Circle in the classroom

by Lisa Smith
September 2016

Though raised in the Midwest of the United States, the sea fascinates me. Seashells are particularly captivating, and I have collections of them nestled around my home, much to my husband’s chagrin. Though no longer useful to the creatures that created them, I see them as spent works of art. Unique. Mysterious. Beautiful.

As a child educated during the turbulent 1960’s, I am a product of a system that clung to its industrial heritage in a time when the civil rights movement caused waves of disruption that called for equal access to quality education for all learners. As a young teacher candidate, I was drawn to forward-thinking individuals who understood that changes were necessary if the system was going to fulfill its promises. As a former public school and now college educator, I have spent my career collecting ideas about learning and the craft of teaching. I came to and stayed in education due to the influence of those mentors who inspired me to recognize the shifting nature of the field and who taught me how to discern which "shells" to keep and which were no longer useful.

When I became a teacher, I found myself sitting in circles with children. While natural in a setting with tiny learners, this practice transferred effectively to upper elementary and middle school classrooms. From there, through a shift to my position as a educational staff developer, my colleagues and I took the concept of being in circle to the teachers we served and then into their classrooms. Intrigued by how these simple actions changed the way students and teachers engaged with one another, I pursued the study of circle practice and found my way to Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea, and The Circle Way.

In June of 2014, I sat at the rim of a training in The Circle Way in Lelystad, Netherlands. There, I observed circle at work with European practitioners, a transformative experience that elicited deep reflection in the days that followed. I concluded the trip with a three-day, personal retreat to the coast and walked the North Sea shore from early morning until late evening, sifting through what circle now meant to me.

During one of these reflective walks, I came upon a teacher and a band of energetic students. The teacher hauled a dredging net out into the ocean while the children splashed like wild things down the beach, working together to pull a long rope attached to the net down along the surf line. Once the net was placed under the surface of the water, the teacher would return to the students, and together they wrestled the apparatus back onto the shore, ultimately depositing a heap of glistening treasures at their feet.

The children circled round and, in rapid-fire Dutch, sorted through the living and nonliving collection. Their attention riveted on the center, students adjusted to make room for one another. The rush and volume of their conversation calmed as they listened to one another discuss what had showed up. The children carefully returned living things, which could not wait for the incoming tide for rescue, to the sea while the surf took care of the rest. The class repeated the process throughout the morning, tirelessly plunging in and out of the ocean’s edge while participating in their fervent, collaborative investigations.

Watching the group of synergistic learners with circle practice in mind, I relished the opportunity to observe effective teaching practice as though it were being held by circle methodology. The group moved through the steps of their inquiry process, displaying high levels of trust grounded in mutual respect. Through active discovery, the students’ obvious interest in the content deepened their engagement. Their dialogue-driven learning experience called for shared leadership, ultimately resulting in shared ownership of the learning process.

When collecting seashells, I often find myself longing for a container to hold my treasures. On that beach, and in that moment, I was reminded that circle was not just an effective strategy, but also a way of being in the classroom, the cultural container that holds a safe, inclusive, and flexible space for effective practices.

When I returned to begin another year in my current position as a college professor in the education department at Hastings College, I practiced hosting a circle classroom. I worked with emerging educators to develop relationship and tend the energy of the learning space by ensuring that agreements, practices, and principles of circle methodology were in place. We made content decisions through the lens of inquiry and framed instructional practice through experiential learning and dialogic structures. Circle shifted from being something we did to a way we were together. Following another training with Christina and Ann that fall, I recognized that giving form to this work would make me a more effective teacher/host and make explicit the possibilities in crafting a circle classroom.

While I gathered and developed the materials that would become the Field Book, the students I served began to graduate. In the safe space of circle culture in our college teacher-prep courses, taking risks in their future classrooms seemed possible. However, moving out into the existing systems of education introduced them to the reality of how vulnerable they would have to become to practice non-traditional ways of being in the classroom.

For many, the material I shared while I was their professor became their map and our reference point as they became teachers themselves. The students who were most impacted within the circle learning culture of our college classroom demonstrated a greater willingness to employ innovative practice, even embracing the role of transformative classroom teacher. Therefore, I designed the book to provide ample opportunities for current and future education students to participate in the circle model that they might one day use to develop culture in their own classrooms.

After graduating from our program, Ryan Garder explored circle methodology as a way to establish classroom culture in his first two years as a high school mathematics instructor. Starting with classroom arrangement, student collaboration, and teacher-student agreements, Ryan noticed a positive impact on student success throughout the school year. Now, moving into his third year of teaching, Ryan’s primary focus is to create a culture in which his students fully engage in collaborative dialogue through inquiry. When I asked what continues to draw him to circle practice within the classroom recently, Ryan noted that at a national math conference, he and his colleagues heard “a lot of talk about the importance of productive struggle in mathematics and how students need the opportunity to ‘fail’ in a safe environment to be able to explore ideas in order to learn concepts.” Ryan elaborated that in his classes, “a new culture has to be created in order for productive struggle to be effective. Kids have to have a sense of courage and know that their thoughts are not ‘stupid’ and that, with perseverance, they can learn tough mathematical processes--without me spoon-feeding them.” For Ryan, the way to develop those conditions for learning is by creating and maintaining circle culture in his classroom.

In September 2016, my new and returning students will begin the semester with the first edition of the Circle in the Classroom: Field Book I, an introductory offering to their journey. Based on feedback from Ryan and students like him, the book’s design is intentional. A field book is defined as a collection of primary source documents and observations made during field research. The structure of Circle in the Classroom: Field Book I is similar, in that it extends an invitation to come to circle, hold the rim of council, observe and consider new concepts, and respond as an active participant in and observer of learning while creating classroom culture together. This book is an interactive tool designed to encourage students to be explorers of their own experiences -- first, as learners, and always, as growing educators.

Lisa Smith is a practitioner of The Circle Way who serves as an assistant professor of teacher education at Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska. With more than 25 years of experience in education, Lisa’s work with emerging, novice, and practicing educators, who serve students of all levels, focuses on creating a dynamic learning culture using the generative practice of circle. In addition to teaching with and about the circle process in the college setting, Lisa serves as a coach and workshop facilitator. For more information about developing circle classrooms, or to purchase the Field Book, email Lisa at or visit (if this site is still under construction, please try again soon). Profits from the sale of this work support the experiential learning fund for Hastings College teacher candidates.