In 2010, I received my first set Dell laptops, which enabled me to have a one-to-one classroom but also began to infect my first batch of zombies. By the following fall, I was frustrated. I felt disconnected from my students and attention-seeking behavior began to increase.
I decided to go back to my Girl Scout summer camp roots and created a campfire-like circle in my classroom. I collected an odd assortment of vintage stools from local estate sales, arranged them in a circle in one corner of my room to create The Lounge. When students arrived in class, they turned on their laptops at their desks and then came to join a brief tech-free meeting during which each student responded to a question as we passed around a crocheted owl. At this time, I had not yet heard of restorative practices. Instead, I was just following summer camp Magic Circles, during which all counselors and campers sat in a circle and passed a talking piece to resolve conflicts and make decisions.
Within a few weeks, a familiar warm classroom culture not only returned, but it tremendously improved. My students came to class looking forward to sharing during lounge and were more focused and collaborative when working on their laptops.
In the years since, I have learned about Restorative Practices and learned that my Lounge was actually a version of what the International Institute for Restorative Practices calls proactive restorative circles because they prevent reactive restorative circles which are a type of behavior intervention (more about all of this at a later time). Restorative circles are currently gaining in popularity because they are a simple way to develop community, speaking and listening skills, empathy, collaboration, and friendships.
Last week, my friend Mari Venturino wrote a blog post sharing her decision to begin implementing circles in one of her classes this year. She has already read The Restorative Practices Handbook and Restorative Circles for Schools, which I highly recommend, so she should be off to a great start. But, I also began thinking about teachers who want to begin proactive circles but do not have the time to sit down and read in the few days before classes begin again. So, I decided to create a simple guide, based on five years daily circle implementation, to help teachers get started.
Getting Started with Proactive Restorative Circles
Step 1: Pick the Question
What do you want your students to share? Circles work best when used as regular check-ins that simply ask, “How are you feeling today?”. During these circles, each student says how he/she is feeling and why. All people present in the room should participate, including the teacher, aides, and any guests.
- Create a large poster with the question and response sentence frames:
- How are you feeling today? Why are you feeling this way?
- I am feeling _____ because _____.
- Give students a minute to plan what they are going to say before the circle begins.
- Add a word bank of emotion words to the poster.
Step 2: Determine Meeting Times
When and where will your circle meetings take place? To help you plan, consider how much time may be needed to arrange the chairs, the length of your class periods, how many students will speak, and your existing classroom agenda and daily routines.
- Teachers with shorter class periods often chose to facilitate weekly check-in circles on Mondays, and teachers with longer periods lead meetings daily.
- Set a time limit for each speaker to keep meetings brief. Of course, exceptions can be made as needed.
Step 3: Pick the Talking Piece
Which item will be passed around to identify the speaker? Pick something soft that can be easily and safely tossed; stuffed animals and medium-sized balls work well.
- If using a ball, write sentence starters and/or emotion words on the ball.
- Allow your talking piece to become a classroom mascot.
- Try to pick something without parts that can fall off.
Step 4: Design the Physical Circle
How can you create a circle of seats? You may need to get creative with this one depending on the size of your room and the type of furniture you have. Ideally, everyone should be able to see each other and sitting pretty level with one another.
- Organize extra chairs, beanbags, or even mismatched used stools in a circle on one side or in one corner of the room.
- Push desks to the perimeter of the room and use the chairs to make the circle in the middle.
- If necessary, use an extra room on campus, such as the auditorium or library. Just make sure it is fairly private and quiet enough for discussion.
Step 5: Facilitate a Circle
How do you facilitate a community-building circle? Create a plan, post the steps, practice it with your students, and follow your plan at every check-in meeting. If you later chose to use circles for other purposes, such as brainstorming ideas or sharing opinions about current events, feel free to adjust, but use the check-in circle as your skeleton.
- Arrange chairs into a circle–ideally before class
- Teacher and students sit in chairs
- Teacher reviews process and points out supporting posters
- As the talking piece is passed around the circle, the person holding it will state how he/she is feeling and why.
- Participants who are not ready may pass once, but they will be asked to share once the talking piece has made one loop around the circle
- Participants should try to attentively listen to each speaker without interrupting or distracting
- For the first circle, teacher goes first to model the format
- Example: I am feeling energized because today is the first day of school and I am happy to meet all of you.
- Teacher passes the talking piece to her left and the next student speaks
- Example: I am feeling nervous because today is my first day at this school and I’m not sure of how to get to my next class.
- Talking piece continues being passed until all students have spoken and students who passed have been given a second chance to speak
- Teacher concludes the meeting and puts the talking piece away
- Begin your very first class meeting with a circle. Students are normally more willing to try something new on the first day of school.
- At the first circle, create a clear expectation that everyone join the circle to prevent future challenges.
- If a student absolutely does not want to participate, just let him or her sit and observe but follow-up with a private one-on-one conversation.