Out With the Old and In With the New

A New Way to Think About Circles in the Math Classroom

As a teacher, by nature, I am a reflective individual that is continuously improving my practice.  Many times, I find new ideas and new research and want to implement the ideas in my classroom.  However, I frequently do not spend enough time implementing a new idea or practice and sometimes change course and find something else that might work better.  I have learned that quality is better than quantity when it comes to throwing out past practice and implementing the new practice. 

This year, my research team is studying Restorative Practices.  It is a school-wide initiative in our district.  Peter Trapp, my co-researcher, posted this blog on what Restorative Practice entails.  Peter references it as Restorative Justice: the two names are interchangeable. 

We hoped the “new” idea this year was going to be a big game changer in the classroom.  Like many schools, especially middle schools, we have disruptions and behaviors in our classrooms that are not welcomed.  They are frequently interrupting the learning, becoming a power struggle, and not changing.  As a school, we knew we needed to do something about this.  We realized that consequences were given but a change in behavior wasn’t happening.  Were we doing our job as educators if the behavior wasn’t changing or improving? I think not.  Part of our job is to educate students so they can become lifelong learners and individuals that can be a part of our greater society.  We needed this change. 

This is where the idea of Restorative Practices comes in.  Restorative Practices stem from Restorative Justice.  Restorative Justice has been around since the 1970’s.  There has been a lot of research done and books written about the two.  The International Institute of Restorative Practice website has a ton of background information on the parts of this concept.  I encourage you to also read Peter Trapp’s blog to find out even more information from our research.  However, I wanted to explain the top 5 pieces of information that really made a difference in my classroom and how to get Restorative Practices started.  

#1: Restorative Practice encourages students to have circles.  A circle,  which is a seating arrangement allowing all students and the teacher to see each other, invites everyone to engage in the classroom discussion.  The circles are meant to be 80% proactive and 20% reactive.  As I said at the beginning, it will take time to implement this change into your classroom and it is vital that you are authentic and do not give up.  This will not work if you cannot be yourself and connect with students.  All teachers want to make connections with students, and this is a great way to build a community.  That being said, it needs to happen frequently (I do circles every day), and needs to have a space in your classroom agenda.  

#2: Circles can be done to start the class, such as a morning meeting or to end the class.  I encourage you to decide which fits best into your classroom but I really encourage you to start your class with a circle.  It is a safe way to have students come into your classroom, connect with their peers (and you) BEFORE the content starts.  My circles are about 5 minutes long. Some of my colleagues use a timer to make sure that it doesn’t take up too much time in their agenda.

#3:  Implementing circles takes time.  At first, they may seem awkward and students may not feel comfortable participating, but I have learned that if you stick with it (I would say 6 weeks), it will make a difference in your classroom and it will help build classroom community. It is important to establish expectations at the beginning of implementing the idea of circles.  For example, how do you properly greet someone? (Suggestions: eye contact, using names, body language, etc.)  Another important part is not having side conversations during the sharing part to the circle.  We actually will restart the circle if there are side conversations.  We discuss the “why” behind eliminating side conversations.  We discuss the importance of respect and kindness. 

#4:  There are two key parts to my circles.  The first part is students greet their peers.  There are many different types of greeting prompts I use such as, “Greet the person to your left and to your right”, “Greet three people that were not in your last class” and “Greet six people that you have something in common with regarding clothing.” The second part is a share.  At first, a share needs to be something that you would share with an acquaintance.  This keeps the circle safe.  A share might be something as simple as, “What is a color you like?”, or “Would you rather go to the beach or to the mountains?”  As the students start sharing more, a share can become more of a friend level.  This level is a type of question or share that you would feel comfortable telling a friend but not an acquaintance. An example would be, “If you could do anything right now, what would it be?” or “Who is someone outside of school that you trust?”  Students in my circles are allowed to “pass” or “come back to me.”  It is important that students feel comfortable to share.  I’ve had some students that pass for the first 6 weeks and then feel comfortable to share.  I also encourage you to pick a person that starts the circle each time and then chooses to go left or right.  This helps students anticipate when it will be their chance to share. 

#5:  Everyone needs to be in the circle and to see each other, including the teacher.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to be authentic and real during the circles.  If you believe in the importance of connecting with students and making a classroom community, this is a great place to start.  

As you start to implement proactive circles, there will be a time when circles need to be responsive.  This is an example of how I used the method of a circle to address a behavior problem.  This year we started our school year in a hybrid model.  We had students come every other day for the month of September.  A mitigation process we used was taking our class to the bathroom during our class time to help separate out the 210 students that we have.  On the way to the bathroom, students were “squeaking” their shoes in the hallways.  Every teacher knows, it is that really annoying sound that some students find hilarious.  However, we all know it is not acceptable behavior.  Instead of addressing the problem in the hallway, we circled up when we got back into the classroom.  All I had to say was “circle up” and the students knew the routine.  We discussed the following questions: 

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? in what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

We were able to have a discussion and reflect on the action. My students acknowledged that creating extra noise in the hallways was probably very distracting for other classes. The unwanted behavior stopped and we were able to continue learning and following expectations. 

Remembering that bringing in anything “new” does not need to take place of the “old.”  I have done classroom circles for 5 years, but by adding the Restorative Practice questions and discussion, there is now more of a purpose. I have noticed an increase in ownership of learning, enhanced feelings of psychological safety, and more students taking an active role during the math lessons. Restorative Practices are designed to help the students build a community so that when an unfavorable behavior or interruption happens in the classroom, the classroom can work together to solve the problem and restore the harm that was made.  However, I found that I had to build in proactive circles first. Hence the “new” idea added to the “old” practice of a circle in a math classroom.

One comment on “Out With the Old and In With the New

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Megan. I found the last paragraph especially insightful. It does seem so important to be proactive in using this classroom activity to build community proactively.

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