Students often need space to discuss the issues that face them on their developmental journey as they grapple with a range of emotions, navigate peer challenges, and consider their place in the world. No matter the content area, teachers can support productive whole-class discussions by establishing a practice of Class Circles or Class Council. In Class Council or Class Circle, students sit in a circle, pass around a talking piece, and respond to questions posed by the teacher. This community-building practice can help students address hypothetical conflicts in a safe space, explore encounters and moments that stem from class conflict, and reflect on shared and personal experiences.
Teachers can also use circles for academic content by eliciting prior knowledge when launching a unit or reflecting on a new class practice. As students become comfortable with Class Council or Class Circle, teachers can gradually release control of the circle to students, identifying peer leaders who eventually facilitate the circle and contribute topics and questions.
Choose a day, time, and cadence for class circles so students can know when to expect circle time. Consider coming up with a unique name for your class circles to make them feel special to students.
Choose a talking piece, which is an item students will hold when they are speaking to the circle. Consider choosing something soft, as students will often self-soothe by handling it as they speak. You can also have students select a talking piece from an assortment you've chosen.
Choose a theme for your circle, and develop an open-ended question related to that topic. You may want to brainstorm a set of open-ended supporting questions to ask students. Be open to the conversation taking a different turn; students may add questions or become engaged in only the essential question, exploring it deeply. Consult this resource from the Center for Restorative Process to learn more about circle topics and facilitation.
Review clear expectations and norms with students the day or lesson prior, so students can manage their expectations. Clarify the general purpose of circles as a class practice, your role as a facilitator, the expectations for when students should speak in the circle, and the norms around what is shared in the circle. You may also have students journal their responses to the essential question in advance. Decide ahead of time if students must speak when they have the talking piece or if they can say pass.
For younger students, consider reading a scripted story such as this one called What Do We Do in a Circle? which is included in the resource section below to clarify the expectations of circle time.
Ask students to make a circle either with their chairs or on a carpet.
Open with a quote related to your theme, and then ask your first question. Pass the talking piece around the circle until the conversation is exhausted.
Prompt students with reflection questions about the circle process that they can discuss or journal about at the end of the circle or at their seats.
The Class Forum is a 2-5 minute portion of the Class Meeting in which students propose solutions to learning barriers that they have experienced or may see arising in class. This strategy ensures that my students' voices will be heard and empowers them to be change agents in shaping the class environment. The Class Forum creates a safe and regular channel for my students to give feedback about their learning needs and experiences. The teacher's commitment and responsiveness to students' suggestions motivates them to be more invested in their learning and to the classroom community, which is critical to their success.
Show-and-Tell is a great community-builder for young children. Well-run show-and-tell activities allow students to practice effective communication and active listening skills as well as help strengthen the classroom community as students share their interests, personal lives, and more with their peers.
Decide on a schedule for show-and-tell. Determine how often you will build show-and-tell into the class, assign students to specific days, and create a plan to communicate the show and tell schedule and expectations with parents so that they can help their child prepare.
When assigning show and tell expectations, avoid having show and tell be focused on new toys and possessions, as this may be uncomfortable for children of diverse economic groups. Here are some other items that students can share:
A favorite memory to show and tell - have students tell about a favorite memory that is meaningful to them.
A favorite movement - such as skipping, dancing, tying their shoes, etc. This helps build student confidence.
A favorite book - have students tell the story of their favorite book. Students can even take home a classroom book to read with family and then report about.
A favorite song - allow students to play 30 seconds of their favorite song before explaining why they like it.
A favorite skill - instead of just telling, have students do a "show and teach" of a skill they are particularly proud of (i.e. making a paper airplane, doing a coin magic trick, etc.)
A favorite image or photograph - students can bring an image from a newspaper or magazine or a photograph to share with the class.
For more ideas, see this Show-and-Tell resource from Scholastic.
Have students practice the skills of show-and-tell.
Have students practice describing an object in the classroom and explaining why it is important to them.
Reinforce effective speaking habits while students practice, such as speaking loudly and clearly and looking at the audience.
While individual students practice, have the rest of the students students practice actively listening and asking questions of their peers.
After each round of show and tell, debrief with students to have them pull out what they did well as a presenter or as audience members, and identify ways that they can improve for the next round.
Working to create a learning environment where teachers can have successful community conversations using class circles is an excellent tool that teachers can use to support and build relationships with students with disabilities. Building an environment where these students can feel safe and valued enough to have community conversations is a building block to helping them form relationships and thus build overall engagement and investment in their learning.
Creating an inclusive learning environment for students to have successful community conversations requires significant executive functioning (task initiation, prioritization, working memory, etc.), emotional regulation, and verbal expression skills. In order to support students with disabilities in these areas consider the following modifications:
For students with disabilities that impair their emotional regulation, it may be appropriate to preview the content of community conversations and practice discussion norms in a smaller setting to allow for more feedback and practice before whole group discussions
To support students with disabilities that impact their verbal expression, teachers can give students the questions ahead of time and allow them to journal their thoughts before convening the circle. Providing sentence stems for their responses is another way to support students who struggle with verbal expression. See the "Pre-Circle or Council Writing Prompt" and the "Accountable Talk Stems Anchor Chart" resources in the resource section below for more information.
This strategy provides an excellent opportunity for English learners to practice their listening and speaking skills. Learners engage in authentic discussion of real-world topics and participate actively in the development of their community.
English learners participating in this strategy are required to listen to their peers and present their own ideas verbally. Learners may need to read and write in order to prepare. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:
Preview topics. English learners at lower levels of proficiency may need explicit explanations of topics, associated vocabulary, and context. Consider consulting with learners’ language specialist to determine learners’ prior knowledge of topics.
How can you use a class circle to help students engage in structured discussions?
How can you gradually release the scaffolds so that students can start and complete a circle without extensive preparation or teacher guidance?
How can you support students to bring their own concerns and interests to the circle?
How can you build capacity in students so they can eventually facilitate part, if not all, of the circle?
In my first circle, I always asked students to write the name of a friend or family member for whom they would want to be their best selves on an index card. This turned into our first share around the circle. For each subsequent circle, I returned the cards to the middle of the circle as a personal reminder. We also agreed on the Vegas rule: "what is said in circle, stays in circle." Though sometimes the most resistant initially, my introverted students and students with special education needs were generally the ones who got the most out of our practice and asked for additional circles.
Explore the "Where in the World Do You Come From?" and "Identity Bead Council" lessons by 8th grade ELA BetterLesson Master Teacher Julianne Beebe to read about how her students engage in a class council.
Explore the "Council for Character Development" strategy by 3rd grade Blended Learning BetterLesson Master Teacher Freddy Esparza to learn about how he uses class council in his classroom.
In developing this strategy, the Teaching Restorative Practices with Classroom Circles document was consulted, as well as the resource linked below.