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The Circle: A simple way to bring classes together, give students ownership and solve problems

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Every morning, the students at Summit View Elementary circle-up to welcome each other for the day.

“It is a great way to start their day,” explained Summit View Elementary Professional Learning Specialist Joseph Longbottom.  “They have a chance to greet everyone so they get to hear their name in the morning. They could get a handshake, a high-five or a hug. There are a ton of greetings they can do from a ‘shoe greeting’ to a ‘snake greeting.’ They have a lot of fun doing it.”

The restorative circle and greeting are part of a daily school-wide ritual known as Crew, recently implemented as part of the school’s move to Expeditionary Learning. During the time, students also share favorite quotes or readings and engage in group “initiatives.”

“An initiative could be a variety of things,” Longbottom explained. “Sometimes it is a fun game where they are collaborating with one another and then they reflect on what they did well and if they were able to collaborate well. If there were problems and it was really challenging, they might not find success. They might reflect on what challenges they faced and how did they brainstorm and collaborate with each other to come up with strategies to overcome those challenges.”

While reading, writing and arithmetic is delayed because of Crew, Longbottom says it is well worth the small investment of time.

“It is promoting academic success and limiting distractions because students are bonding and getting to know each other very well,” Longbottom said.

By gathering students together, with trusted adults, these restorative circles naturally create a sense of community, which promotes student physical and psychological safety.

“You’ll find that the statistics show that when the kids feel safe and when they feel a sense of trust and belonging in the classroom, those character aspects coincide with their academic success,” Longbottom said. “The way Crew works is that it is a fun time to ignite kids’ brains by thinking a quote that connects to the learning of the day or having a fun collaborative game that puts them in a situation, where they have to learn to collaborate with one another and find out things about one-another that might not come up in a traditional setting.”

The exercises allow teachers to quickly gauge where students are at mentally, before learning begins.

“Even the kids that haven’t had the best of nights or mornings can get a kick start to the rest of their day to start it off on a positive note when they come to school,” Longbottom said.

Students at several other DCSD schools gather in circles for their morning meetings and the results are the same.

Frontier Valley Elementary teacher Jennifer Hensley says it helps her students get started on the right foot. Often, in the safety of the circle, students are willing to share concerns and struggles they are having, making it easier for a teacher to know when someone might need a little extra support.

“It is really important when we do our morning meeting because it could be, ‘I need a little extra hug today, because I’m feeling sad’ or it could be something that is pretty serious that is weighing on them,” Hensley said.  “Because we have done this since the beginning of school, everyone feels pretty safe sharing things in here.”

“This little tiny circle, 15 minutes in the morning is a big deal,” added Frontier Valley Parent Dave Posey. “I wish it was everywhere all across the country, starting in Kindergarten.”

WATCH: 2014 Apple Awards - Frontier Valley Restorative Circles are important part of student mental and physical safety efforts


Restorative circles replace traditional discipline
Additionally, at Stone Mountain Elementary and other DCSD schools, these powerful little circles are also used throughout the day to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings.

As adults, most of experienced a more authoritarian form of discipline in school. At the beginning of the year, the teacher laid out the rules and then he or she would hold students accountable. Depending on the severity of the infraction, often the teacher would act as judge and jury – or send students to the office where the principal would dole out consequences.

“A lot of the teachers would send you to the principal's office, where they'd take away your recess or they'd call your mom and dad,” explained Stone Mountain teacher Dawnee Koonce. “The students weren't really learning how their actions were impacting other people and they weren't really understanding the bigger picture. They just thought if they could get through the punishment that it was fine to do it again and they weren't really learning any sort of social or life skills.”

Today, restorative circles empower the students to take responsibility for their actions. Those involved in a disagreement are now pulled into a small circle to discuss what happened, how they felt about it and what can be done to resolve the issue.

“It really gives the power to the students to problem solve themselves, which really cuts back on the problems I'm having to deal with, which take away from the academic side from the rest of the day,” Koonce said.

Everyone, including the teacher, sits in the circle. The teacher then acts as a facilitator, allowing everyone a chance to speak.

“The reason for sitting in the circle is that everyone can see seen and heard equally,” explained Koonce. “That is the first, biggest step – everyone gets their voice heard. If they don't get that then really they're not listening to the rest of conversation and they're not willing to resolve it.”

Koonce says she appreciates the circles because students often more forthright.

