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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Circling Toward Healing and Learning

Classroom Management
Going back centuries, people have sat together in circles to share stories and build community narratives. The equity embodied by the circle's shape lets each person know that all their experiences are valued. We all have stories to tell and those stories matter.
How I came to school today is a story. How I got my name is a story. Why I feel angry one day in class is a story, too. When we share our stories, we form connections with all who are present. The circles where stories are shared are sacred, protected spaces. Once we have enjoyed the sanctity and safety of a community circle, we are left with a visceral sense of belonging and unity. We are reminded, both through telling our own stories and listening to others', that we all share common bonds, vulnerabilities, and strengths.
Circles have a lot to offer education systems. Most schools tend to rely overwhelmingly on linear structures. There is an implied straight and narrow path to the one correct answer and to academic success. Students are trained to be linear thinkers. Yet our everyday personal experiences tell us that solutions (and the paths to them) aren't always so straightforward. In addition, when we come together in a school building, we need to interact with diverse individuals who carry multiple worldviews and interests.
The value of a circle is that it can provide a broad and inclusive experience for all members. When schools use the circle as an organizing principle, students, staff, and family members can be drawn together on a collective journey, with each stakeholder having a part to play and a voice to contribute. This contrasts greatly with what is conveyed in schools when we insist on rows, lines, and predetermined beginnings and ends. Holding a school together through a linear mindset draws students into a competition that results in "winners" being heard and "losers" being ignored.

Restoring Understanding

As schools have become more interested in restorative justice as a way to improve discipline and reduce suspensions and other ineffective punishments, circle gatherings have become more common. School restorative justice programs, which aim to promote reconciliation as opposed to punishment and exile, often rely on circles to build relationships and understanding among stakeholders.
In New York City's District 79, a network of alternative schools and programs with which we work, educators have been increasingly turning to restorative practices as a way to both deal with infractions and support student learning. In District 79, staff are aware that most of the students have come to them having been unsuccessful in prior educational experiences. If this is the case, then bringing them to a new program that looks and sounds the same as their former educational experiences did just doesn't make good sense. If the student can be offered a setting that "feels" better—in which their emotions and experiences are demonstrably valued—they stand a better chance of dealing with the issues that have held them back in the past. In this context, circles have become a normative activity in the district.
Schools that implement restorative practices insist on the circle because it thoroughly democratizes a group or class. It can change the class dynamic immediately, setting up a more a more inclusive, participatory climate. Teachers see the students on a more equal level. Students can no longer hide in a rear corner of the class. Of course, in the circle, a participant always has the ability to "pass"—but even passing is a form of participation.

Equal Voices

Restorative practices can create a balance among community members that allows for more equitable access to resources and support. Ideally, the circle model gives every student an equal chance to express himself and be heard, which in turn gives educators a better sense of each student's individual needs. On this basis, educators can provide targeted support resources, such as a tutoring referral, an appointment with a counselor, or access to family support services.
In many traditional schools, by contrast, boys of color in particular are often subject to support gaps. Due to behavior issues that often extend from underlying dynamics in their lives, they are often primarily targeted for disciplinary intervention, often in the form of punitive measures. Over time they become marginalized or segmented because they don't neatly fit into the rigid structures and expectations provided. The central message conveyed to them is, "Don't be a distraction," or "You are not trusted."
The opportunity to speak for themselves and to be heard in a restorative circle often enables these young men and those who teach them to have a critically different experience. As we've heard from teachers time and again, students who've been written off based on their actions in "row and column" classrooms often demonstrate unique capacities for reflection, expression, and supportiveness when participating in restorative circles. They sometimes take on leadership roles.
It's worth asking ourselves: What if we chose to teach academic content within the circle framework, with an emphasis on balance and equal sharing? Might students then bring their "circle selves" to class? Consider how your classroom practices, such as arranging seating in rows or ensconcing yourself behind a voluminous desk, might derail or promote students' participation and authenticity.

Creating Connections

With an entire generation huddled behind smartphones, unaccustomed to making eye contact and unused to face-to-face dialogue, the classroom now plays a critical role in teaching essential communication skills. In a circle, students sit in full view of their classmates and they are encouraged both to speak and learn how to listen. Indeed, we are reminded in a circle that our goal is to listen deeply, without thinking of our reply. Listening deeply to others—especially when we are hearing things that are difficult for us—is a vital life skill.
Circles can give students the time and space to share their stories, as they respond to prompts, content, and challenges. And they all have stories, even if they don't think they do. Circles ensure that those stories get shared, heard, and attended to.
Mister Rogers has said many wonderful things for which he will be forever remembered. One of his most powerful quotes is, "Frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story." This is what restorative circles are all about.
Learn More

 Kevin Dahill-Fuchel is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of Counseling In Schools, a nonprofit that supports schools in the areas of equity, inclusion, student engagement, cultural empowerment, and restorative practices.

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