Circle Up!

My students absolutely love PE! They usually come back excited about a game they played & full of energy. About a month ago, my students came back in the classroom unusually quiet & found their seats. While it was unusual, I didn’t think much of it & we got ready for lunch. After checking my students in for lunch, I ran into the PE teacher in the hall. She explained there had been a little problem with students being disrespectful when given directions, which resulted in consequences. It was at that moment the earlier silence began to make a little bit more sense to me.

There is something you should know about me… I have a slightly LARGE obsession with “teacher books” (by that I mean I have a lot of books & I usually read them in 1-2 days).  I especially love books written by classroom teachers or administrators, because I feel like they get it! With every amazon order, my collection continues to grow (which means I need a bigger book shelf!).

The weekend before our PE problem, I finished reading a book from the Hacking Learning Series titled Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create A Culture of Empathy & Responsibility Using Restorative Justice. Something I really like about the Hack Learning Series is each chapter gives you the problem, the hack, what you can do tomorrow, a blueprint for full implementation, overcoming pushback, as well as an example of the hack in action.

While on my lunch break, I had an idea. I was going to try Hack 2 from Hacking School Discipline, Circle Up. I found a “talking stick” (a stuffed Santa that resembled a ball) & I was ready to try something that could easily fail, from lack of experience on my part, or boost to our classroom culture!

As soon as our class came in from lunch, I had them all come to the front of the room & we sat in a circle. I explained our PE teacher had talked to me during lunch & told me about a problem that occurred at the beginning of PE. I then explained I wanted to try something I had read in a book to resolve the issue. I explained the purpose of the circle, set expectations (everyone has a voice, respectful comments, facts only,  only talk if you have the stuffed Santa, etc.), & we got started.

Since this happened over a month ago, I don’t remember every specific comment or question that was asked in that circle, but I do remember a few things. I remember students talking through the problem & explaining their side of the story (without excusing the disrespectful behavior). I remember students sticking up for each other & showing empathy. I also remember coming up with possible solutions (student generated & FABULOUS).

I happened to catch the PE teacher during recess, later that afternoon. I told her about this new thing I had tried & some of the comments that were made in the circle. I also shared some of the solutions my students came up with, which she implemented later that afternoon (she is awesome)!

Our circle wasn’t perfect, but my students really enjoyed it. At the end of our circle, one of the students said, “It feels so good to talk about the problem!” Would our circle have been as successful if it would have happened the first day of school? I don’t think so. I really think our classroom culture allowed us to have that discussion. Without the relationships & trust, I don’t think students would have felt comfortable openly talking about this problem & nothing would have been resolved.

What I loved most about circling up was hearing student voice, understanding their point of view, & listening to THEIR (very valid) solutions.

The authors, Nathan Maynard & Brad Weinstein, bring up a good point.

Students must be accountable for their behavior & how it effects others. But when a student is removed from the classroom because of negative behavior, he or she is no longer accountable for the impact the behavior had on the relationships with the class.

While I have never been an advocate for removing students from the classroom (unless it becomes a safety concern), I liked the emphasis on how negative behavior impacts those around them,  & how neglecting to address how others involved in the situation were impacted can harm the climate of the classroom. If I would have thought about it, & if it would have worked out with our schedule, it would have been interesting to have the PE teacher sit in our circle, too!

At the end of our circle, I had the students give written feedback on the circle experience, here are some of their responses:

  • “I liked the circle because we could express ourselves without judgement.”
  • “I thought it was great. Even though I did not want to talk, it felt like what I would say came out of other people’s mouths. It was like a relief from all the things that happened”
  • “I like it because you can say what happened in a situation & then as a class we can talk about it & try to fix the situation.”
  • “I think the circle is great because we can improve how we talk to other people & we can share our feelings.”
  • “I like the circle because it’s healthy to talk about things that happened & it helps you get thoughts out of your head.”
  • “I like the circle because it brings trust & hope to our class so everyone can feel happy & comfortable. The circle also helps situations that need to be talked about.”

We used a circle to address an infraction of our Class Commitments, but circles can be used in positive ways, too! I would like to make “circling up” a norm in our classroom, so next year I might add circles to our weekly class meeting!

Circle Up was only one chapter of Hacking Classroom Discipline. Nathan & Brad have so many great ideas & I can’t wait to re-read it this summer & implement more of their strategies in my own classroom! If you work in education, or with people in general, I highly recommend this book!


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