as well as about them as individuals…” Research has shown that
students who experience higher rates of school connectedness
have better outcomes in risky behaviors, as well as attendance
and academics. Community building circles are a powerful strategy
in building school connectedness.
WHAT IS A CIRCLE?
Many indigenous people, from the Tlingit to the Maori people,
have used circle process long before the implementation of restorative practices in schools. While our background and experience is
not drawn directly from those traditions, it is important to acknowledge that this way of engaging with one another is not a recent or
Participants are seated in a circle so that everyone can face one
another. Usually there are no tables or other objects in the middle
of the circle, unless participants decide to place objects important
to them in the center.
An adult, a student, or both, facilitate the circle, using predetermined, relevant, meaningful questions. The routine of the circle is
the same every time, creating predictability and a trauma-sensitive
practice. Authority figures such as teachers and principals share
their thoughts in the circle as well, shifting the power dynamics
from adult-centered to the collective.
A talking piece is used -- whoever is holding the object gets
the opportunity to speak; everyone else listens. Participants have
the opportunity to pass if they want -- this is a trauma sensitive
approach, as it gives students choice. Participants (including the
facilitator) do not respond directly to shares. Instead, they can wait
for the talking piece to come back around to them.
Community-building circles can tackle everything from low-risk
ice-breakers (What’s your favorite food?) to discussing classroom
norms (What does respect mean to you?) to processing a school
fight (How did you feel when you heard about what happened?)
to sharing feelings after a staff member’s death (How do you take
care of yourself when you’re having a hard time?). Student and
adult participants build community when they get to know each
other and, through vulnerability in a structured, predictable, and
non-judgmental space, develop meaningful, caring relationships.
These relationships are between peers, between students and
adults, and between adults (for instance, try a circle in your next
faculty meeting and see what happens).
For a student walking in the door with multiple adverse experience at home, like Serena, a community building circle can be a safe
and appropriate space for her to have some of those deep needs of
understanding, love, to be seen, safety met. This school connectedness fostered by this process safely and surely begins to build
resilience and repair some of the harm students experienced outside the classroom. That is why the students who graduated from
North View High School kept coming back week after week.
Replicating the successful pioneering of student-led advisories
in Oakland, California, one New England school has trained stu-
dents and their advisory teachers in community-building circles.
Students now lead some of their weekly Advisory groups (small
groups of students that meet weekly with a faculty member, oth-
erwise known as “homeroom”).
The teacher connected to an advisory reports a complete
transformation of her group due to the students running community-building circles. They went from acting bored and disaffected
to engaged and supportive of one another. In another school, a
teacher integrated restorative practices into her social justice class.
Students were trained to facilitate circle process both to build community and to repair harm. The class was a mixture of all kinds of
students, coming from different cliques, including students facing
significant challenges. After one month of the class, students who
previously would not have given each other a second look in the
hallway expressed interest in spending time with each other outside of school. The reason? As one student said, “We’re family now.”
At North View, the weekly after school “Community” started as
a way for students who would have otherwise served a detention
to repair harm while building community. But over time, the group
welcomed friends and other students who sought community
connection. In the circle, the guidance counselor facilitator starts by
asking students to share their “highs and lows” -- something that
is going well and something that is hard. Then students share why
they are at Community. Students who opt in might say, “Because I
like you guys” or “I like the community.” Students for whom community is an alternative to detention share about the incident
that led them to choose community over “consequences.” These
students can ask the group either to listen or, using the talking
piece, brainstorm how to repair the harm. In this way, harm repair
becomes a community process – not just left to the individual – a
key aspect of restorative practices.
Importantly, community-building circles shift the responsibility
of caring for and supporting students from the shoulders of adults
alone to all the people in the building -- young people included --
creating a more organic and resilient network. Within the North
View community group, when a student worried he was unable to
afford a tux for the prom, other students in Community pitched in
to pay for the tux and bought him a seat in the limo. The Community group also expanded their activities to supporting the broader
community by running a clothing drive and taking on other community service initiatives.
The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) recommends that “responsive circles” should be used 20% of the time
to respond to harm, and that “proactive circles” be used 80% to
build community. We would expand that principle to encompass
all restorative practices. In a restorative school environment the
majority of restorative activities should be focused on community.
As a preventive measure, building community through methods
like circles decreases the likelihood that harm will occur in the
school environment. Furthermore, when harm does happen, students have both the relational incentive and the circle process to do
the necessary repair.
Notably, while community might not directly solve the problems
of abuse, neglect, and other harm originating outside the school
building, it does mitigate their impacts by creating a space where
students can be seen, heard, valued and cared for. In other words,
community-building circles can pave the way for healing.