Classroom Story – by Catherine

Just another example of how circles make a huge difference in the classroom.

I teach 2nd grade in an urban (St. Paul, MN) elementary school. We are over 70% poverty and about the same for minority percentages. I implemented circles into my daily practice last year after taking a training from Kris Miner at St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice in River Falls, WI.

I begin everyday with a talking circle (we call it a sharing circle). Everyone gets to share interesting or important things from the evening before or they can ask questions about the upcoming school day. Sort of like, getting them ready to learn. This gives us a chance to resolve breakfast issues, bus conflicts, or any question they may have before the academic day begins.

I close each day with a “Closing” Circle where students share favorite activities of the day, what they learned, or what they still have questions about. Closing circle is also used for conflicts that may have arisen during the day.

Today a little red headed 2nd grader (very sensitive emotionally) started crying during the last 20 minutes of the day as the class was returning from another classroom. He dove behind the recycling bin trying to hide his crying from the rest of the class. Several children brought it to my attention immediately and then told me that the “new” girl had said something to make the little red headed boy feel bad. The “new” girl had arrived yesterday. My room is the third school for this youngster in three years and the second one already this year. So wasn’t feeling very connected to anything.

While talking to the boy hiding behind the recycling bin I found out that the “new” girl had laughed at his pictures of the early american settlers and called him stupid. Many children in the classroom had overheard the hurtful comment. When I tried to comfort the boy he just looked up and said, “Mrs. Cranston, can we bring it to circle?” I said, “Of course”.

Within 5 minutes everyone gathered for Closing Circle. I explained that today’s circle was going to be a problem solving circle not just a regular talking circle. One student made a comment to his neighbor, “That means this is important.” We passed the talking piece remembering our agreed upon values (which are posted on the wall near the circle space). We did several rounds of, “what it feel like to have someone call you stupid and what it would feel like to have someone make fun of your drawings or other things special to you”. The 2nd graders had powerful stories. One little chubby kid told about being called “fat” at his old school and how that made him cry. The other newest student (has been in the class about 3 weeks) shared that he didn’t know who the victim was today, but he sure felt sorry for him. That was the first truly honest and heartfelt sharing from that new student. Needless to say the committment piece was almost tearful for some as they very seriously promised to never say mean things to someone or laugh at them. One little girl looked right at the offender and said, “You know when you laughed at (victim) you hurt all of us today.”

By the end of the circle everyone had told the “new” girl that they were positive she could change her ways and fix the problem. The “new” girl then looked right at the vicim (asked him his name) and apoligized in front of everyone. I had not asked her to do that. She did so independently.

This process was so powerful because it wasn’t about me, the teacher, telling a student what they had done wrong. It was about her peers looking at her calmly while telling her they were hurt by her behavior today. And that they have high expectations for her in the future. It wasn’t about blaming, it was about holding her accountable for the harm. Crazy stuff from 8 year olds!!!

I believe they have the skills to do this because they practice “fun” talking circles and “sharing” circles every single day. Today’s problem solving circle was just a normal way of tackling a problem for them…no big deal.

Then the kicker… newest little boy walked up to the “new” (offender) girl after the circle, put his arm on her shoulder and said, “It’s ok, you will be fine in about a month. It took me about that long to figure it out too.”