How can we get students to share in circle?


"We've been doing circles at my school as a study skills course since the start of the year. It's been challenging when students pass, pass, and pass again. This passing seems to get contagious at times. Do you think it would work to tell students that they can't pass for more than a go round or two? How can we get some of those students to talk?"
– Christina Kittle, Jefferson School librarian and 6th grade study skills course facilitator, Warren, Ohio

I've been in circles with students who pass many times before they finally choose to speak. This can make keepers uncomfortable, and I’ve been asked before about trying to limit the number of times a student is allowed to pass before they have to share. I understand where that is coming from, but I find this to go against the spirit of the circle and that of the talking piece as invitation.  Here is why:

As the circle keeper, I don’t necessarily know why a student chooses not to share. I don’t want to impose myself or make assumptions. Circles are about creating a space that is inviting and safe enough for people to want to step in. Part of the safety in a circle resides in the knowledge that the decision to share or not to share will be honored.    

There are many reasons a student may not be ready to share. They may feel insecure. They may feel they have nothing of value to add to the dialogue. They may be anxious about speaking in large(r) groups or uncomfortable with this new circle approach, which asks them to share more personally of themselves than is often the case in school. They might even be suspicious about why we, adults, are asking more personal of questions. How does it fit into academics? And what happens with the information they decide to share? 

When restorative circles are first introduced in a school setting, students may also be afraid to make mistakes. So often in the classroom, students think they have to come up with the one right answer. Even if they are in an encouraging environment that celebrates effort (rather than simply having the right answer), students can be wary or afraid of being wrong. It can take time for students to get used to the circle process and the idea that in the circle there are no wrong answers, perspectives, or experiences.  

In short, the most persuasive way to get students to participate fully is to give them time, space and, more than anything, a choice over whether they will share or pass. Then, when students finally choose to speak, it can be an empowering and reassuring experience. 

This is hard work and it requires patience. But it’s worth it. Once students see that what they share in a circle is respected and understood, they often surprise themselves and their teachers by speaking up more in other settings like academic classes as well. Their silence has been broken by the attention and care they received in the circle. We may end up seeing a whole new side of a student we never really knew or understood.