Does the talking piece always have to go around the whole circle?


This is our third year using circles as part of our middle school after-school program. We've had some powerful experiences in circles and it's really helped strengthen our community. But I've found that students sometimes get impatient with the talking piece going around in order. Do you think it's always necessary to have the talking piece go around the whole circle? 
– Xioel Terrero, school counselor and former after-school program coordinator, PS/MS214, Bronx, NY

The Keeper:

When introducing the talking piece to the group, I always emphasize that it serves as an invitation to either share or pass. It goes around in order, from one person to the next, acknowledging everyone in the circle, whether they choose to speak or not. The talking piece doesn’t skip people, doesn’t backtrack and doesn’t get tossed across the circle.

Every talking piece I introduce into a circle has meaning (see our Introduction to Circles and The Talking Piece: a Story) and is used to moderate the dialogue in a very structured way.  
After the talking piece has gone around a few times and an understanding of the restorative circle process has been established, however, I might change things up a bit. Too many go rounds, especially non-storytelling go rounds, can get tedious. Students, especially younger ones, easily lose focus. And when people disengage, the energy quickly seeps out of a circle. 
Sometimes I’ll tell people that we’re going to suspend the talking piece, temporarily, and introduce a period of popcorn-style responses, using a “popcorn piece.” This piece, which might be a koosh ball or a hacky sack (not something with any particular meaning), can be tossed or passed to people who signal that they want to respond to a question or prompt. You can use the popcorn piece to elicit some quick information from the group, such as: “Can someone give me a definition of x?” Or, “Who is familiar with the following concept, and what can you tell me about it?”   
You can also re-infuse the circle with energy or refocus a group with a pair share or an interactive teambuilding activity as well. When you return to the circle, these experiences can then be processed and shared out with the full circle using a talking piece. 
Be careful, though, not to let the popcorn piece supplant your talking piece. Participants can get impatient with the time it takes for the talking piece to go around, and it’s easy to fall back on quicker, more “efficient” processes (like responding popcorn-style) that people are familiar with. But if we distance ourselves too much from the talking piece going around in order, from one person to the next, we can easily loose the circle process and the power that can hold.
I often have a group reflect on how a go round with a talking piece feels different from working with a popcorn piece. I ask people to think about who speaks and who doesn’t when we use these different approaches. Together we usually come to the realization that with a popcorn piece, some individuals step into the space to share more often, while others tend to stay quiet. This might be because they’re shy, need more time to formulate their thoughts, or simply don’t want to take up time or space. They might think that what they have to share isn’t important or interesting. 
For these reasons, and others, it’s important to always go back to the passing of the talking piece from one person to the next, as everyone in the circle is acknowledged and given a chance to speak.This is one important way in which a restorative circle sets itself apart from other modalities we use in the classroom. It’s part of what makes a restorative circle so powerful.

Do you have questions about using circles or restorative practices in your school?  Send them to the Keeper!