using circle practice in the classroom

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Using Circles in the Classroom

When I think about my style as a teacher, two words come to mind: community and communication. First, I want my classroom to be a place students want to be, a place they feel safe and loved and valued; I want them to believe their stories matter. Second, I want my classroom to be filled with the presence and merit of student voice; I want them to tell their stories. These two qualities are inextricably linked. When students belong, they open up; when students open up, they belong. 

I have found an effective and meaningful path to both community and communication in my classroom is circle practice–or council as called by my training program–inspired by Restorative Justice (RJ). Though originating in criminal contexts, RJ has become quite popular in schools as of late. Many educators approach Restorative Approaches as an upgrade to traditional discipline approaches (moving away from mere consequences toward real responsibility based on relationship), but at its core, RJ is not meant to be a reactive program but rather a proactive program. This can be achieved most impressively through circle practice. Based on the ancient practices of indigenous peoples, circles are designed as spaces where everyone is equal, valid, present, and involved. 

I have used circle practice to serve academic, social-emotional, reflective, and restorative purposes in my classroom with students, as well as with my colleagues. Here’s how. 

Set Up

First, set up the physical space. After years of practice, I have a routine. On my centerpiece–a beautiful knitted round blanket I received from a colleague–are laid various “talking pieces”: rocks, crystals, stuffed animals, toys, etc that act as the physical signifier to indicate whose voice we are listening to at any time. Around that are enough chairs for all participants; these chairs must be in close proximity to foster the intimacy. Of course, this usually occurs in a classroom, so all this placement occurs after the requisite moving of desks. If you are just beginning though, a circle and one talking piece will suffice. 

Next, set up the purpose and expectations. If it is the first circle with a group, I have this overview printed as a handy guide. I explain the overarching purpose of circle: to form a community with open lines of communication–so important to taking intellectual risks. I set up the norms: 1, speak from the heart (only with the talking piece, authentic contributions); 2, listen from the heart (without judgment, with compassion, circle is the one place in society where we have the complete focus of people without distractions); 3, speak spontaneously (spend time listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say); 4 speak leanly (especially important with big groups); and 5, what is shared in the circle stays in the circle (I stress this fiercely). Because I always do this thoroughly early in the year, it sets up circle culture for the rest of the year. After this general set up, refine the intention for the current circle. Is it to build relationships? Is it to explore an academic topic? Is it to rectify a wrong? Is it to explore an issue of concern? Is it for reflection?

Structure

With the physical space and expectations established, it is time to set up the structure of circle. Three basic components comprise a circle routine: opening, prompts, and closing. 

The Opening

The opening consists of the norming (as already discussed); directions (after the prompt is posed, pick a talking piece that speaks to you, share, then pass to the left as the sun moves across the sky); the name round (if participants do not know each other); and an ice breaker question (a light, easy question that invites everyone’s voice into space without threat, such as what is your favorite music, ice cream flavor, season, etc). I also lead a moment of mindfulness to begin. 

The Prompts

After the opening comes the prompts: the best part about circle! It is so flexible and the prompt rounds can serve a number of purposes. This is where the magic happens.

Circles are effective at the beginning of the year as a means to start identifying and planning for students’ individual needs. The following questions serve this purpose: What kind of learner are you? Who is a teacher who has influenced you greatly and why? What do you need from your peers to be successful? What are your learning pet peeves? How do you feel about reading, writing and/or speaking? 

Circles are also great to close the year. The intention of these prompts are celebration and reflection with questions like: How have you grown this year? What do you wish you would have done differently? How has this course prepared you for next year? What is a favorite memory from this year? 

Circles build relationships. I print out a bunch of get to know you questions, lay them around the centerpiece, and students pick which questions to use for the prompt rounds. Or students craft questions to ask each other. 

Circles can be used for a restorative approach as well. One time when I was absent for PD, the sub reported disrespect and damage to the room. The questions that time were RJ based: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was affected and how? How do we repair the wrongs? Following the circle, the students cleaned the room and wrote apologies–per their conclusion.

Circles serve academic purposes as well. For example, before beginning Ceremony, I printed many articles with information about issues affecting Native Americans. I laid them all out around the circle centerpiece with baskets of pens/pencils/post-its. I then give directions (pick an article that attracts you, read and annotate, be prepared to share). Then I asked questions such as: What predictions do you have about the novel based on these articles? What is something that stood out to you and why? What comparisons can you make between these texts and others we have read? 

Circles are spaces to care for students in their moments of stress or trauma. One day in my IB class, things felt deeply off. Instead of a lesson, we meet in circle to discuss: How are you? What’s overwhelming you? How do you self-care? Who lifts you up when you are down? How can we support one another? After a heartbreaking flare up of gang violence in one school’s neighborhood, we wept together in circle, answering questions like: What makes you feel afraid? What makes you feel safe? What do you need? How can we move the community forward? 

Circles can also be meaningful for staff as well. Circles are a great way to establish collaborative norms: What do you need from your colleagues? What are you collaboration pet peeves? How do you best handle difficult conversations? How do we want our group to be defined? Circles are great openers for staff at the beginning of the year: What are you most looking forward to this year? What are you apprehensive about? If your colleagues needed to know one thing about you, what is it? Circles are great protocols for staff to reflect on their practice: What’s going well? What are you working on? What’s been a successful/ineffective lesson you’ve taught and what made it so? Circles are a safe place for staff to respond to their own trauma/stress. During the same period of gang violence mentioned above, we had a circle for staff to cope and process as well: What is worrying you? What is your wish for our community? How can we move forward? What do you need from your peers? What do you want for our students? I hosted a circle for interested colleagues after the most recent presidential election: How does this affect you? How does it affect our students? How can we move forward? What do you need? What resources can we provide our students. 

Circles can serve any purpose. All you need are meaningful prompts. 

The Closing

Because circles can be so powerful, they necesitate closure. There are a couple ways to do this. You can keep it light with a group high five or a silly coordination game. You can do a witness round in which participants share one word on their mind. You can end with a sentence starter prompt such as “I was… but now I am…” The closing offers an opportunity for participants to transition in a healthy way. It is also critical to remind participants of the norm that what was shared in the circle stays in the circle. 

Some of my most memorable moments in the classroom have been inside of a circle, and they are always treasured moments of community and communication. 

I think my students would say the same. 

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