When I think about my style as a teacher, two words come to mind: community and communication. I want my classroom to be a place where students want to be, a place where they feel safe and loved and valued. And I want it to be filled with student voice—I want them to tell their stories. These two qualities are inextricably linked: When students belong, they open up, and when they open up, they belong.
I’ve found that an effective and meaningful path to both community and communication in my classroom is circle practice, inspired by restorative justice (RJ). Though it originated in the context of criminal justice, RJ has become popular in schools as many educators use it as an alternative to traditional discipline approaches—it’s a shift from focusing on consequences to focusing on responsibility and relationships.
But RJ and circle practice can also be used to serve academic, social and emotional, and reflective purposes with our students.
Setting Up a Circle
Start with the physical space. After years of practice, I have a routine: On my centerpiece—a beautiful round, knitted blanket I received from a colleague—I place a talking piece that acts as a physical signifier indicating whose voice we are listening to at any time. I use a rock, crystal, stuffed animal, or toy. Around the centerpiece are enough chairs for all participants; the chairs must be in close proximity to foster intimacy.
Next, set up the purpose and expectations. If it’s the first circle with a group, I have an overview printed to use as a guide. I explain the overarching purpose of circle: to form a community with open lines of communication, which is so important to taking intellectual risks.
I also set up the norms:
- Speak from the heart (only with the talking piece, authentic contributions);
- Listen from the heart (without judgment, with compassion);
- Speak spontaneously (spend time listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say);
- Speak leanly (especially important with big groups); and
- What is shared in the circle stays in the circle (I stress this fiercely).
Doing this thoroughly early in the year sets up circle culture for the rest of the year.
After this general setup, be explicit about your intention for the current circle. Is it to build relationships? to explore an academic topic? to rectify a wrong? to explore an issue of concern?
The Structure of a Circle
With the physical space and expectations established, it’s time to explain the three basic components of a circle routine: opening, prompts, and closing.
The opening: This consists of the norming already discussed and a moment of mindfulness. I share directions if needed: After a prompt is posed, the first student who wishes to speak will take the talking piece and share their thoughts, and then pass it to the left; each student can either speak or pass.
We each share our names (if the participants don’t know each other), and begin with an icebreaker—a light, easy question that invites everyone’s voice into the space without threat (e.g., what’s your favorite music? ice cream flavor? season?). It’s important to emphasize that the goal is listening, not responding; participants should share their own answers in each round, not react to each other.
The prompts: After the opening come the prompts, which are what allow a circle to serve your specific purpose. I provide a few examples of prompts for different circle purposes here, but you can come up with many more tailored to your students and your purpose.
Circles are effective at the beginning of the year as a means to start identifying and planning for students’ individual needs. I ask: 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?
One way to use circles to build relationships is to print out several “get to know you” questions (I’ve compiled a list of a couple hundred of these), lay them around the centerpiece, and let students pick which questions to use for the prompt rounds. Students can also craft their own questions to ask each other.
Restorative justice is a traditional use of circles. After conflicts or other difficult situations, you can ask: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was affected, and how? How do we repair the wrongs?
A related use of circles is caring for students in moments of stress or trauma. After a heartbreaking flare-up of gang violence in our city, my students and I 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 serve academic purposes as well. For example, before beginning Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I printed out articles with information about issues affecting Native Americans and laid them on the centerpiece with baskets of pens, pencils, and Post-its. I had students pick an article and read and annotate it. 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?
Circles can serve any purpose—all you need are meaningful prompts.
The closing: Because circles can be so powerful, they necessitate 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. The closing offers an opportunity for participants to transition in a healthy way. It’s critical to remind participants of the norm that what was shared in the circle stays in the circle.
Some of my most memorable (I dare say magical) moments in the classroom have been inside of a circle, and they are always treasured moments of community and communication. And I think my students would say the same.