“A lot of the time [in the past, during discipline] the kids didn't feel like their side was really heard, because there are so many things that you don't hear that go on between the kids. Some kid might be reacting to something that someone else did and you didn't hear the first part of it,” Koonce explained. “By the second or third month they get to knowing if they're going to restorative circle that they might as well fess up and we'll figure out how to solve it together. It is really amazing. The kids are very honest. If you ask, what problems are we having in the room, they're going to tell you. A lot of times I say, 'really?  I had no idea that was going on.'”

Once everything is out in the open, the group then works to establish a solution – often a goal that everyone can work towards.

“The stuff they come up with to fix it when they get to brainstorming is amazing, it's better than what I could do on my own,” Koonce said. “Getting their input is huge.”

Koonce tells students they do not have to be ‘best friends’ with everyone, but they do have to learn how to work with everyone. Starting with this understanding has led to better collaboration.

“When we're doing anything in groups in the classroom they are able to work with different personality styles and traits they might not have been able to in the past, because they didn't have the skills taught to them to learn how to handle that type of person,” Koonce said.

Students are empowered to take ownership of their classroom
It is important to note that there are no rules when students walk into Koonce’s classroom on the first day of school. Instead, during the first week the students set the expectations during the first week of class.

“They determine what things we need to do to be successful this year. They often come up with the same things that teachers post,” Koonce said.

“Instead of having rules given to students, students are invited to work with the adults and take a part in developing what those rules and guidelines ought to be as they work together in the community,” added DCSD Director of Middle Schools Jim Fish. “Students are capable and desire to have their voices heard and restorative practices gives them that opportunity to be an integrated part of decision-making in life and school in general.”

Students are encouraged to not only have voice and choice in the rules, but to take ownership of their behaviors, their learning and their classroom.

“It is a whole different perspective,” explained Fish. “When you allow children to take ownership and take responsibility in deciding on what the mores of a classroom should look like and how they should treat each other in and outside the classroom, then you are getting kids to buy in because they have a voice. Now they have a stake in how they are going to be perceived and expected to behave.”

Students, of course, still make mistakes. Fish says the difference is the fact that in Restorative Practices, students are given the chance – in the classroom—to reconcile their relationships.

“That is the beauty of what restorative practices can do and what it can do in our system and how it can change kids. The whole notion of what restorative means is from the word restore – to bring back, to give back, to make whole. It fits very nicely in a community such as a school district, where we have kids who are trying to find themselves, trying to find their place,” Fish said. “Sometimes kids do things without thinking. They'll do things that cause harm to others and punishing them solves nothing. Punishing them gets them away for a few days. When they come back, what have you resolved? The issue needs to be resolved by all the parties involved.”

In some cases, the students even feel ostracized when they’re pulled from the classroom for punishment.

"They told me, ‘we don't like leaving the classroom-- it's embarrassing,’” Koonce relayed. “’Then we miss time in the class and we get back into the room and don't know what is going on.’”

Koonce’s kids say they prefer the adult-like treatment they receive through Restorative Practices, which gives them the ability to solve their own problems.

“[With Restorative Practices] you're not treating them like a child or as a baby, as they put it. They feel that they have more responsibilities and respect as a person, instead of a teacher just telling them what they were going to do or punishing them for something that they didn't feel was fair,” Koonce relayed.

And while this form of discipline might seem different from what adults experienced in school, Longbottom says parents can quickly see the benefits.

“Change is a shock to everyone, but it is hard not to get a positive reaction from a parent when a student from kindergarten to sixth-grade in our school is able to articulate their thinking. They’re able to articulate the mistake and own up and have the integrity to say, ‘hey, this is what I did and it was wrong and I’m sorry about it and this is what I am going to do going forward,” Longbottom said.

Additionally, Longbottom says these practices naturally tie to efforts to provide students more voice and choice in the classroom.

“You do not want to give kids the answers, you want kids to know the process to find answers. Then, they become self-empowered learners. When they have the resources to communicate and deal with others or that turns to academics—have a problem or have something they’re curious about—be equipped to have the knowledge and the strategies and the skills to find the answers they are looking for,” Longbottom said.

He says the students in his crew are encouraged to take educated risks, so they can develop the skills they’ll need in school and after they graduate.

“You want the resiliency to climb the mountain,” Longbottom said. “If you never experience some failure then it is doubtful that you pushed yourself hard enough.  One of the most important lessons in life is being able to cope with challenges and cope with frustrations.”

LEARN MORE: Edutopia explores Restorative Justice


November 30, 2015 | By rmbarber | Category: District, Elementary Education, High School Education, Middle School Education, Schools

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