Talking Circles: For Restorative Justice and Beyond

A TT awardee discusses how Talking Circles empower her middle school students.

As more schools consider restorative practice in areas of discipline, Talking Circles, a core component of the restorative justice process, enter the conversation. A Talking Circle, sometimes called a Peacemaking Circle, uses a structural framework to build relationships and to address conflict within a community. But Talking Circles serve other purposes as well: They create safe spaces, build connections and offer teachers a unique means of formative assessment.


The Talking Circle Process

Begin by gathering in a circle and creating norms that will help build trust in the space. In my class, we write our norms on a poster board placed in the center of our Circle. A talking piece, an object of significance chosen by Circle members, is passed around inviting equal participation. Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak, while all others listen to and support the speaker. To familiarize students with this process, you might ask them, “What does it look and sound like to listen respectfully?”

The Circle Keeper facilitates the Talking Circle by selecting the time and place, inviting members and preparing introductory remarks. Once the group reviews its established norms, the Circle Keeper can read a short piece of text to set the tone or just dive into the first question or reflection. Although the Circle Keeper is the facilitator, she participates as an equal member of the group. Once students learn the process, they can be invited to be Circle Keepers—an empowering process.


Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice is a philosophy that recognizes that alternative approaches are needed in our criminal justice and school disciplinary systems. As research shows, suspensions and expulsions are often linked to higher rates of future involvement with the criminal justice system. This impact, often called the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately impacts students of color and students with disabilities.

A Talking Circle can be part of restorative justice when used as an alternative to traditional suspensions and expulsions. To begin, invite students who have been involved in a conflict at school to participate in the Circle. In this confidential process, students can invite an ally to attend. As the Circle progresses, the students are welcomed to speak openly about their experiences, as well as to seek support and plan action steps to repair the harm done. All in all, the Circle space is about accountability to one’s community.


Building Connections in a Safe Space

My middle school made a clear decision that we wanted all students to have a close connection with at least one adult in our building. Thus, we began using Talking Circles in each of our advisory periods once a week. Students and advisors select questions that are meaningful to them or that connect to a relevant current event or community need. Often students raise concerns about inequities, bullying and conflicts within their classes. When appropriate, and with students’ permission, we create action plans to help alleviate the stressors in their lives and intercept systemic injustices.

I have been amazed at the strong relationships that develop. One student expressed, “I began to realize that you all [teachers] are real people too and that you have gone through some of the same stuff we have.” Another student reflected, “You know, I didn’t really know some of you before the year began. Now I feel like each of you has become a part of my family.” The Circle allows students to feel vulnerable, to take risks and to speak their truth. Thus, I believe Talking Circles, used in partnership with appropriate actions, have the potential to help restore justice to our youth.


Formative Assessment Tool

In my reading class, I often use Talking Circles to gauge my students’ background knowledge of a topic or to assess their understanding of key concepts or text. For example, I might say, “Let’s think a little more about the poems we read during our close reading yesterday. What is the author’s message about injustice? How do the characters convey this message?” As the Talking Piece moves around the Circle, I mentally monitor students’ progress, asking myself, “Did they get this? What surprises me? Where do we need to look more closely? What do we need to reread later?” Because each student is able to voice his or her thoughts, I’m able to differentiate and plan next steps accordingly.

As you can tell, Talking Circles are a cornerstone of my classroom practice. They allow children to see their community as a place of significance, a place of positive change and a place where their voices are heard. How might you use them in your practice?

Bintliff is a reading teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wis. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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