"I like circle time because nobody has to be lonely anymore".
These words were spoken by an 11 year old 5th class pupil in a Limerick City primary school. It was in answer to being asked what he thought of the circle he had just finished with his class. Big words. Telling words? Words that also suggest there just might be something to this circle process. (Of course I kind of knew that already. This just confirmed it). Before I go any further though, I better backtrack a little for those who may be unaware of what this circle process is about. Circles are to my mind the heart and soul of restorative practices, in that they actively embody all the restorative values when you do them - fairness, respect, engagement, safety and honesty. Done in their full form they are a 15-20 minute facilitated process where, in this case, a whole class sit in a circle, along with their teacher and any teaching assistants, and answer a series of questions. It usually starts with a greeting, then moves on to them sharing something about themselves (e.g. favourite pet, favourite food, etc), then playing a group activity and then often involving an academic question or activity (e.g. a math "shoot out" or asking what everyone remembered from their recent project on Africa/nature/castles or whatever they've learned that week). It was to the final question (what did you think of the circle?) that the boy in question gave the above answer, and I've hardly been able to get it out of my mind since.
To backtrack a little further still, I have been going around primary schools in Limerick for the past two months and demonstrating to students and teachers what a circle looks like(there is interest from two secondary schools also at present). I am now on my fifth school, and have literally demonstrated circles in every single class in each of those schools, with hopefully many more to follow. But, maybe you are still wondering why do circles in the first place? Well, from whatever view point you look at it, circles benefits students, teachers and schools (they can of course be done in any other setting). Want to improve relationships and the general atmosphere in the school? The circle will do this. If that's not answer alone in itself, it also improves social and emotional learning. Pupils have to listen, focus of what others are saying, wait their turn and develop the confidence and articulation skills to speak. They also gain empathy and insight into others. Many have no idea what's involved in the lives of some of their fellow pupils. And, as if all that's not enough, they also get to have fun and it improves learning outcomes (there is research to back up all of the above if you are still undecided). They can be used to teach and/or revise areas of the curriculum so teachers need not worry about "wasted" time. The department of education have said in their own guidelines that circle work can be used in all strands of SPHE programme and is appropriate to all class levels. Finally, they can be used, once firmly established in the class first, to address sensitive issues such bullying, online safety or anything else that might come up.
One concern or worry I've encountered is how exactly do you keep order? Well, the key to this is using a "talking piece". These past few weeks that talking piece has been Geri, a toy giraffe (borrowed from my own son as it turns out), and the main rule is that only the person to speak is the person holding Geri. Everyone else gets to listen. The kids love the cuddly toy and are surprisingly quick to adapt to the one-at-a-time rule (sometimes it can take a little practice and patience to establish). Many say their favourite part of the circle is getting to hear others and everyone having their turn. "Usually in our class everyone likes to talk at the same time". Some comments reflect that this gets away from the same few kids all the time with the "lamha suas". One teacher also commented on how nice it was to be on "an equal level with the students for a change". If a student is particularly quiet or unable to say anything, they can pass, and they are given the chance to say something at the end. The expectation/likelihood is that, over time, they will gain the confidence and skills to find their voice and say what they have to say. From my observations so far, this could also greatly benefit some of the "new" Irish, who many not yet have fluency in English or yet feel fully part of the culture. What better way to promote the ongoing assimilation of all the different cultures and nationalities that have graced our shores this past generation?
To conclude, based on 45 circles so far with over 900 kids the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from teachers and students - "a million out of a million" being a not-uncommon rating. The challenge now is to embed this practice. We adults are often slow to change as we are familiar and comfortable with the status quo, whatever that may be. We try new things but, just as quickly, resort to "the old way" without much thought, especially if confronted with any problems or setbacks. This is understandable with so many demands for our attention, and so much assessment and paperwork with our work these days. And, let's be honest, starting a new circle regime once a day of once a week WILL require an INITIAL effort. Of course, we already work hard at what we do already. Surely better to work at something that has proven results? I will promise you any effort required at the start will be repaid ten-fold in improved relationships. And, if we are ever in doubt, remember those words - "I like circle time because nobody has to be lonely anymore". Nuff said.
That's restorative practice.
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for other's to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.