In the Circle: Every Group is Different

December 23, 2016

When I was in Ohio a few weeks back, I visited four different middle schools that recently started implementing circles. I had been asked to do some modeling, so that teachers and counselors who were expected to run circles with their students could get a sense of what a well facilitated circle process looks like. I wasn't making any promises about what these circles would achieve, because I didn't have a relationship with any of the students and there's only so much that's possible in a first-time circle. 

I'd met with some staff who had already begun trying circles with their students. Some expressed their discomfort with the process. They felt it wasn't working with their kids. The kids weren't focused. They couldn't sit still.  They were disruptive and interrupted the process constantly. They didn't take things seriously. But there were other staff who shared that their students very much appreciated the power of circles. They'd seen their kids come together in powerful ways. In their classrooms, students were disappointed when their teachers had moved on to another part of the curriculum that wasn't circles-based.  

Four days in a row, I decided to use my "go to" opening ceremony:  The Invitation, by Shel Silverstein. I would see where that would take us. In my back pocket I had some activities and go-rounds about listening, in case we needed them. I basically ran the same circle four times, in four different schools, with radically different results. 

On Monday, I talked about the circle process, then quickly launched into the opening ceremony, because some of the students were having a hard time focusing and being engaged.  Reciting "The Invitation," I asked students to reflect on whether (and how) they see themselves as dreamers - go round 1 - as pretenders - go round 2 - and/or as liars - go round 3. Several students shared, but just as many passed. Some were acting out.  The talking piece going around multiple times did seem to settle things down some.  Most students quickly became focused and engaged, but there were some who found it extremely hard to listen to their classmates. We asked students who were having side conversations to sit away from each other, which they agreed to. It helped, but two students continued their disruptive, distracting behavior. 

Despite this, some students choose to share of themselves.  One student in particular stood out as he shared how he dreamed of his dad, whom he hadn't seen since he was a toddler. He missed his dad and yearned to see him again.  It was touching to hear him speak, and the girl next to him, acknowledged just that: she was brought to tears as she listened. A few other people acknowledged the power of his story as well, and some shared stories of their own. For the most part, though, students stayed out of the more personal realm. They shared more superficially or passed. This may have been because they weren't ready, because I was a stranger in their midst or because the giggling, off-task behavior and some mean comments made the space unsafe. 

One of the boys who was acting out was by now sitting next to me, and I tried to have him focus as best he could. But as a newcomer without a relationship to the boy, there was only so much traction I was able to get. Whenever the talking piece would come back to me, I acknowledged the off-task and giggling behavior that he and some others displayed. I explained that I understood that sometimes it's hard to listen to personal stories, especially if people share that they're sad or hurting. I acknowledged the discomfort that might come with listening to such stories.

I spoke from my own perspective - I shared that when I hear students giggling or commenting out of turn, when I hear side conversations and put downs, that stops me from wanting to share, because I don't feel particularly welcome or safe in that kind of circle. Out loud, I wondered if that was true for others in the circle as well.  I also invited students to think about their behavior and consider the impact it was having on others. 

As the talking piece went around, some of the boys managed to settle down. By the last go round, one even shared of himself. It seemed he was starting to take things more seriously. There had definitely been a shift from the beginning to the end of the circle.

The next day, I joined a teacher who told me that the circles she had facilitated in her classroom had been well received by her students. She'd found it to be a compelling way to build community and to have students connect with each other.  Though some students had definitely found it challenging to sit and focus for a full period, the group overall had appreciated this different way of coming together and being heard. 

The teacher did have questions about the seating arrangement. Her room had desks attached to chairs—not ideal for a circle set up. To date, she'd had kids sitting in a circle at their desks, while following all other circle guidelines.  I suggested she ask students to move to the inside of the circle and sit on top of their desks so as to not have obstacles between. We'd done this in a neighboring town, and it had worked quite well. 

Students were somewhat confused when we asked them to sit atop their desks, but they were game. They climbed on their desks as I reviewed the circle guidelines and explained the idea of not having obstacles between us. The teacher and I co-kept the circle, which flowed quite beautifully, despite some restlessness and jumpiness. I sent the talking piece around, and students, familiar with the process, started sharing of themselves. They talked about pretending to be okay when they're sad or lonely and how they lie about their feelings when they don't want people asking questions or when they want to stay out of trouble. Students talked about loss and dreaming of a better world. One student shared her dream of Black Lives Matter being successful. Others nodded in agreement. It was a lovely circle that ebbed and flowed between more and less personal sharing.

On Wednesday, I was in a circle with a group of 6th graders who took it to the next level almost immediately. (I wrote in depth about this circle in my previous post.) One student shared that her grandmother died last year and she misses her deeply. Her sadness was palpable and she clearly affected others in the circle, who took her lead and opened up, many talking about loss, grief, and feeling alone. Several students were moved to tears and deep connections were shared. I acknowledged the feelings in the room. I also shared how in Holland we have a saying that "shared joy is double the joy and shared grief is half the grief." The girl next to me had reflected on how the circle is like a "community," and I used that to share the idea that we build relationships and connections in circles to be able to be with and support each other.

The circle had been filled with pain and sadness. But it had also been a circle in which students had been able to connect, and generously gave of themselves by listening compassionately. As we closed up the circle, I asked: what are some of the things we could do to support each other when we're struggling and going through hard times? Students talked about being kind, about being each other's friend, about forgiveness, and about stepping in to stop mean behaviors. We ended the circle with the well of confidentiality: We took everything we had talked about in one hand, then ceremoniously dropped it into the well, where it would stay. 

The next and final day, in the same town, at a different school still, another group of sixth graders shared much less deeply in response to the same poem. Students shared about dreaming to be doctors and going to college. Some talked about how they'd lied to their little brothers and sisters about playing with them or getting them toys.

Oddly, the theme of bugs dominated this circle as students talked about being pretenders and liars. One student told how he had pretended to kill a bug a family member had asked them to kill, but had set it free - others were asked to set bugs free but had killed them instead. Students actively participated and respected the talking piece, but the circle never went beyond surface sharing, despite follow-up prompts that tried to explore the ethics of lying.  Was the problem that it was the last day before a long weekend?  Was it that students were hungry right before lunch? Was it that I was a stranger in their midst? Maybe students just didn't feel like sharing things that were more meaningful that day.  "Just ‘cause."  Who knows?

As circle keeper, we can ponder questions like these. We can think about what might have made a circle more meaningful. But we also have to accept that, at the end of the day, we may never know why one circle stays on the surface, while in the next one people share powerfully of themselves. Every circle is different.