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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

Teaching and Learning in Circle
(Page 4 of 9)

In November and December I began to think about facilitating one of my classes for an entire semester in circle format. In the Senior program we have a semester course in Life Transitions, and I had the idea of facilitating the honors section in Circle. The day that second semester began I decided that it wouldn’t be fair to the other senior class to do one in circle and one at desks. The second day I decided that it wouldn’t be fair to my two junior classes to leave them out. By the middle of the semester I began a campaign to have the desks removed from my classroom.

In the fall of 2001 I began doing my classes at Cambridge College in Circle. Students coming to the "Violence in America" course found a Circle set up and me ready for opening and "check in." Initial responses ranged from apprehension to wholehearted embrace. The adult learners were a little more reticent at first. One asked me if this was somehow related to a cult. By the end of the first day the support for the process was unanimous and unqualified. Many of the learners at Cambridge College had stopped out of the learning process for one reason or another. Cambridge College puts a special and unique emphasis on experience. Students at the College bring a lifetime of learned experience into the classroom. This called out to be shared in a Circle format. I have continued to use Circle in all of my courses at Cambridge College. Several of the students have begun to incorporate Circles into their workplaces. It was particularly gratifying to see the concentration bulleting board devoted to the Circle process this past spring.

At this writing I have taught eight high school and five college courses in Circle. They have all been successes.

Benefits of Teaching and Learning in Circle

Deep learning impacts the mind, the body, the emotions and the spirit. It involves introduction, trust-building and preparation, exploration of issues, and moving towards action. Deep learning moves a person, through creative tension toward harmony and balance. Deep learning moves people from debate to shared vision. The learner’s focus shifts from positions to interests.

Teaching and learning in Circle does all of this. It is student-centered education that calls out critical thinking skills and higher thought processes. Students use a talking piece that moves around the circle in a clockwise direction. The student who has the talking piece is invited to speak, the students who don’t have the talking piece are invited to listen.

Confidentiality holds in the circle. This is part of circle tradition, but is very important to adolescents. What is said in the circle stays in the circle. This has been breached only twice in the past two years, and there were repercussions. On a positive note, I knew that the Circle process had "arrived" when the principal at the Mount held a student accountable for "violating the circle."

Four Parts of the Classroom Circle

Although there is an undeniable magic to the Circle Process – good Circles don’t just happen. Just rearranging the chairs into a Circle and passing a talking piece isn’t a circle process – it is a classroom management tool. There also is no magic formula – unless it is "prepare…prepare… prepare."

Circles have to be carefully prepared. A teacher can’t just come to school in the morning without a plan and substitute a circle. Circles should be logged in a planbook so they can be modified and refined in future sessions.

In my training for Circles one of the major underlying concepts that helped me understand how to prepare a Circle was the teachings of the medicine wheel. The Medicine Wheel and its teachings are explained very well in The Sacred Tree by the Four Winds Development Project. I am grateful to Carolyn Edsel of the Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice for the following summary:

"In learning about Circles, four is a sacred number, corresponding to the seasons of the year, stages of human life, cardinal directions, races of people, and elements of nature. The Medicine Wheel, found among most Native American and First Nations people, teaches the relationships between the four parts, how they hold each other in balance around a sacred fire, each following in sequence, and each comprising an essential part of natural existence.

The Medicine Wheel, is not only four, but a cycle of fours. Within the four ages of human life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood and senescence), we live the cycle of annual and personal growth over and over with each year, relationship, and phase of learning. Each time we participate in a circle, we go through the four phases of ritual opening/introductions, check in and sharing, discussing issues, and summary /closing. At the same time that circle is part of a series of circles, which has its own, longer relational phases of introduction, building trust, arriving at issues, and deciding on action."[12]

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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.


Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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