his turn to have the talking stick. Calmly, measured, but emotionally, he said, “I’ve known something since third grade, but you guys don’t know something about me. I have autism. The reason I’m like this is because this is who I am. The humming is who I am. Having autism is part of me.”
And then, silence.
It was like a collective in-breath, held, together, as everyone processed what was said, and, perhaps more importantly, what part they had played leading up to this moment…
Every student spoke, sequentially, after that revelation and it started with the student who had called the circle; what he said still gets me in my feels: “You. Are. So. Brave. Thank you for sharing that part of yourself with us.” This was followed by many variations of, “You listened to each and every one of us and we were just saying things that we didn’t even understand.” Expressions of gratitude, love, and friendship just enveloped these kids as they made commitments to do better for each other. To say I trusted the circle in that moment would be a lie -- I was terrified! But now, I always trust the circle.
What are your favorite circle routines? Have a good resource for teachers or administrators? Post it in the comments.