“What does that mean, ‘Listen to your heart’?” Enrique asked, as all eyes turned to him.
My eighth-grade dual language class was exploring what it means to live with integrity, and Enrique’s question lingered in the space.
After a few seconds, he explained, “People say that all the time, but I don’t know what that means.”
It was the first day back from winter break, and we embedded our circle practice into writing workshop. Although circle practice or a restorative circle is a way to repair relationships, I establish circles early and use them throughout the year to care for our community. This time I used circle within writing workshop to extend our thinking.
When Enrique asked his question, you could have heard a pin drop. This deeper thinking was exactly what I was hoping for, and it helped me see how powerful using a circle discussion in writing workshop is.
My first experience in a restorative circle was during equity work in my district, and I knew I needed to bring circle practice to students right away. I don’t have training in circle process, but from what I’ve read, that’s okay. The idea is to know that the practice of circle process is about building and tending to relationships and that honoring that circle process originated in Indigenous communities. The Restore Circles website explains, “People call a circle when they need care or when a group of people need to solve a problem. Others hold a circle when they issue an invitation for people to share time together, learn, share stories, listen to each other, and celebrate.”
We have a talking piece that students pass around and norms we practice: to share when you have the talking piece and to listen with an open heart when you do not. I explain that we can all see each other and that everyone is an equal member of the community.
Over the years, I have noticed there is safety in the intention to listen. One year, a student’s brother was shot and killed. At first, circle was the only time when he would bring up his brother, and I believe circle was a space where he felt safe to share. Once after circle, I told him that I noticed that he often talked about his brother and he said, “I want everyone to know how it feels.” Later, he wrote a piece about his brother, an example of how the practice of circle and writing workshop support each other.
Prep for Circle Process
Embedding circle into writing workshop means students have time to write and explore their thinking before and after circle.
To prepare, I use writing exercises to warm up and freewriting to dig deeper into our thinking. For this discussion, students made a list of five people they admire. Then, I challenged them to name a character trait they admire about each person. Next, I asked students to draw a circle, divide it into six equal parts, and write something they value in each of the pieces. After that, students drew a new circle; this time they could adjust the size of their six (more or less) slices to create a pie chart to represent their values.
Once this work was done, I shared that living with integrity is when our actions on the outside match our values on the inside. I asked students to freewrite about what living their values, or living with integrity, means to them. All this prepares students so they don’t feel on the spot during circle. Then they’ll return to freewrite after circle to consolidate their thinking.
Facilitating Circle Process
Students learn to move tables aside and sit facing one another in a circle in less than a minute. When I settle into my spot in the circle and look at their faces, I am grateful to be in community with them.
As the facilitator of circle, I plan three to five questions to guide their discussion. For our discussion on integrity, students passed the talking piece around the circle and shared one person they admire and what they admire about them. Next they shared values they hold. Since we already had practice in circle, I felt ready to open the circle and let them ask for the talking piece as we answered the question “What are some ways you can live with integrity or live your values?”
One student shared to think before taking action, another said to listen to your heart. That is when Enrique raised his hand for the talking piece and asked, “What does that mean, ‘Listen to your heart’?”
I tell students again and again that I hope they share ideas when they have their chance to talk, but the rest of the time, they’re listening. Enrique was listening and making connections, and when he realized he had a question, he felt safe and brave enough to ask it.
The beauty of circle process is that when Enrique asked his question, students raised their hands for the talking piece and offered ideas: to slow down and see if the choice feels right, to trust yourself rather than to do what others tell you to do, to breathe before making a decision. Circle empowered Enrique to ask his question, it gave other students the opportunity to respond, and it allowed me to listen. After circle, as students were freewriting about how their thinking about living with integrity had changed or deepened, I thought about how listening to my heart led me to implementing circle practice in my class and how incorporating circle into writing workshop has made a profound impact on my students and me.