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

Episode 108 – Deanna Lough

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Meet Deanna Lough

DEANNA LOUGH is an eighth grade English teacher at Sussex Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Georgetown, located in the southern part of Delaware. She’s an aspiring leader, kid Mom, puppy Mom, Mrs., music fan, and a lover of all things inspiring and positive.

How She Rediscovered Her Joy

A few years ago Deanna reached a point where she felt like she was killing herself with work. Her lack of energy and margin was preventing her from connecting with her students the way she wanted to, which led her to start asking how she could make her classroom a better space for her students.

That question has since evolved into a focus on equity, a pursuit that has really driven growth and evolution in her practice. Thanks to the changes she’s made in her thinking and work, she enjoys teaching a whole lot more today and has rekindled the passion that led her to enter the profession in the first place. 

A Journey of Putting the Needs of Learners First

At the time that Deanna really started rethinking her practice and her learning space, she asked her students to describe their ideal classroom.

  • What would it look like?
  • What kind of work would they do?
  • How would teachers support their learning?

Their responses steered her first toward flexible seating and then to her own embedded biases and the obstacles faced by students from cultural and sexual minorities. She also started asking tough questions about her instruction and assessment.

  • Were her assessments actually fair?
  • Were they really assessing what she wanted to assess?
  • Were they really supporting the learning journeys of her students?

As she asked these questions, she realized that a lot of the traditional and adversarial grading policies that she had complied with for so long were causing her the most stress and stealing her joy. Although her school still requires her to submit grades, she’s begun the slow work of changing her assessment practices and allowing her students to demonstrate their learning in new ways. 

What Else is Setting Deanna on 🔥 in Education Today

In addition to her changes in assessment, Deanna is keen on supporting her LGBTQ students and students of color in more effective ways. She’s become aware of so many situations that don’t do a good enough job of supporting these learners, and she’s also started to think about how some of the same systemic barriers affect minority educators, too.

The work of educators such as Dr. Sheldon Eakins (@SheldonEakins) and Dr. Mechele Newell (@mechelenewell) has also been deeply influential in her journey. One of her biggest realizations is that she does have a voice in these issues and that she needs to use it — to advocate not just for her minority students but for all of her learners and for the state of humanity.

A Professional Goal

Deanna is thrilled to teach in a professional environment that allows educators to set their own professional goals. Her focus for this year relates to thoughtful uses of technology in her classroom. Her school is 1:1, meaning all of her learners have Chromebooks, so she wants to not only improve learning experiences for students but also increase her own expertise in the Google environment. She makes the point that as we grow, learn, and gain competence as educators, we bring more joy to the job, and students notice that. Lately, she’s also enjoyed watching her students support the digital expertise of others.

A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Music 🎶

Deanna is a huge music enthusiast, and even though she’s never been trained to play an instrument she’s taken up the challenge of writing about it. This commitment has pushed her to listen to music podcasts to learn more, and shows like Sound Opinions and Rolling Stones Music Now have helped and inspired her to keep going. Right now, her goal is to write one formal music review per month, and she’s shared this journey with her students as well. 

Productivity and Priorities

One set of strategies that Deanna has found valuable is Angela Watson’s 40-hour Teacher Week Club, and one her biggest takeaways has been the prioritized task list. Whenever she has a lot going on, she takes a few minutes to sit down and arrange to-do items by priority.

Another helpful takeaway has been Google Keep, a simple but effective list keeper that syncs across all devices. “Nothing will kill your joy faster than when you try to be overly ambitious and get more things done in a day than are humanly possible,” she points out.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Learning

Over on Twitter, Deanna recommends following Dr. Sheldon Eakins @sheldoneakins. As mentioned earlier in our conversation, he’s doing great work in the area of equity and Deanna has learned a lot from his online course. Make sure to visit his site and tune into his podcast as well.

Deanna’s edtech tool pick is Screencastify, a leading screencast application that works well in the Chromebook environment with a handy Google Chrome extension. She’s also been extremely impressed by their customer support.

We Got This by Cornelius MinorA must-read book title in the equity space is We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor. Deanna can’t say enough about how open Cornelius is about his own journey even as he helps other educators rethink the accessibility in their learning spaces.

A few education podcasts that Deanna appreciates include Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up by Jeffery Frieden, EduMatch Tweet & Talk by Dr. Sarah Thomas, and The Dr. Will Show by Dr. Will Deyamport III. All three hosts are former guests of the Teachers on Fire podcast!

When she’s looking for education inspiration on YouTube, Deanna turns to Edusations by Phil Strunk. On Netflix, the show at the top of her list that just restores her faith in humanity is Queer Eye

We sign off on this great conversation, and Deanna gives us the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

You can connect with Deanna …

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel!

 

100 – Celebrating 100 Episodes!

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Marking the Centennial Edition

In this special episode of the pod, long-time supporter of the podcast Bryon Carpenter (@BryonCar) takes over the microphone and interviews me, Tim Cavey, using the same questions I’ve used to interview my 99 previous guests. It’s a fun conversation and a great opportunity for me to reflect back on the Teachers on Fire journey.

My Current Role in Education

I am an 8th grade homeroom teacher at a middle school in Surrey, BC, Canada. I teach most subjects, including elective courses in Entrepreneurship and Media Arts – elective courses that allow me to share my passion for content creation.

