Question: How is a restorative circle different from other circles?

In our feature Ask the Keeper, senior trainer and staff developer Marieke van Woerkom answers your questions about restorative circles and related practices in schools.  Send your questions to:

Gathering in circles is a common practice in schools across the country.  People use circles to meet, plan or problem solve.  We also use circles to teach, whether it’s little kids on a rug or bigger kids in chairs.  Sitting in circles, instead of the more common rows, can encourage greater participation and connection.  But not every circle is necessarily a restorative circle.

A “restorative circle” has several distinct elements:  Besides everyone sitting in a circle without obstacles, like desks or tables, in between, there is an opening and closing ceremony, a meaningful center piece as a focal point, and a meaningful talking piece. The talking piece goes around the circle, in order, from person to person.  It serves as an invitation to share or to pass, while everyone else is invited to listen. Restorative circles are rooted in Native American and other indigenous traditions. 
In a restorative circle, the facilitator, known as the keeper, plays a role that is different from most other facilitation roles: the keeper is as much a host as a participant. The keeper, who sits in the circle at the same level as the other participants, listens mindfully and safeguards the process. The keeper initiates the sharing in the circle by asking a question or by providing a prompt, then sending the talking piece around to invite people to share.  The keeper, as participant and stakeholder, shares as well.  This can help set the tone of a restorative circle and get things going.
A restorative circle is not a Socratic seminar or a restorative conference. It’s not a group of people coming together, seated in a circle, for whatever the purpose may be. It’s a restorative circle if the structural elements described above are being honored. 
Allowing the talking piece to go around in order from one person to the next as an invitation to share (or pass) is an important part of what sets a restorative circle apart. It’s this process of acknowledging everyone, giving everyone the opportunity to speak and be heard, inviting in everyone’s voice when they are ready to share, that changes the way we interact with one another most of the time, and gives restorative circles their transformative power. 
People in circles often talk about how good it feels to be listened to.  We so rarely find ourselves heard in a society that moves at breakneck speeds and is often too busy to stop and truly listen to what we have to say. Teenagers in particular feel that the adults in their lives don’t listen to them. But educators too will share that the listening in circles is uniquely different from listening in other parts of their lives.  Deep listening encourages people to share more meaningfully of themselves.  It is how circles connect and reconnect people, building communities where people feel they belong. 
Often, after our five-day restorative circles training, educators will share that they were not looking forward to such a long session, but that in the end it didn’t feel like work at all.  It was actually something they’d needed, something they’d been craving, without even knowing it. They tell us that circles helped recharge their batteries, clear their minds, and revitalized them after a long exhausting school year.