Julia Steiny: Weekly Circles Bring Kids Closer to Adults and Each Other

Close-knit communities formed by engaging in weekly discussion circles of students and adults can improve schools and even individual families.

Julia Steiny

The pretty 9th-grade girl takes the “talking piece” from the boy on her right, indicating it’s her turn to speak. Sheepishly she looks around her 13 peers and a teacher-advisor.

The group, a weekly advisory, has pulled chairs into a circle and are exchanging tidbits of personal information, specifically their “high” and their “low” of the last week. One kid enjoyed his visit to his New York cousins, but complained of walking to school in the rain that day. The other kids murmured sympathy regarding the rainy day.

The 9th-grade is about four months into starting their advisories with this technique for checking in on one another’s lives. Afterwards, they’ll get down to the business of fleshing out plans and strategies for their futures. Most kids already know the “high” and “low” they’ll report, so it goes pretty quickly.

But the girl stares at the talking piece a moment, takes a deep breath and says, “my high for this week is…,” but stops and laughs. “You guys aren’t going to believe this.” Eyebrows go up and kids lean forward, curious. An on-going story might be taking a juicy plot turn. We wait while she struggles with herself.

I’m shadowing a guidance counselor and two teachers because their middle school is considering adopting circles to promote personalization.

“Personalization” is the antiseptically-bureaucratic word that educators use to describe human bonding and caring in schools. For decades, researchers have been emphatic that every student needs to be known well by at least one school adult and to feel like they are welcomed into to the school’s community.

The data in the seminal reports Turning Points, about improving middle schools, and Breaking Ranks, about high schools, show that kids can get badly alienated from learning without a strong fabric of school-based relationships. Disaffected students tend to misbehave, disrupt class, perform poorly and drop out.

Well, duh. I mean, if no one at school seems to care about you, why go? Imagine the kind of alienation many kids experience in their home lives, only to have it reproduced at school. Private school brochures all tout the school’s ability to give every student personal attention. And despite their uneven academic performance, charter schools have huge waiting lists because of their warm, close school communities.

But staff in many traditional schools, especially in urban areas, resent being required to develop more personal relationships with kids. Teaching social and emotional skills is the parents’ job. Many parents are doing a lousy job of parenting, but that’s not the teachers’ fault or responsibility. Furthermore, many school adults fear getting sucked into kids’ issues. But kids crave positive adult relationships. And kids who lack social skills often make school a misery for adults and fellow students alike.

“High/low circles” promote personalization in a ritualized, unchallenging way. They’re part of a menu of techniques known as “restorative practices,” aimed at building and maintaining community to reduce misbehavior, resolve conflict and repair interpersonal harm. Caring, close communities suffer fewer discipline problems, as common sense would argue.

At last, the pretty 9th grader takes another deep breath and blurts out, “My high is that my father is getting married.”

The class erupts with whooping and complaint. “What? For weeks you’ve been complaining about that (street language slur for woman)! She’s stupid! You want her dead and out of your life.” Even the teacher blinks with seeming shock.

“I know, I know. I’ve said some pretty bad things about her. And she’s still going to take some getting used to. But…” The group settles into their chairs, silent, all ears.

“We were fighting so much at my house, everyone just yelled all at the same time. So I taught them to circle up ‘cause we weren’t getting anywhere.” At this point the counselor and teachers I’m shadowing glance at one another, impressed. The circle technique is so simple, she taught it to her family, and with it, they resolved what sounds like a miserable domestic quarrel.

“So,” again with the sheepish look, “When we took turns, I kind of had to hear what my brothers were saying. Mostly that this isn’t about me,” she said rolling her eyes. “It’s about my dad. And the thing is, she makes him happy.” The girl shrugs. “That’s what matters. More than me not wanting somebody else telling me what to do. Anyway, I told them that I would do everything I could to make it work.”

The kids were on their feet, giving her a standing ovation, clapping and high-fiving. She beamed. This was good news. But they also stuck their fingers in her face and told her that they were holding her to it. She was really lucky, after all. In this poor, urban community she was getting a mom and a dad and a real family, which was a lot more than most of them had. She nodded, “I know, I know.” She glanced at the teacher, who said nothing, but smiled and gave her two thumbs up.

As you might have guessed, this girl was a known hot-head. After this incident and over time, her angry misbehavior got much better. No professional counseling or social services were involved. With a good technique, and her advisory team looking out for her, she was able to care of her own business, and to do a bang-up job of it, in fact.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.

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  1. Weekly Circles Bring Kids Closer to Adults and Each Other « Standing With the Kids

    [...] by EducationNews.org —  The pretty 9th-grade girl takes the “talking piece” from the boy on her right, [...]

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July 6th, 2011

Julia Steiny Columnist EducationNews.org

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