In the Circle: building community at school

The students in Mr. Van Nort's senior English class had their last Circle in mid-June. Mr. Van Nort asked everyone to reflect on their experience together at the Green School, a public high school in Brooklyn. Then he passed the group's talking piece (a pink and purple stuffed dog) around the Circle.

"When I first came to this school, I thought it would be just like my last school," said a young woman in a black baseball cap, looking down at the little dog that had been passed to her. "I was going to be judged and there would be so many cliques, and I wasn't going to have any friends. But I realize that I was never judged here," she said, looking around the Circle. "And I made some great friends. I love all of you and I thank you for not judging me."

This class, said Green School principal Cara Tait, "became a very cohesive bunch this year. They haven't been fighting. They're the ones who've been helping us address conflicts - and we didn't even have to ask."
How did this happen? Maybe it was the "process of being respectful of your peers and practicing that all year in Circles." She's seen other positive developments, including fewer suspensions.
The big surprise with Circles, Tait says, was their impact on academic classes. Earlier in the year, she observed a discussion in Mr. Van Nort's class about the book Siddhartha. "This class ran the gamut from IEP [special ed] students to our valedictorian," she says. "And every single person had an opinion about this complex text" - even struggling students who usually stay silent. Tait thinks this may be because Circles gave students who lack confidence academically a chance to speak up about things they know and care a lot about. It opened the door to connecting in other ways.
Liz Young, the Morningside Center staff developer who coached Mr. Van Nort in facilitating Circles, is not surprised. Last year, she helped staff from six New York
City high schools and middle schools implement Circles, and she's seen what they can do. "Once you've built a community," she says, "you benefit for the rest of the year."
Over the past three years, Circles, sometimes called Restorative Circles, have become a growing part of Morningside Center's work. We are playing a leading role in introducing them to schools throughout New York City, providing both school-based coaching and centralized training for staff from dozens of middle and high schools, with support from the NYC Department of Education. 

Circles are a natural extension of work we've been doing for many years aimed at developing students' social and emotional skills, building community, and increasing students' engagement with school.  Circles can be integrated into any part of the school day, but we've found that they work especially well as part of the school advisory program or in the homeroom.  (In advisories, middle and high school students meet regularly with an adult advisor as a way of staying connected with each other and the school.)
The Circle approach is grounded in a Native American philosophy and practice. The idea is to create a safe, caring space where people with different experiences and perspectives can share their stories and challenges. Circles include some constant elements that help create a space apart from the regular school day. Everyone sits in a circle.  There is a "centerpiece" in the middle of the circle that often has special meaning for the group or that the group has contributed to.  The Circle includes an opening and closing ceremony (perhaps a poem, a moment of reflection, or music).  A facilitator, called the circle keeper, poses a question that everyone in the Circle can respond to, once the talking piece comes around to them.  The talking piece goes around the circle in order, from one person to the next, recognizing everyone in the circle as it goes. The talking piece serves as an invitation for participants to contribute to the circle by listening, by taking a moment of silence, or by actually sharing their story, opinion or insights. The teacher generally starts off as the circle keeper, but students can take on the role once they become familiar with it.  
The actual structure of the Circle matters, as Joseph Melendez, a student from Mr. Van Nort's class, explains:  In the Circle, "you see everyone's face and everyone's reactions and emotions - and I feel like you connect much better than you do sitting in rows." The Circle, he says, is "a great way to get into someone's mind and someone's heart."
His classmate Fredy Rosario echoes this thought:  "The Circle has helped me connect with the students and the school and the staff." His favorite moments, he says, are "when everybody just comes together, becomes a family.  That's what we are here.  And we share what happens."
In Circle, says classmate Caryn Lai Hing, "we get to share what we feel and our opinions, and it's good to hear the perspectives from other students. It's easier to speak to my peers now," she says. "I can definitely see others' perspectives...Not everyone has the same views.  And you just need to respect that, even if you don't necessarily agree."
Liz and other Morningside Center staff developers who have been working with Circles all attest to their power.  But they also agree that Circles are not easy to implement.
"The Circle process is so simple. But it's also revolutionary," says Morningside Center executive director Tom Roderick. "It contradicts much of the way schools function.  It takes time, space, and staff.  Circles also require skillful facilitation, and that is difficult.  It's an art, really."  What's more, students need an introduction to some basic social and emotional skills to make circles work well. We are developing a curriculum that provides the scaffolding teachers and students need to get the most out of Circles.
Even skillfully run Circles take time to work.  "I find it usually takes three Circles before things start to change," says Liz.  "I was at one school where the first time we tried Circles, students didn't listen to each other. There was cross-talk. People were looking at their phones. There were community agreements up on the wall, but people didn't embrace them. But we went through the agenda, students practiced, they got feedback, and by the end of my time at the school, they could do the Circles on their own. Students start to hear each others' stories, and they'll realize,
‘You're not the person I thought you were.' It creates respect that they didn't have before."
In the Circle, teachers share leadership of the class with their students, and they're encouraged to tell their own stories. "For some teachers the Circle structure and assumptions are hard," says Liz.  "They have a hard time letting go and sharing themselves. But teacher sharing really matters to the students."
"It's important for kids to see their teachers as human," adds our staff developer Marieke van Woerkom. "We adults tend to show only the strong parts of ourselves when we're in front of a class. But I've heard teachers share in Circle that they were bullied when they were kids, and that created a new level of empathy with students. If we as adults can be more open about the things we struggle with, kids can learn so much, and they can relate to us in different ways." 
Circles provide a structure that invites connection. Liz recalls her work in a school that only began introducing Circles in the spring.  She and a teacher participated in a powerful Circle with students.  Afterwards the teacher told Liz: "I've learned more about my students in one class than I have all year."  Liz says, "That's wonderful, but it's also sad that it happened so late in the year."    