House on Fire

Back in December of 2012 I found myself in a very challenging set of personal circumstances. I was renting a basement suite in Vancouver and going through a divorce when I received a text message one day while teaching. My landlord’s instruction simply said “Come home quick – the house is on fire!”

I came home to a burned out house and found myself temporarily homeless, with no family in the area. My colleagues were incredibly supportive during this time and a huge reason why I am where I am today, but I’ll never forget the experience of teaching a class of middle schoolers in the days and weeks that followed with so much emotional turmoil and personal chaos in the background. Teaching felt robotic, and it was hard to conjure up genuine emotion in the classroom.

As much as authenticity and transparency are important in our practice, we also need to be that source of warmth, love, and encouragement for our learners. That isn’t always easy – especially when chaos, pain, or upheaval reigns in our personal lives. The support of my colleagues during this period is a reminder that I need to check in regularly with the people around me, mindful of the fact that my colleagues are fighting battles that I know nothing about.

What Sets Me on 🔥 in Education Today

What really sets me on fire in education today is the opportunity of passing on my passion for content creation with my students. Whether it’s blogging, podcasting, photography, video production, or other forms of expression and communication, the age of the internet gives us all tremendous opportunities to represent our values and share what we are all about.

Our learners are all comfortable consumers, but what are they creating and contributing? How are they adding beauty and utility to the world? How are they launching their projects and learning in authentic ways? These are the questions that motivate me and guide my practice today.

The Teachers on Fire Origin Story

My journey with podcasting began over a decade ago. Some of my first podcasts included The Dave Ramsey Show, The Real Estate Guys, Stuff You Should Know, and Hockey Central at Noon. In more recent years, I also started to listen to business and entrepreneurship podcasts, including figures like Gary Vaynerchuk, Pat Flynn, and John Lee Dumas. These figures spoke regularly about the possibilities for creation and communication afforded by the internet, and as I listened to their conversations with entrepreneurs and business pioneers, I thought about how amazing it would be to feature educators in the same way.

Back in early 2018, I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of education podcasts in the iTunes store, so I decided to give this podcasting thing a try. Inspired by John Lee Dumas’s Entrepreneurs on Fire, I launched Teachers on Fire in the spring of 2018. My mission was and continues to be the exposure of tremendous educators who are leading and transforming K-12 education. This passion project is a sweet spot for me, because my passion is at least as strong now as it was when I first launched the podcast.

My Professional Goals

I recently finished my MEdL thesis, bringing a 2-year degree program to a close. That was a huge relief, and now I’m excited to shift my energy into other creative passions, including blogging and eventually vlogging. In my practice, I’m excited to push my 8th grade entrepreneurship students to interview entrepreneurs and business leaders in our community and share their recordings on our Gr8 Expectations student podcast.

Personal Passions Away from Education

Outside of educational settings, I’m passionate about getting out on the ocean on paddleboards and hiking new mountain trails with my beautiful wife. I dream about one day getting a drone that will allow me to document both passions in beautiful ways as well.

My Biggest Productivity Hack

I love productivity hacks of all kinds, but one of my biggest and best is the habit of waking up at 4:30 on school day mornings so that I can get to my neighborhood Starbucks. When I’m on my game and this is happening, it allows me to get after the day before the day gets after me. I do some journaling work, review my calendar, set some goals, complete some prayer and meditation, and then get some work done. It’s an incredible feeling to get to school knowing that the day is already a win because of what I’ve accomplished before 7:00 a.m.

Voices & Resources That Shape My Thinking & Inspire My Practice

Over on Twitter, I recommend following the dynamic Nina Pak Lui, my guest on episode 97 of the podcast. You’ll find her @NPakLui. A former middle school teacher, Nina now teaches pre-service teachers at the university level. She’s a whirlwind of intensity when it comes to the issues that matter in education today, including equity, diversity, and assessment for learning. She’s also just launched a blog and is beginning her own graduate level research, and I know big things are ahead for her.

My pick for edtech tools is WeVideo, simply the best cloud-based video editing solution available today. Get to know this company on Twitter @WeVideo

Big Magic by Elizabeth GilbertI’ve always got a bunch of books on the go, but one that has kept me laughing and inspired lately is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. As the title says, this book is essential reading for those looking to flex their creativity, particularly in the writing and blogging spaces.

My podcast pick has to be the one hosted by the delightful Jeff Gargas and Rae Hughart, Teach Better Talk. These two have a passion for education and a playful back and forth that is simply unmatched in the podcast space. Follow them on Twitter @TeachBetterTeam

On YouTube, you need to subscribe to C. J. Reynolds at his channel, Real Rap with Reynolds. There’s not much rap involved, but C. J. brings it every episode, tackling the very real challenges that teachers face in their classrooms. He’s inspiring. Get to know him on Twitter @RealRapReynolds

My family enjoyed The Office and Brooklyn 99 on Netflix, but lately we’ve been checking out Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime (although we’ve had to skip a few scenes when our boys are watching). If you like spy flicks and can handle John Krasinski in a serious role, this might be a series to check out. 

We sign off on this milestone conversation, and I thank Bryon for hosting this centennial edition. If you’re new to the podcast, make sure you connect with me on the platforms below!

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media!

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel.

The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


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