The notion of teachers using circles to improve pedagogy has been a frequent topic in my work lately. I believe some teachers have a difficult time conceptualizing the use of circles in the classroom. Far too many well-intentioned teachers seem to try to locate the practice within a framework of morning meeting or see the time as an opportunity for children to emotionally self-regulate. Although these uses are very important, powerful, and potentially meaningful for all involved, I would like to focus on the benefits of viewing the circle as an assessment tool. A significant aspect of utilizing restorative practices in the classroom is the proactive development of community. Restorative practitioners take this critical aspect of the work very seriously and approach it with much creativity. Research in Social-Emotional Learning has demonstrated that improving SEL skills in students improve many critical measures in education. I have had many principals share observing a clear pattern of fewer disruptions, office referrals and overall better academic performance in classrooms where the teacher routinely builds better connection with and between students. In other words, the better the connections in a class community, the better the functioning and outcomes in that class community. This makes clear sense and most likely matches our lived experiences. The circle can be a great tool to measure or assess how well the students are functioning as a collective community, not just as a collection of individuals. This is the heart of being restorative in the classroom. We are not looking to assess how each student is doing individually, but how are the students performing collectively. Here are a few pointers on what to look for in assessing the functioning of your class (this is in no way an exhaustive list):
- Is the class willing to make a relatively tight circle? Community organizer Peter Block says that in a circle everyone’s knees should be no more than 9 inches apart. That is a pretty tight circle! If your class community is having trust and safety issues, this will be a difficult task. Now, there are real reasons why this may be a challenge (space being the number one), but overall, if a class struggles to do this there is a need for further development as a class community.
- Does the class appear willing to engage in the process? Although complaints of circling up may be related to poor circle questions or an overabundance of responsive circles, generally speaking, a collective push back from the community is a clear sign that they are not functioning well together. Humans are hard-wired to connect; we look for opportunities to engage with one another in meaningful ways; if the class is pushing back against this central human component then it is for a reason. Typically, the bottom line is the class does not feel safe enough with each other to take advantage of the community building opportunity the circle provides.
- Are there any fixed peer groupings emerging? Humans are creatures of habit, but a very strong reaction to not being able to sit next to the same people speaks volumes as to how the class is working together. This brings up the question of assigned seats in the circle. Personally, I am not a fan of having assigned seats in the circle for this very reason. Without assigned seats, we can pay attention to groupings/pairings and how hard the group works to maintain those groupings. Grouping reflects power dynamics in any given community. Yes, this is common human behavior, but it is guided by very important, often unspoken social constructs. Paying attention to these dynamics will give you valuable information on who is in charge, who is working to be close to those in charge, and who is at the mercy of those in charge.
- Can the community be serious enough to address medium to high-risk questions? If a class struggles with being able to speak to more serious or higher risk questions, it is a clear sign that their functioning as a community needs to improve. If they are struggling, they may be silly and laugh at each other’s responses (of course there is a developmental aspect to this behavior) or they may get uncomfortable and act in a disruptive fashion to avoid answering the question. This may also be a time when students talk over each other and do not allow everyone’s voice to be heard.
Personally, I believe circles do not create problems, they simply bring to light dynamics that are already existing in the community. If we see any of the behaviors listed above (again, not an exhaustive list by any means), view it as data and evaluate it.
So, I have seen these dynamics in the circles I have conducted with my students, now what?
Here a few ideas:
- The first thing we, as teachers, need to do if we see these and other behaviors manifested in our class circles is not to take the situation overly personally, get angry and try to fix the situation through punitive/power-based methods. Remember, the circle is an assessment tool. Just like if we give a quiz and the class generally does not perform very well. As teachers, we look at the situation as data as to where the class is academically and work to build on the collective knowledge based on where they are currently. This is the same when looking at community behavior. The behavior simply allows you to see where the students are at as a collective. Gather the data and make a plan to build on the community strength through meaningful circle questions designed to push connection. Keep in mind, this is a process that will take time and constant, intentional attention to move forward. A great question to ask on a regular basis is, “How did we do as a class community today?”
- Play a game that requires students to move around the circle and then end the game and start the next part of the circle experience without allowing the students to return to their original seats. Games like “The Big Wind Blows” (also called “I like people who”) require one person in the middle of the circle to call out a characteristic that several, but not all, people are likely to identify with (ie. the big wind blows on everybody who likes sports, etc). Then, everyone who likes sports needs to find another chair, and of course one person is left without a chair. That person now calls out another characteristic and the game continues. You can also add that before the person left in the middle takes their turn, they need to share a unique or important fact about themselves that others are likely to not know. Or, the characteristics selected can all be related to healthy communities (ie, who belongs to a church or youth group outside of school or who has been a part of a strong team). This will help break up peer groupings/arrangements, improve connection as a community and increase the collective knowledge of others in a given community.
- Have students generate their own circle questions. Perhaps this can be a rotating job responsibility for the community, or the class can take some time to collectively come up with a list of questions to be used by the class. This list can be updated as needed to keep things fresh, current and aligned with the current level of functioning in the group.
- I believe the best response is to directly address the community with the reality of the dynamic in the space, For example, “I have been noticing that students are always sitting next to the same people in our circles, what does our community make of that and what, if anything do we want to do about it?” Or, “Each time I ask a question that is a little higher risk, it seems we get silly and don’t take it seriously or we seem to be quick to make fun of each other. Has anyone else noticed this?” “Why do we think this is happening, what does it mean?” Even if the answers to these questions are not particularly sophisticated, just bringing the dynamic to light in the group and generating a different discussion around the topic will go a long way in changing the dynamics in the group and improve functioning.
If those in charge in the classroom can keep these principals in mind, then they will be better suited to see these situations for what they are, assessment opportunities to get a clear understanding of how the class is functioning as a community and what needs to happen to deepen this critical classroom dynamic. Please keep in mind, as teachers, we may need to make these assessments and plan next steps at times when we are not feeling particularly restorative. Again, restorative practitioners are very self-aware and consistently make wise decisions, even when they do not necessarily feel like making those decisions. Take care of yourself and seek guidance and support on a very regular, if not daily, basis. The demands placed on teachers in the classroom at times may outweigh what one person can manage on their own. If it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to educate an entire class full of children?