This month we feature another story from Edmonton Public Schools, Alberta, Canada, where The Circle Way is being embedded in classrooms, consulting work, and central services. Here, Youssra Badr, a participant in The Circle Way practicum, shares how she applied its components to create community among her elementary students using the class meeting protocol.
Creating Classroom Community Using Class Meetings and The Circle Way
When I returned to the elementary classroom after my maternity leaves in January 2017, I was lucky to be welcomed back by a wonderful, albeit complex group of students. As I I firmly believe students thrive academically in a caring and safe environment where they feel loved, welcomed and accepted, I made it my mission and action research goal to create a classroom community where my students would feel safe, happy and welcomed, where their emotional needs were acknowledged and responded to. Among the factors necessary to creating a strong, nurturing classroom community, the use of classroom meetings is integral to this process.
I have used classroom meetings since the beginning of my teaching career, seeing them evolve from unorganized chatter with a distracted lack of focus to a more structured, relaxed atmosphere where we sit together in a circle, either on the floor or in chairs, with everyone at the same level. Looking back on those early attempts that felt awkward and pained, artificial with no sharing about things that were important to them, I realized it would take time and so I persisted with weekly meetings. Thank goodness for all of us that my first two days of circle training began shortly after, helping me learn and intentionally apply skills that turned our meetings into what I had hoped.
Applying The Circle Way
I began my next classroom meeting describing agreements. Taking the time to go through the four agreements provided by The Circle Way and “tweaking” them to suit the needs of our classroom was an important and valuable experience, as I heard my students talk and debate in ways I’d not anticipated. They arrived at a critical addition very important to them: that incidents between them, remain between the people involved. They knew themselves and each other well, and had seen the negative impact of situations growing to include more people than necessary. As their teacher, listening, I was amazed at how they had come to this realization on their own and were able to verbalize their thoughts. Regarding confidentiality, as there were three other grade six classrooms beside us, they were adamant that our conversations not be shared, unless permission was given. They were intent that everyone was on board and we stayed in circle until we had consensus.
I introduced a talking piece at this meeting. As fidget spinners were all the rage, we decided to use one as our talking piece. It proved to be a great piece as students were able to focus some of their energy into the spinner, allowing them to be more present in our discussions. We were never short a spinner, with students eager to have their spinner used at each meeting.
Being intentional with a well thought out check in question and modelling took our meetings from awkward to authentic. As I had witnessed The Circle Way trainers comfortably share their vulnerabilities, I realized this was a key feature in allowing others to show their vulnerability as well. I learned to be vulnerable and open up to my students. This helped students express their own vulnerabilities. I began modelling for my students the types of thoughts and feelings appropriate for them to share.
As I grew in my understanding of my individual students and the class dynamics, I was better able to steer the conversation to areas and topics I felt needed to be addressed in our classroom. Day to day classroom behaviors would become the theme for the circle meetings. When a student became stressed and upset that he was struggling with a concept, grumbling about how he has to work so hard to understand things that come so easily to everyone else, this became a circle devoted to sharing our struggles, with me beginning by sharing an academic and social challenge. Passing the talking piece to my left, I listened as student after student shared their own story and we learned that day that every student, even the ones who appeared to always get it, have challenges.
Adding in Another Resource
In my own commitment to professional learning, every summer I make it my goal to read a few books to help me become a better teacher. Positive Discipline in the Classroom, by Dr. Jane Nelson, featured a chapter on class meetings and gave me two new ideas: start with compliments and use a meeting agenda notebook.
The following school year I added these new strategies to the meetings already steeped in The Circle Way. While starting with compliments was initially awkward, with time and modelling their compliments became sincerer and comfort grew. The meeting agenda notebook gave students an outlet to express their frustrations in the moment, be able to focus on academics knowing that their social issue would be dealt with at the next meeting.
The Circle Holds Strong
One month into the school year I was the successful applicant for new position with the district. Happy for this new opportunity, too, I was saddened to leave this wonderful group of students and promised I would visit. Without fail on each visit the students would ask if we could have a classroom meeting. It was on one of these visits that I opened the agenda book, read through the students’ notes, and was blown away by the depth and breadth of their comments. It was wonderful to see the way the circle continued to influence them, even though it was now led by a new teacher. I learned whoever leads the circle brings with them more than they know and shapes the circle in many ways.
Making Time for What’s Important
People wonder how to make time for classroom meetings given the depth and breadth of the required curriculum. Personally, I don’t know how to not make the time. I believe it is impossible to expect students to focus on academics if they do not feel they are safe or if they have social issues that need to be resolved with their peers, or personal issues distracting them from learning. Yes, a meeting won’t fix these issues, but it allows students the space to share their thoughts and feelings with their peers. Also, when the meeting content is aligned with curriculum, it becomes a powerful, relevant instructional method. In Alberta, grade six curriculum explores government. Using the “thumb system” from The Circle Way training (thumbs up for agreement, thumbs down for disagreement, and thumbs to the side for undecided) we applied it to understanding democratic and consensus-based governments. It also worked well with classroom decision making.
The Circle Way and using the agenda book and compliments from Positive Discipline helped my class meetings become what I had originally envisioned: that by ensuring students felt safe in a space where they had all agreed to the agreements, modelled vulnerability and approached each circle with a set intention, our meetings would contribute to building a strong classroom community.
I know that this group of students has now moved on to junior high, that most of them are still together, and that they continue to have their challenges, and ups and downs. I am hopeful that by having been part of our classroom circle, they left with lasting tools and strategies to be a leader in their chair, wherever that chair may be.
Youssra Badr has been an educator with Edmonton Public Schools (Alberta, Canada) since 2008, initially as an elementary classroom teacher and now as a district consultant supporting English Language Learners. Both as a parent of four children and professionally, she is an advocate for student mental health, always finding ways to support children in crisis. Committed to creating safe and caring classroom spaces for children, she believes when students’ emotional and psychological needs are meet, they are more successful academically.