An Introduction to Circles

Circles use a highly structured process to create a safe space where people can share their feelings and experiences. Since 2011, Morningside Center has partnered with the NYC Department of Education to introduce circles into schools around New York City. Here, Morningside Center trainer Marieke van Woerkom outlines the basic elements of Circles.

Since 2011, Morningside Center has partnered with the NYC Department of Education to introduce community-building and restorative circles into schools around New York City. Circles use a highly structured process to create a safe space where people can share their feelings and experiences. Circle processes have been used in schools across the country to encourage and practice group communication, relationship-building, empathy, democratic decision-making, conflict resolution, and problem solving.  
The circle approach is grounded in a Native American philosophy and practice that values individuals as they build and maintain supportive relationships and communities. Circles are used by hundreds of tribes in North America, including the Ojibwe and Lakota. The circle process provides an alternative to the style of discussion that involves debate and challenging each other. Instead, circles create a safe and non-hierarchical place in which each person can speak without interruption. It encourages respectful listening and reflection.
Below, we describe the key components that set circles apart from other approaches:

  • Sitting in a Circle
  • A Meaningful Talking Piece
  • A Meaningful Center Piece
  • The Opening & Closing Ceremony
  • The Role of the Keeper


Sitting in a Circle

Though it is likely to take some time as you change from a regular classroom set-up to everyone sitting together in a circle, remember that the seating arrangement is a key component of circles.  Hence the name! 
When we sit in a circle:

  • all participants can see each other in an unobstructed way (no tables, chairs or other furniture in between);
  • all participants can fully engage with one another;
  • there is a clear focus on the issue at the center of the circle; and
  • there is equal participation in the process for all; no one sits at the head of a circle. Everyone is invited into the circle to participate on an equal footing, and all perspectives are welcomed.

A Meaningful Talking Piece

The dialogue in circles is facilitated by a talking piece.  The piece is passed around the circle in order, from one person to the next. The person who is holding it is  invited to speak or pass. Everyone else in the circle practices active listening, knowing that their turn will come when the talking piece comes around.  Everyone in the circle has an opportunity to share without interruption what is on their mind, and those not speaking can listen more fully without the distraction of preparing a response or rebuttal.  In this way, the talking piece encourages more thoughtful reflection and unhurried expression.
At Morningside Center we often use a hugg-a-planet as a talking piece, to represent our global community.  But teachers we've worked with have also used other items that have meaning in some way, from stuffed animals belonging to small children in their lives or handheld mirrors for personal reflection. 
The power of the talking piece ultimately lies in its democratic nature.  It gives each participant equal opportunity to speak, with the idea that all have something valuable to contribute.  As the piece moves from one participant to the next, every person in the group is acknowledged, whether they speak or not.  Sometimes holding the piece for a moment of silence before passing it can be a powerful contribution to what is usually a busy and noisy classroom community.

A Meaningful Center Piece

A center piece usually sits at the center of the open space inside the circle of chairs.  It is intended to create a focal point for circle participants so they can be more fully present and bring their best self to the circle. 
Though teachers we've worked with often ask whether the center piece is necessary,  especially in a crowded and busy classroom, most people who have participated in our trainings agree that a meaningful center piece is important for circle work. 
Start out by creating a simple base on which to display talking pieces. You might use an inexpensive round tablecloth, a mat or a scarf. 
In early sessions, ask the group itself to contribute to the center piece. For instance, ask them to write on index cards some values they believe are important in the kind of (circle) community they want to be a part of.  Or ask each student to write the name of a person for whom they want to be their best self - perhaps a younger sibling, a parent or grandparent, a best friend or teacher.  Or ask students to bring something from home that represents who they are, or an image from a magazine that represents something important to them.  
Before placing an item on the center piece, ask the student to share why the value on their index card is important to them; why the item they brought in represents who they are; or what the image they are sharing means to them.  In this way, you create a center piece that represents and is valuable to the community that surrounds it.
To avoid having to create a new center piece each time the circle convenes, you can use a box or a bowl to collect and store the index cards, images, and other items that students have contributed. By the end of the year, this box is likely to become a treasure trove that can be used to look back on and reflect on the year's circles and how students have grown.

Opening & Closing Ceremony

Circles provide a space apart from the regular classroom where students can feel safe enough to speak openly and honestly without disrespecting themselves or others. 
An opening ceremony marks the start of the circle process, giving students a chance to put aside the school day and its various distractions. Openings are a time for students to center themselves so that as participants in the circle they are present in the moment, and mindful of their values.  Openings may consist of a poem, a quote, a piece of music, a meditation or a story. 
A closing ceremony serves to wrap things up, preparing students to return to the regular school day.  Closings may acknowledge the work that participants have done, summarize the lessons learned and affirm the connection among the circle participants.

The Role of the Keeper

The facilitator, known in circles as the keeper, invites and supports circle participants in building and maintaining a safe and supportive community. The keeper does this by introducing the process and by inviting participants, early on, to identify values and guidelines they deem important for this shared space.  The keeper also introduces and ensures the proper use of the talking piece, and, together with the participants, builds a center piece that  is valuable and relevant to all. 
Though the keeper may initiate the circle and monitor the dialogue and the safety of the space, the goal is for this to become a shared responsibility, so that everyone becomes both a participant and a keeper.  As students become more familiar with the circle, they can get more involved by bringing in a talking piece, taking responsibility for an opening or closing ceremony, or even determining the theme of a circle or a problem the circle will address.
As the keeper you are not considered to be or expected to be the teacher/expert. You are more a host who prepares, convenes and helps to facilitate the dialogue in the circle. This means that preparing for a circle is as much about preparing and caring for yourself as it is about planning for the content of the circle. It includes getting all the sleep and nourishment you need so that you can be centered as a keeper. Your aim is to clear your mind of distractions and your body of tension so that you can be fully present in the moment with your group.  For all of us, this is an ongoing process as we work toward self-knowledge and awareness and try to take care of ourselves in the face of the pressures we face at work and in life.