The Power of Circles

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Who would have thought an Elmo doll would make us this vulnerable? My first experience with restorative circles was the day our staff came back to work after Hurricane Harvey. At Doerre Intermediate, each department used restorative circles to check in with each other. Mike Keimig, our department chair, passed around a vintage Elmo doll that represented our turn to speak. He asked us questions ranging from “How are you today?” to “What scared you the most during the flooding?” and “How will we help the students heal from and understand the impact of Harvey?” After successfully doing this activity with the staff, we were asked to begin using restorative circles in our Pride classes.

In my experience, a restorative circle is a flexible way to check in with people, let everyone feel heard and validated, and drive a productive discussion. When we began using this method with our Pride classes, I worried my cool 8th grade students wouldn’t take it seriously or would be annoyed with the questions. Instead they floored me with their deep answers, acceptance of others, and enthusiasm for more circle time. By creating a safe place for them to talk about their feelings, and giving them an adult who wanted to listen, I learned more about my class in one hour than I could have in 9 weeks.

Topics We’ve Discussed:

  • Hurricane Harvey
  • High School (what they’re worried about, excited about, have questions about, etc.)
  • Bullying
  • Stress (and how to relieve it)
  • College and Future plans
  • Respect (how to get it, keep it, and give it)
  • Gratitude

Tips: What I Learned

1. Creating a safe place is crucial! I turn off the lights, make sure everyone fits in the circle (it usually turns into an amoeba), and pick a fun object to send around the circle (a stuffed lizard, a blow-up pirate sword, a lei, etc.) They know my “what happens in the amoeba, stays in the amoeba” speech by heart at this point. We must be very aware of other people’s feelings and understand that when we share, we are trusting the people listening to not judge or tell others.

2. Start with a quick check in. I always start by asking how they are feeling, how their day is going, or for a high/low (best thing that happened/worst thing that happened today.) Everyone answers this question, even the introspective kids. It’s a great way to get the ball rolling.

3. Answer first or last, but always give your personal answer. There are certain questions I don’t go into a lot of detail, but I always answer each question, too. My students heard about me being excited for my sister’s graduation, my frustration when someone hit my car, and my sorrow when my grandmother died. Seeing me talk through my feelings registered with them. It ultimately helped our relationship and understanding of each other more than anything else.

4. Ask them to answer a question for the person sitting next to them.About three months into the school year I asked, “What is one great thing about you?” Crickets. For my next question, I asked “What is the best thing about the person sitting to your right?” I explained that this needed to be taken seriously. They couldn’t just say “she’s nice” or “I don’t even know him.” The responses were remarkable. When given the opportunity, they had so many nice things to say about each other! That alone helped build a classroom based on trust and compassion.

5. Let them contribute to the questions you ask. My students were asking for restorative circles so often, I ran out of topics! To generate new ideas in an anonymous way, I made a Padlet for my students to brainstorm topics or questions for the restorative circles.

6. Give them an opportunity to follow up with you out of class. As we wrap up, I tell the students that I am always available if they need to talk.

Impact

The process took time and patience, but my students are now a tight-knit group. They can work in any combination and have fantastic results. It has helped me understand what they’re going through. Sometimes, their answers in the circle come in handy when they need inspiration for their writing or connecting to a character in a novel. The restorative circles have also shown my students that they are not alone. All of us (even teachers!) feel scared, lonely, or vulnerable sometimes. Ultimately, we all just want to feel heard.

~Written by Kessler McClanahan

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