A New Approach to Discipline

The Green School first adopted Circles as a way to address discipline issues, says principal Cara Tait.  "The Green School has always been committed to thinking about education from a social justice perspective," she explains.  "It bothered me that our suspension and discipline policies weren't aligned with that.  What would discipline look like if it matched our school's mission?"  Eventually, the Green School made its way to "Restorative Circles" and Morningside Center.
Restorative Circles bring together those involved in the incident with the aim of helping a person who has done something hurtful to understand how their action affected others, and to make amends. The approach is spreading in schools and in the justice system as an alternative to punitive forms of discipline.  It uses the same Circle format Mr. Van Nort demonstrated, but the group's focus is on telling stories about the problem, how it happened, its impact, and how the problem can be remedied and the community healed.
Morningside Center helps schools use Circles for this purpose. But "a lot of what we do is story-telling and sharing,"says Marieke, who co-wrote our Circles curriculum and has done extensive training and coaching in Circles.  "This sharing is an investment in the community that encourages people to want to take responsibility and repair the harm when poor decisions get made, when people get hurt."
Marieke adds, "Teachers often come to the Circles training because they want to fix things. I tell them, ‘Don't just use Circle when things go wrong.  You can't restore what you don't have.  First you have to create a feeling of community.  You have to create trust in the group before you can use this process for ‘restoration.'"
Circles can be a radical departure from the normal patterns in our society, Marieke says.  "There are some kids, they're the heavy hitters, the ones who are always in the dean's office. There are all these rules at school, and they break them, and then they get kicked out.  They get suspended, they get sent to ALCs [alternative learning centers], they may end up in jail. Society doesn't allow them in - all it does is push them out. Why would they take responsibility for their actions if they aren't part of the community in the first place?"
Marieke sometimes uses a Shel Silverstein poem called "Invitation" in her Circles:

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer ...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in! Come in!

"The Circle invites everyone and every part of everyone," says Marieke.  "And we all have these parts - the good, the bad and the ugly.  The Circle is a community where we can bring our whole self."