In the Circle: The Power of Inviting People In

I was working in Warren recently, a city hard hit by layoffs and shutdowns in the Ohio Rust Belt. One of the 8th grade teachers asked me if I could model a circle in her classroom. She was interested in engaging her students in a different way. I told her I’d be happy to and invited her to participate along with her students to learn more about the process. I introduced myself to her students and asked them to help me set up the room. (See this introduction to circles for more details.)

I recited Shel Silverstein’s poem The Invitation as my opening ceremony,  inviting the dreamers, pretenders and liars to "sit by my fire" and "spin their flax-golden tales" together. To add some movement I asked students to stand up if they considered themselves dreamers. Then I invited the pretenders and liars to stand as well.

Marieke van Woerkom has worked in the field of cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, violence prevention and human rights for 20 years. She's been a Morningside Center trainer and coach since 2006, using SEL to strengthen school communities.

Having seen the power of restorative circles around the world, Marieke is now helping lead our effort to bring this transformative process to public schools through Morningside Center's Restore360 Program.

I’ve seen kids (and adults) across the country engage with the poem, share of themselves and have fun with it. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group take the poem this early on to as deep a level as these 8th graders in Warren did. One student stood up right at the start. He shared that he considered himself a dreamer: He dreamed to make it out of Warren alive. In sharing of himself in this way, he may well have given everyone else permission to talk about themselves honestly and deeply. Another student stood up and shared that he dreamed of owning a taco stand, because he wanted to feed the poor. A girl shared that she had tried to put her earlier life behind her. She spoke of how the other kids wouldn't let her; they kept bringing it back up. She said she pretended it wasn't hurtful, but it was.

Other kids then shared that they too pretended, lied, in a way, that teasing doesn't hurt, when it does. A boy shared that he pretends that some of the jokes he hears are funny, when they're not. As the talking piece went around, and students shared their pain with classmates, it got quiet in the circle. The energy got heavier, the listening more intense. 

There was some snickering early on from students who were probably uncomfortable with the serious nature of what was being shared. Fortunately, the adults in the circle resisted to urge to "fix" this situation, which would have required disrespecting the talking piece. Instead, when the talking piece came back to me, I acknowledged the nervous giggling, and mentioned that different people deal with discomfort in different ways. But could we also think about how we might affect others in the circle? Then I sent the piece around again, asking students if they had anything else to share or if anyone wanted to respond to what they’d heard.

By now there were tears, and not just among those who had shared of themselves. A student across from the girl who had said that she’d like to put her earlier life behind her received the talking piece. He looked down at the piece, as if to gather his thoughts, then up at her and said that he was one of the kids that wouldn’t let her move on. He was really sorry and said it wouldn’t happen again. The talking piece continued its way around. A student shared the respect he was gaining for people in the circle, and twice students shared how this was maybe the first time that they felt they were able to trust some of their classmates.  

For another two go-rounds students shared their mostly painful experiences. The student sitting next to me hadn’t said a word, but tears were streaming down his face. I offered him my hand, which he took. We sat together, listening, holding hands. When the talking piece came back to me, I asked one of the teachers how much time we had left. It would be another 20 minutes till lunchtime, so I started to work towards wrapping up this powerful circle.  

I acknowledged the courage it must have taken for some to have shared of themselves in this way, but also the support I felt in the group. I told them what a privilege it was to share this circle with them. Then, I asked the kids what they thought they might need to be able to pull themselves together again, to put their armor back on, go back out into the hallways and face their peers. This is when the “taco stand" student suggested we all share something that makes us feel proud, or something we like about ourselves. He told me to send the talking piece around clockwise. 

Instead (though this is not something I tend to do for fear of breaking the circle flow), I got up and handed him the talking piece. I told him he was now the keeper, and that he could send the talking piece around in any direction he wished. He did and students shared what they liked about themselves, were proud of, and what they were good at. The energy started to shift. My neighbor turned to me and whispered he was good now. He took back his hand. By the time the talking piece had gone around and was back in the hands of the "taco stand" student, another student said it should now be returned to the real keeper, i.e., me. 

I said that in circles, the goal is to all be keepers and all be participants. I had taken on the role of keeper today as I introduced this process to them, but they could all be keepers in time, as we’d just seen. We wrapped up the circle by touching on the importance of honoring the stories shared. I introduced a closing ceremony in which we committed to the confidentiality of the circle through a symbolic dropping of all of that was shared into an imaginary well: the well of confidentiality. 

Then we adults watched the students get up and hug each other, reach out to those who were hurt and show a gentle kindness that the teachers told me they’d not seen before in their students. One of the teachers shared that this was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen happen at the school.