Listen from the heart.
The simple and unassuming acknowledgment of another person’s thoughts is powerful and restorative.
As a 6th grade teacher, I am faced daily with typical ‘tween’ angst, social landmines, and raging hormones. There’s a heavy need in middle school to “fit in” and to “look cool.” Often, the class clown who can spit out a funny comeback or the person who highlights uncomfortable truths with teasing and jest becomes the center of attention. At other times it is the edgy and judgmental kids that yield power and influence over the more vulnerable and impressionable, especially those who are terrified they will be a victim of something mean.
Add all of this to the often highly competitive nature of the community where I teach, where children are nurtured and groomed (almost from birth), to be “successful” at just about any cost, and I am facing a virtual war zone of craziness on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could come to school feeling safe? Wouldn’t it be easier to learn and focus if we didn’t have to worry about avoiding a mean comment or feel the intense pressure to fit in or to succeed at all costs?
A few years ago while attending a training for Positive Behavior Intervention Support, I learned about a strategy that could potentially help build a more supportive classroom community and a safe place to connect, a forum for sharing, a way to debrief and de-stress. I was intrigued. I had been working for some time on developing lessons and teaching positive character traits, I was eager to try out a process I hoped would reach into the hearts of my vulnerable tweens.
Skeptical at first…
At first, I was a bit skeptical, how would Community Circle work with my kids? The name itself sounds precariously close to “group therapy” and my students would definitely put those two together. They would resist, for sure. Also, how would my administrator, my colleagues and our community perceive a seemingly “unimportant” activity like “sitting in a circle and just listening,” when there are very important standards to master in an already packed schedule?
The question about my administrator’s thoughts on the subject was quickly answered. He was all for it. “Go for it, Kim! Try it out.”
Check. (Permission granted.)
Now the students.
“So class, we are going to move our tables to the sides of the room. Now we will put our chairs in the middle of the room in a circle. No, not in the shape of an amoeba. No, no, not an oval. We all need to see each other…. must be a circle.”
Sigh. We will get there.
Finally, our first circle was formed. Some students giggled. Some rolled their eyes. Some chose not to speak. Some couldn’t help but blurt out comments or questions, but with some thoughtful reminders about the rules, all soon began to just listen.
As for the naysayers, those of us who feel the intense daily pressure of meeting the needs of all of our learners at all levels; those of us who brave the frontlines and are intensely committed to teaching our students to read, to write and do math. With only so many teaching minutes in a day and with so many needs to be met, who has time for this? Who, in all honesty, has time for something frivolous like… Community Circle? Seriously?
Not ready to check that box just yet.
Still, I decided to push forward and try out this strategy. Maybe, just maybe, it could help us all feel better about coming to school and maybe, we would become a stronger, more supportive community. The first year of community circle turned out well. My kids enjoyed the times when we could create a class circle, talk and really listen. I was pleased but unable to tell if I was seeing a positive effect on my students. Maybe I should start earlier in the year and have a weekly set time.
Last year, having done more research on the efficacy of community circles, I committed to continuing the practice once a week in my classroom. One day, our scheduled community circle session conflicted with another activity on campus. When I got the word about the conflict, I was frustrated. Normally, I would have been a lot more flexible in this situation and allowed my students to miss out on our community circle time. However on this day, one of my students came into my classroom to deliver a message from the teacher organizing the activity. With a shrug and slight touch of incredulity in his voice, the student announced to me (and the class) that the teacher had said,
“Community FLUFF can wait.”
Oh, really? It’s hard enough to get 11 and 12-year-olds to participate in a circle… all I need is for an adult on campus to imply that it’s not important or (worse) ridiculous…This has been such a long road to get to this place.
So, in front of my students, I picked up the phone and in a kind and measured voice, I let the teacher know we would be missing the event on campus. I gathered my kids into a circle where I asked about who the heroes were in their lives. We passed the talking stick around the circle. Some students chose to share and some did not some wiggled, some giggled, but all of them listened to each other, and hopefully, listened from their hearts. I then excused my students to their lunch break.
That day, I sat at my desk at lunch, feeling as though steam was rising out of my head. Was the whole idea of community circle just a bunch of fluff? I admit I was skeptical, too. Maybe I should just stop and refocus on the basics. I wondered if trying to reach my students in this way was really worth the time. Should I just forget trying to change the world one student, one classroom, at a time? My racing thoughts were interrupted when I heard a knock on my classroom door. I opened the door to find four 11-year-old boys asking to come in. Sure, I shrugged, why not.
“What’s up, guys?”
“Um, we were wondering if we could do Community Circle in here?”
“Well, I’m too busy right now to sit down with you.” I answered, thinking about the emails I needed to return and a pile of other projects I was working on.
“That’s ok, we just want to do it together, in here.”
“Sure, the talking stick is over there.”
I sat down to look at my computer screen, but I couldn’t help but notice that the boys were setting up four chairs in a mini circle and one of them had grabbed the sparkly fairy godmother wand I always used as the talking stick. It was a remnant of a former Halloween costume, a prop that I kept perched in my pencil holder.
Trying again to focus on my computer screen, I heard one of the boys ask a question of the others.
“So, how was your weekend?”
A Sense of Hope…
Suddenly the steam (the steam that had been spewing from my head) began to dissipate. Could this be true? Is this really,
really happening? Are these boys actually having a nice conversation and taking turns just listening to each other?
As I covertly listened in and the boys continued their circle discussion, I felt an enormous sense of hope. This “Community Fluff” stuff was definitely more, a lot more than fluff. This was indeed a way for my students to communicate and to connect. This was a way for my kiddos to feel heard. These four boys, who also happened to be smart, cool and athletic, were having a heartfelt, respectful conversation with one another. It dawned on me that as educators, we must give our kids the tools and the permission they need to have a meaningful conversation with each other. When do we actually take the time to show our students how to do that, how to listen from the heart? Heartfelt conversations rarely happen on the playground or on the sports field. They may not happen at the dinner table. As adults, we often talk AT our kids, but they do not learn from us HOW to speak with each other and about the power of just listening.These four boys needed a way to do that, and our circle gave them the skills and the courage to do so.
So, to the naysayers, and the skeptics like me, I say, Check.
Community Circle isn’t just fluff. It’s real and it is powerful.
Our guest post is by Kim Wells, a passionate educator and 6th-grade teacher at Harborview Elem in Corona del Mar, CA. Her principal, Dr. Todd Schmidt, recommended her to write a “from the field” piece for LeadUpNow and we are thankful she did!
Tags: Community, Social-Emotional Learning, teacher leadership