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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

Teaching and Learning in Circle

by Greg Lewis

In this article, Greg Lewis explores the impact of teaching using a circle format, both at the high school and college level. The piece comes from a session presented at "Dreaming of a New Reality," the Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices, August 8-10, 2002, Minneapolis, Minnesota

To truly listen is to risk being changed forever.
- Sakej Henderson

Let’s begin with an exercise:
    Why do you teach?
    What would transpire in your ideal classroom?

Imagine your favorite unit:
    Why do you teach it?
    Why is it part of your curriculum?

Are you glad to be asked these questions? Are they challenging? Have you been asked them before? Could you see these questions as the basis of a faculty meeting? What about a department meeting? Why or why not?

Now imagine a faculty meeting where these questions are asked. Your Principal or Vice-Principal (high school), or Dean or Provost (college) is at the front of the room – with an overhead projector. S/he is poised to write your responses on a transparency. Are you still glad to be asked these questions? Are they still challenging? Are you one of those who calls out responses immediately? Do you "hang back"? Start to wish you were somewhere else? Fantasize that you are somewhere else? C.S. Lewis writes that the best way to ensure that there will be no good conversation is to say – "Now! Let’s have a real good talk." [1] Is there a better way to have this conversation? If the questions are good why does the context make us uncomfortable? I believe that there is a better way – to speak, to listen, to teach and to learn - Circles. This "better way" could be a reality for us and for the students we teach.

The Circle Process - Introduction

Whatever your cultural or ethnic background your ancestors probably sat in circle. Many of the stories that we call sacred, many of the laws we have were originally told or made in circle.

It is very difficult to define Circle, as it is a process. It is a process where every individual truly becomes a better teacher and learner. One of the best explanations I have seen comes from Kay Pranis, Barry Stuart and Mark Wedge who see Circle as the creation of a safe space that:

"encourage(s) people to seek ways of moving beyond differences in a ‘good way’ to build better relationships. It is not that all Circles draw out only the good in people, but Circles do profoundly encourage and enable people to take the ‘high road’, to share with others in a ‘good way.’…Thus, more emphasis must be given to improving the game, not winning the game, and solving problems, not head to head, but side by side. Circles create the spaces for disagreement without being disagreeable."[2]

There are many kinds of circles, Talking Circles, Healing Circles (or circles of understanding), Sentencing Circles, Planning Circles, Women’s Circles – virtually any kind of gathering where there is to be conversation or discussion can be held "in Circle".

During the time that we are "in Circle" we agree to be our best selves – during this time together we put aside any differences that we had when we walked in the door and we mark this space and this time as sacred.

We use a " talking piece" to control the flow of information in the circle. And we agree to certain guidelines. These guidelines typically include:

  • Speaking from the heart
  • Intending no malice
  • Honoring silence
  • Respecting Confidentiality
  • Practicing mindfulness

Each community will want to add its own guidelines and should revisit the guidelines frequently. These guidelines should be endorsed by and have input from the entire learning community.

Remember that everything in the circle is an invitation – when you have the talking piece you are invited to speak, but you may pass. When you do not have the talking piece you are invited to listen.

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