The Power of Sharing Circles

I’m a slow learner, so it’s taken the chorus of a few voices to get me sold and focused on the positive impact that sharing circles, check-ins, and check-outs can have on the culture of classes and learning communities.

I first experienced sharing circles during my MEdL classes at VIU in the summers of 2017 and 2018 (pictured below). Our class of 45 started and ended every day of learning in circles.

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In the summer and fall of 2019, I read about the power of restorative circles in Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice, a book written by Brad Weinstein and Nathan Maynard that my MS staff team read through in the 2019-2020 school year.

Then I spent two days of workshops put on by the International Institute for Restorative Practices learning about the philosophy behind sharing circles and some thinking around best practices when they’re used in school settings. It was during my second day of learning with IIRP that I think the impact of circles really crystallized for me.

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Why Circles?

Circles assign value to every member of the community. They include every voice. They share perspectives that aren’t always heard or apparent. They allow us to learn from each other.

These benefits are simple but profound. They don’t happen by accident. Without circles, it’s actually hard to come up with these outcomes at all.

It turns out, our indigenous peoples were on to something big.

Circles can be as powerful for learning as they are for building relationships, and you’d be right to argue that the two are really linked, anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw some of the potential of circles myself when my Master’s classes would begin and end in circles. In a large class of 45, circle times offered a convenient way to share insights and get to know people that I had yet to connect with personally.

A Powerful Circle Experience

It was during our second day of IIRP workshops at an in-house professional development event last fall that I was profoundly touched by the raw power of circle practices.

I was in a mini-circle of five teachers and administrators. We were tasked with applying a lesson that we had just learned in a group session, and it was up to me to choose a question for my little group.

Hoping to get real with my colleagues, I went with “Talk about one thing that is causing you stress in your personal life right now.”

By the time we completed the circle, most of us were in tears. Things had gotten that real. That fast. In the span of 15 minutes, we had shared our hearts, our personal stories, our realities.

And just like that, we felt a lot more connected with each other.

When was the last professional development event where you saw something like that happen?

It was a powerful reminder that when it comes to the learners in our classrooms, there is always, always, ALWAYS more to their stories than meets the eye. We ignore those stories in our own classrooms at our own peril and to the detriment of our class cultures.

Circles in My Teaching Practice

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Ever since that emotional moment with my colleagues, I’ve made circles a regular part of my eighth grade classroom. And every single time I do them, I learn new things about my learners, the class learns to trust each other just a little bit better, and the culture of my room improves. It actually makes me sad that I went so many years of teaching without using circles more strategically.

Regrets aside, what follows is an evolving list of circle check-in questions. I love this list SO much … but it’s not complete. I’m looking to add to it all the time, and if you’ve got a question to suggest, please leave it in the comments below.

Suggestions for Circle Starters

Circle Check-In Questions for BUILDING COMMUNITY

  • Quick go-round: From 1-5, how are you feeling right now?
  • Who is one adult outside of our school that you admire? Why?
  • What is one book that you have read that you enjoyed? Why did you enjoy it?
  • What is one thing you are grateful for right now?
  • What is one thing that is stressing you or making you anxious right now?
  • What is one thing that you appreciate about someone in this group?
  • What is one thing that someone in this group has done to help your learning?
  • What is one rose and one thorn from your weekend?
  • What is one aha, apology, or appreciation from your week?
  • What are you obsessing about right now?
  • What is one thing you like to do in your free time?
  • What is one thing that you hope will happen this week?
  • What is one way that you’ve failed recently?
  • What is your ideal learning environment?
  • What is one movie that inspires you?

Circle Check-In Questions for LEARNING

  • What do you already know about this topic?
  • What is one personal connection you can make with this topic?
  • What questions do you have about this topic?
  • (And at the end) What questions do we still have?
  • Why do you think we are learning this?
  • What is one idea that you have for something to write about?
  • What is one thing that stood out from you in this learning activity?
  • What is one takeaway from this learning activity?
  • What is the next thing you would like to learn?
  • Big 3 Questions: What are you learning? How is it going? Where to next?
  • What is one thing you would like to achieve in this period?
  • Where are you in the design process?
  • What is one thing that you could do to improve your work?
  • What support do you need to continue your learning?
  • How would you answer the guiding question right now?
  • What should be in the success criteria?
  • What is your top priority for this block?
  • Read three lines of writing from your writing today.

Circle Questions for UPCOMING SCHOOL EVENTS

  • What are the opportunities that might come from this activity?
  • How could we grow from this activity?
  • What are some behaviour problems to watch out for in an upcoming activity?
  • What are our goals for this activity?
  • What are our fears and anxieties about this activity? (*use with caution — don’t let this become a negative venting session)
  • What would it look like to give in to fear regarding this activity?
  • What would you want people to say about PA after our visit?

Circle Questions for a DISRUPTIVE CLASS

  • How do you think the class went?
  • How could we improve our behaviour?
  • What needs to happen to make things right?
  • What do you want to be known for?

Circle Questions for WORK NOT GETTING DONE

  • Which tools could better support your learning?
  • What are some strategies that we could use (or will use) to get our work done on time?
  • Is there anything that I should know about what is causing you anxiety?
  • What do you think might motivate you to get your work done?
  • How is your lack of work impacting the people around you?
  • How will your work habits now prepare you for life?

Circle Check-Ins for EMPOWERING STUDENTS

  • What are your progress goals for this period? (eg. a media class)
  • What challenges or obstacles have been slowing down your learning lately?
  • How will you overcome the challenges or obstacles that have been slowing you down?

Circles for STAFF ACTIVITIES

  • Grade level or department meetings: how are things going right now?
  • What is one thing you’re taking away from this staff meeting?
  • Who would you like to shout out on our staff team and why?
  • How do you think [X staff activity] went? How could it be improved?
  • What is one thing that you’d like support with right now?
  • What is one thing you’re working on right now?
  • What is one thing you’ve learned recently?

Maybe you’ve never tried circle check-ins your classroom, or maybe (like me) you’re on a journey to learn more about circles and leverage their power more.

Wherever you are in your journey with circles, I’d like to hear about it.

Let’s circle up.

Step Inside the Circle: a Powerful Video