Holding a circle is a great tool to build community, climate, and culture. Circles can provide intentionality to building social and emotional skills. We have seen circles work in K-12 classrooms, at staff meetings, in places of business, and more. If students or staff feel like they are valued, they are less likely to act out and more likely to maintain a positive environment.
While doing a professional development session about our book, Hacking School Discipline, we practiced doing circles with the school staff at Liberty School in Orland Park, Illinois. While doing circles in groups around the room, the staff had many great discussions that centered around chosen prompts that they developed. After the activity, I simply asked the staff to report out things that they learned about their colleagues that they never knew before. Despite many of the staff working together for years, there was plenty they didn’t know about each other. Some responses from staff were silly, such as learning each other’s favorite ice cream flavor, but some responses were genuinely profound. The most memorable connection was when some of the staff members bonded because they discovered that they had children either beginning college or applying to college. They could potentially use this knowledge to trade tips and tricks about the college process and talk through their emotions about it. They can also build upon this connection to make even deeper bonds and friendships. If this works with staff that has been working together for years, imagine how well this can work in the classroom with students!
Why a circle? Circles intentionally create an equitable culture where there is no power imbalance. A circle signifies that all participants are on the same playing field, which builds group ownership of maintaining the boundaries, expectations, and procedures. One of the first things you should do is to not only explain the significance of the ‘why’ behind circles, but the ‘how.’ This can be accomplished through setting expectations and practicing, practicing, and practicing some more.
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You should develop circle expectations in advance or create them with your students. The key is to focus on these factors:
- Have expectations, not rules (rules tell students what NOT to do)
- Have expectations that are broad and can encompass many different situations
- Have expectations that focus on the positive
- Expectations must be easily understandable by all
Not only do these expectations need to be developed with these factors in mind, but they also need to be consistently coached and enforced. When it is assumed that everyone understands the expectations, or when participants are allowed to break expectations, circles can quickly become chaotic. The following expectations examples were generated with educators at various schools across the country while we were delivering professional development:
- Listen and speak with your heart
- Say just enough
- Be present (alternatively...use active listening)
- This is a safe space (alternatively...what is said in the circle stays in the circle or respect all ideas)
- Only speak when you have the talking piece
*You can use or modify these expectations for your own use or develop expectations collaboratively with your own students.
Types of Whole-Class Circles:
Welcome circle--A circle that usually happens at the beginning of the day or the beginning of the class period. These circles can range in time from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, depending on the topic and the objective. If you want a quick check-in with your class, have them circle up and ask a simple prompt that can maximize participation, such as ‘use your hand to hold up how many fingers would best represent how comfortable you feel about last night’s homework, with 1 being not at all and 5 being that you are an expert.” You can then have the talking piece for anyone that wants to share out more details about any specifics, such as “I really struggled on number 5 because it asked me to explain my reasoning.” If you have more time, you might do a welcome circle that asks a more in-depth prompt, such as “talk about a time when you felt like you wanted to quit.”
Closing circle--A circle that usually happens at the end of the day or end of the class period. The time frames are similar to a welcome circle in that they can be 5 minutes to 20 minutes. These circles usually wrap up a lesson or the day. An example of a quick check-in would be “raise your left hand if you feel like you accomplished most of your goals today or your right hand if you feel that you did not accomplish as much as you would’ve like today.” You can then have a few students elaborate, using the talking piece. If you have more time, you might do a closing circle that asks a more in-depth prompt, such as “talk about a win from today.”
Want our free resource 101 Circle Prompts? Just click on the link and enjoy!
Reactive circle--A circle that occurs when you need to reset the classroom, typically when the classroom lesson is not going as planned due to behaviors, or the overall learning environment is not going well. We go into greater depth in our book, Hacking School Discipline, as this kind of circle requires a more detailed explanation. We will also touch on this topic more on an upcoming blog!
Circles are a great way to build climate and culture, but they must be done with consistency and fidelity. Try it out and let us know how it went on our Hacking School Discipline Facebook group!