circle process in the middle school classroom

The Circle Process is a storytelling process. Every person has a story, and every story has a lesson to offer. In the Circle, people touch one another’s lives by sharing stories that have meaning to them…

...To feel connected and respected, people need to tell their stories and have others listen. Having others listen to your story is a function of power in our culture. The more power you have, the more people will listen respectfully to your story. To listen respectfully to a person’s story is to honor that person’s intrinsic worth and to empower the storyteller in a constructive way.

--Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Processes: a New/Old Approach to Peacemaking. Good Books, 2005

In my graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison everyone in my English cohort was gifted a copy of The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis at our first seminar with Professor Maisha Winn. Circle Processes are discussion practices used often in Restorative Justice settings and in restorative and transformative education. Circles are rooted in many indigenous communal practices and are being adapted for use in a variety of settings today. The Little Book gives a clear introduction to the topic. I remember so clearly how our first circle as a cohort felt--exciting, powerful and different from any of our graduate work up to that point. I was instantly reassured that Language Arts teaching could be the powerful thing I kept sensing it could be as I moved towards this work. As our year as a cohort progressed, we used circles often in our classes and also completed a Restorative Practices training through the YWCA in Madison.

There are many benefits of using this process. It provides a chance for students (and adults) to practice listening to each other more fully. It provides space for all to speak, not just the outgoing or the confident or those typically validated by school culture. It provides many visual symbolisms that reinforce the benefits of learning together and the unique value of being with others in a learning space to better understand our world. It is calm and non-competitive. It breaks down some of the status signals and barriers that we all carry within us as we move within our society. It changes the physical space of the room dramatically, providing a ritual act that cues that it is time to listen and develop new understanding in a special way.

Since leaving Madison I have used a circle process in my classroom often and I want to share my experience. I think it is a valuable process, but I also know many of the times I've planned for it, especially in the beginning of doing this with any group, I was pretty nervous and almost scrapped the plan. I am always grateful afterwards that I persevered, so I share this in case it encourages you to give it a try. (Or try it again, if you tried with one group and it didn’t go so well.)

In most of my classes students have taken well to the process, and once we’ve done it a couple times they move into the circle with positive anticipation and ease--even when talking about tough subjects. In my current school they have a tradition of more debate-like seminars, and as the year progressed I gave student leaders of our circles the option to choose between “seminar” and “circle” style discussion, and they very quickly moved to choosing the circle format as they noticed it was more welcoming and productive.

The way that I set up my circle process involves first moving furniture to the edges of the room and making room for us all to sit in a circle. Depending on the space, I have sometimes required everyone (who is able) to sit on the floor, but have also experimented with letting people choose their type of seating (floor, chair, pillow, wobble board, whatever). I like the symbolism of everyone sitting at the same level, but also do not want physical discomfort (or people’s comfort with the cleanliness of our floors!) to impede the discussion. This spring I mostly offered free seating choice and it worked well.

After we’ve been through the process a couple of times I task a student with choosing a focal point for the center of our circle. They often choose a plant, a vase of flowers, or some other beautiful (or sometimes amusing) object to center our circle.

Once we are gathered in a mostly circle-like shape where we can see each other’s faces, I remind everyone of the norms for the circle. My intro usually goes something like this:

  • We gather in a circle so that we are able to see and hear everyone

  • The circle symbolizes that we each have something valuable to contribute to the conversation, that we are connected, that we can build understanding together, and that it is a gift that we are here together

  • The circle provides space for all to share and all to listen, even those who haven’t felt comfortable speaking in school previously or who haven’t felt listened to previously

  • We use a talking piece to remind us that sometimes it is our time to speak and sometimes it is our time to listen. Even if you enthusiastically agree with someone, please listen quietly to them so that they can speak without a need for instant affirmation

  • If someone near to you forgets that it’s not their time to speak, gently remind them

  • It’s okay to pass, but it is expected that you share at least once

  • We set a beautiful object in the center of the circle to give us a place to rest our eyes. Some of us might feel more nervous if everyone is looking at us, and some of us might want something to look at as we gather our courage and words

I then begin the discussion with our first prompt. We typically have 2-3 prompts total, which I write on the board for their reference in case of daydreaming, and the last prompt is often a space for a student to pose a question and start the circle. Prompts usually relate to our "big questions" and often connect to texts we are exploring in class.

After announcing the prompt, I hand the talking piece to the person to my left. I was trained to always go clockwise, so that is what I do. Each student may speak or pass when they have the talking piece, though as I note in my intro, they are encouraged to speak at least once in the circle. I do not do any recordkeeping of this because it tends to work itself out, and if students really aren’t able to speak on a topic, there is probably a good reason that I don’t feel I need to counter with the threat of a loss of points or other consequence. I speak last, often reflecting what I've heard from all the students, but not in a way that makes me the final or authoritative voice. I avoid answering the prompt before passing off the talking piece because I find it sometimes makes students feel they should echo what I say. Once the talking piece has made it all the way around the circle, I often do a second pass so people may add something they thought of along the way. Then we move on to the next prompt.

At the end of the circle (often dictated by the end of class, as we rarely run out of things to say) I thank everyone for joining the circle, for respecting the norms, for sharing their thoughts and listening to others. I ask them to carefully return the focal point to its place and to restore the space to its original set-up. The first time the space taking-apart and restoring can be a bit chaotic and messy, but by the second or third time everyone does it without much thought or extra effort.

The circle process creates the many benefits I listed above, and it also works so powerfully to bring new voices into classroom discussion. My best circles are often with the more “unruly” groups of students--something about the active participation required in circle draws them in, helps them feel valued, and gives them ownership of the creation of rich dialogue. Equitable talk practices often feel awkward at first, but the circle process has been so rewarding that I really encourage you to push through that awkwardness. The space you create for students is a gift you shouldn’t easily pass up giving.

I’d love to hear your stories of circle processing as well! I know my process will continue to evolve in the years ahead.


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