Guest blogger on “Circles Matter”

Amy Vante Bintliff, author of Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education provided me this guest blog post.  Click here and check out the website for Transformational Education.  Her guest post:

After training a group of educators on using Restorative Justice Talking Circles to establish connections with youth, a teacher approached and said, “You know, that’s all nice, but it’s just not me.  I discuss things in my own way.  I’m not a touchy feely guy.  What’s the difference between me just having discussion day and me talking this way?”

“It’s about equity,” I said.  “In your classes right now, who speaks the most?  Who raises her hand?  Who is left silent? Circle is about each member having an opportunity to speak, to be heard, to share his or her voice.”

Talking Circles, a process stemming from First Nation and American Indian communities in North America, and many other indigenous communities worldwide, involves communicating through turn taking.  Members of the Circle use a Talking Piece, a unique object traditionally found in nature, to take turns.  When a person has the Talking Piece, it’s their turn to speak.  When they don’t have the Talking Piece, it’s their turn to listen respectfully.  A set of agreed upon norms guide the Circle.  Traditionally, those norms involve honoring the sacred space, keeping things confidential, and showing respect.

A leader, called the Circle Keeper, facilitates the first question.  The Circle Keeper plans for the Circle by selecting a poem or reading to settle participants in, selecting questions for the day, and reviewing the group norms.  The Circle Keeper facilitates the process, but also participates as an equal.  In my classroom, both adults and youth serve as Circle Keepers.

I’ve worked with Circles for over ten years and have researched the process discovering that members of Circle feel more connectedness towards each other, can solve conflicts, and provide support for one another.  Though Circles serve a number of purposes, including conflict/resolution, Circles of healing, and decision-making Circles, the Circles I was training that day had one purpose—to facilitate feelings of connectedness and belonging.

Though the majority of training participants left that day excited to begin the practice, a few of the educators still felt that the old way of forming connections was best—raising a question and calling on students who appear excited to answer.  But I’ve found that the old way of discussing issues often leaves out the voices that need the most support—the youth who feel the most disengaged from their educational communities as a whole.  After explaining the idea of equity, I began to dig deeper among the participants who seemed the most resistant.

One of these teachers said, “You know, you talk about equity.  You’ve got to realize that it isn’t equitable to ask an adult to share information about themselves with students.  Some of us don’t like to share.”

I had anticipated this concern in advance, and prepared a set of laminated Circle question cards that were color coded—brown for narrow, blue for deep.  The narrow questions included simple beginning questions, such as, “What’s your favorite food?” or “What is an activity or hobby that you enjoy?”

After asking the teacher, “Do you think any adult in this building would have trouble sharing the answers to these narrow questions with their students?”  I was met with a look of panic.

“Well, no,” said the teacher.  “I guess not.  But the whole idea makes some of us uncomfortable.”

Aha!  It was then that I realized that there were some hidden fears among these veteran teachers—they were afraid to lose control, they were afraid to sit in the space as an equal with a student, they were afraid to not “look cool”, they were afraid to hand a process over to a group of young people, and they were afraid to create vulnerability. They believed in a type of classroom equity that kept them in control.

Letting go of the reign of control, sticking with the process even when Circles don’t go perfectly takes commitment.  But the benefits to youth far outweigh the risks that educators take.  In fact, once we appear more human to our students, there’s more buy in, there’s more trust, and you set the platform to be able to dig more deeply into educational content.

This week, I sat in Circle with a group of 8th graders.  We’d been sitting in Circle each week for four months now—when we began in October, some students were afraid to speak at all, some asked to leave the room on Circle days, some tried to undermine the group process by side chattering the first times.  But now, after only fourteen Circles together, when I asked these youth, “Should we do a narrow one today, or go deep?”  They all screamed, “Deep!”

“Let’s talk about our fears then.  What frightened you when you were little?  What frightens you now?  How do you overcome those fears?”

As we passed our Talking Piece, each young adult shared openly and beautifully.  I listened to stories of childhood fears—of spiders, monsters, and closets.  I then listened to stories of today’s fears—being called fat, losing a parent to cancer, moving into 9th grade, failing…

That time wasn’t about me in the least.  It wasn’t about my idea of classroom control.  It wasn’t about my fear of appearing human in their eyes.  It wasn’t about my desire to fit into their world…it was about them.  About their voices and the courageous ways that they overcome their fears every day.   And when my turn came, I felt cowardly making light of my own fears, so I shared some of my own too.

And we build connections like that. Each individual sharing an answer, knowing that they are being honored by being respectfully listened to.

When we let go of our need for control in a safe environment, whether we are parents, activists, community leaders, or educators, we learn to listen openly to the voices of our young people.  What I find there, within those Circle spaces, is that our youth need us to let go of some of our own ego and fears of losing control.  They need us to fade into the woodwork and listen, so that they can speak.