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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
Show & Tell: A Video Column

Community Circles Build Restorative School Cultures

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Discussion groups can have a powerful effect on relationship building at the start of the year.

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September 2022 Fisher/Frey Header Image
Credit: MUCHMANIA / SHUTTERSTOCK
The return to school can be a mix of hope and tension. Educators are optimistic as they look into students' eyes, hoping to create a classroom community where all can thrive. That feeling is coupled with concerns about how to do so, especially given the last few unsteady years of schooling.
Creating a classroom climate that will meet everyone's needs at this time must involve the use of restorative practices. Throughout the year, issues and conflicts will inevitably arise, and restorative practices provide a pathway for equitable discipline that reduces exclusion and improves the learning climate. But restorative practices must be nested in a larger restorative culture that fosters a sense of classroom and school community. Too often, schools attempt to address conflict among students without the requisite investment in building positive relationships first. Implementation problems arise when the sole emphasis is on reactive responses rather than on investment in proactive strategies because there is no relationship currency to draw upon.
Community circles are an important piece of a comprehensive restorative practices approach; teachers can use them to proactively build a restorative culture in the classroom. One of the most common applications of community circles in this context is for academic discussions (such as a conversation about an important plot point in a novel the class is reading). The second is to allow students and the teacher to better get to know one another by, for example, posing a question about a favorite food. Academic and social community circles may be as short as 10 minutes or may run the entire class period, depending on the topic and purpose. The routine use of community circles for subjects that aren't so emotionally charged builds the skills and stamina for engaging similarly when the class needs to solve a more intense problem and provides a forum to foster communication skills.
In a school context, there are three major purposes of community circles:
  • Contribute to a positive classroom and school culture that values voice and choice and ensures learning.
  • Assist students in working through issues and situations that affect their classroom experience academically and socially, whether directly or indirectly.
  • Build the capacity of classroom and school communities to arrive at a consensus, make decisions, and take action.
Let's look at the history of community circles and how to make them work.

Roots and Components of Community Circles

The practice of sitting in a circle as a group to discuss an event, issue, or dilemma has ancient roots, and continues to be employed by Indigenous communities across the globe, from the Māori people of New Zealand to First Nations and Native American peoples, to name just a few. (One student in the video that accompanies this column likens the practice to sitting around a bonfire.) The shape of the circle is significant, as it allows each member to see all of the other members, and no one is in a position of power. Ideally, nothing can block any individual's view, unlike the way tables and desks form a visual barrier to communication.
Several practices implemented by the teacher ensure that there is consistency in the way the circle operates. Because community circles are as much a place for active listening as for speaking, respect is key. Therefore, many community circles use a talking piece that they pass from speaker to speaker. Only the person with the object in hand has the floor. It can be passed sequentially, or those waiting to share their thoughts can offer a signal that the members of the circle decide upon beforehand.
The second practice ensures that someone in the circle serves as the circle keeper—the person who starts and guides the conversation. Teachers often start off in this role, but with practice, students can take turns being the circle keeper as well. Ideally, the circle keeper is supportive, nonjudgmental, a good listener, respectful, and approachable. Despite leading, they don't interrupt speakers, as they are also members of the community circle. There should be training for adult and student circle keepers in role- and age-appropriate ways. (Listen to what high school students have to say about circles in the video portion of this column.)

Using Circles to Boost Relationships and Learning

The beginning of the new school year is the perfect time to introduce community circles in your classroom. They present an opportunity for you and your students to learn about one another. Think small and low stakes at first; circles should be short in length and come at the beginning or end of the lesson. Introduce the components of a circle and ask a series of questions to get the ball rolling: If all your clothes had to be one color, what would you choose? What's one word that best describes you? If you could change your name, what would you like to change it to? The circle keeper provides the guiding question.

Restorative practices must be nested in a larger restorative culture.

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As students become accustomed to short circles, you can begin using them regularly as part of academic learning. Our colleagues have used academic community circles with older students to discuss patience in the context of Ramadan traditions or the debate leading up to the 2019 U.S. Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide during World War I. Elementary students can use community circles to deepen learning about a targeted text during reading instruction, or kindergartners can think and talk about what a world without numbers might look like.
And community circles are not just for students. As part of our school's collective investment in a restorative culture, all the adults at the school where we work meet daily for a 10-minute community circle. Because we are a large staff, we stand, and the circle keeper for the day guides the conversation with two prompts: (1) What do we need to know for today? and (2) Are there students we can spotlight for celebration or concern? The culture-building activity ends with the designation of the following day's circle keeper.

Use Circles to Solve Problems

When students come together regularly and proactively to listen to one another and trade ideas about academics, they further develop the communication and problem-solving tools they need when they encounter difficulties that require more personal work. A school's investment in community circles builds a restorative climate to resolve issues the class will encounter over the school year.
The act of coming together around the bonfire is a powerful one. Embracing it, through the forum of community circles, can help us boost academic achievement and problem resolution.
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EL Magazine Show & Tell / Sept 2022

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End Notes

1 Smith, D., Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2018). A restorative climate for learning. Educational Leadership75(6), 74–78.

2 Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Pumpian, I. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. ASCD.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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