Clocktower at Night

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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

Teaching and Learning in Circle
(Page 3 of 9)

Elements of a Classroom Circle

A classroom circle includes the following elements. They are adapted from a 1998 Document from the Minnesota Department of Corrections "Peacemaking Circles: Introduction."

  1. The students are the center - not the teacher. All are teachers - all are learners. From the beginning it is clear. Everyone has something to offer. There is true equality of opportunity in a circle. There is no back row, no alphabetical order, no strategic placement. Responsibility is shared.
  2. The individual is valued within the context of the group. In Circle the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. All of the participants bear responsibility for and to the Circle.
  3. Circles encourage storytelling. People (and institutions) are moved more by stories than by data[9]. For many years when students have come back to visit, or written to me, it is the stories that we told in class that they remember. Circles encourage storytelling. Most of us, if given the opportunity, love to tell stories. In circle people are in visual contact at all times, they are focused on the speaker without the distraction of desks, books, pens and paper, etc. Stories naturally flow in this environment. The stories build connection among the learners – setting up a self-reinforcing loop.
  4. The Center. Traditionally the center of the circle marks the space as sacred. What is put in the center of the circle should have meaning for the class. One may use a rug, a mat, a throw, a scarf. In the Day Reporting Center we had the participants spend time painting and drawing symbols of themselves on a four- foot square of duck cloth. For today’s presentation I asked my daughters to create the mat for the center. In the center of our classroom circle we have books with thoughts for the opening and closing, examples of student projects or other work, flowers, and a jar in which students can contribute thoughts, quotes, etc. on slips of paper. We also have a Tibetan Singing Bowl, which a student rings to open class – marking the time as separate from the rest of the day.
  5. The Talking Piece is essential to any circle process. It may be a feather, a stick or anything that has particular meaning for a community. The talking piece is passed to facilitate and share speaking time. The talking piece always moves clockwise – in the direction of the sun. No one speaks without the talking piece. When one has the talking piece she may speak, or pass it without speaking. Everything in the circle is an invitation and silence deserves respect. The talking piece goes around and around until all have had their say.

When holding the talking piece one speaks "from the heart", with respect for others, briefly enough so that everyone will have time to speak. One doesn’t "dump and run". [10] She doesn’t drop a conversational bomb and walk out of the group.


In August of 1990, after spending some months on the Chelsea Revere Peacemaking Planning Committee I was invited to participate in a four day Basic Circle Training at ROCA Inc. Trainers were Harold Gatensby, First Nations Leader from the Yukon, Judge Barry Stuart, Chief Justice of the Yukon Territorial Court, Don Johnson, Assistant District Attorney from Minnesota, and Gwen Chandler-Rhivers, Community leader in circles from Minnesota. Along with Molly Baldwin, Saroeum Phong and Anisha Chablani from ROCA, they have been my mentors in Circle. For four days, thirty people - learned about circles and the possibilities they hold for bringing people together "in a good way."[11]

At the end of the four days I was absolutely convinced that Circles was the way to go – and had no idea how to go there. I continued my work on the Peacemaking Planning Committee, and we began to incorporate Circles into our group processes at the DYS Day Reporting Center. We began a weekly talking Circle and I began to facilitate the Anger Management group in Circle. We observed a marked change in the tenor of the groups. Anger Management had often compelled me to work on my own anger issues – I came out of the group more frustrated and angry than the young people were when they came in. The use of the talking piece and the values made for a much healthier process. In October of that year I participated in a "keeper’s training" with Kay Pranis. After this experience I felt empowered to think about doing a Circle in a formal classroom.

In late October, while examining the grief process in a Death and Dying Class at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, I introduced the concept of circles to the class and suggested a Talking Circle. The class was amenable to anything outside the norm, so we tried it. It worked very well. We decided that once every eight class days we would go to the library and have class in a circle format. It continued to work well.

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.

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(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
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