Birch School : Maker Rings

Sharing the Story of "Students supporting Students to MAKE their best work"

Facilitating the Circle Process

We use a talking stick circle often. We begin our day including everyone in our circle. We joke because our circle is so big now that we don’t fit on the oriental carpet anymore. Now we circle around the carpet.

In the morning we pass the talking stick circle and “check-in”: “how are you doing? how are you feeling today about being here?”. We pass the stick and express gratitude for big things and small things. Sometimes we celebrate community milestones that happen outside of school, pills like congratulating a teacher on her wedding or welcoming a teacher’s new baby to the world. We console one another, page like the time Finn’s dog had to be put to sleep and he was upset. Some told him it was okay to be sad, visit web and some cried with him. The circle process is essential to the daily rhythm of the supportive community we are creating.
The circle is a safe place, where everyone is included, where everyone can see everyone else and no one can hide. And so the circle is also a place for problem-solving, for expressing feelings and ideas, and learning to communicate. Sometimes students bring issues they want to talk about in circle. Often Teachers, mentors or other adults bring their observations. Often observations are the key to problem-solving. Stating observations isn’t the same as stating opinions. Carefully stating observations leaves room for all interpretations. It secretly invites those in the circle to agree or disagree, but either way express their opinion. Talk about what they see and think. Make their contribution to the whole.

As we learn from ecology and systems thinking, it is often the connections themselves that are important in the system. Sometimes it is what we can’t see that is the foundation of the health of the whole. In the community circle this becomes evident.

When facilitating a circle, there are several things important to keep in mind. One is to be upbeat, cheerful, warm and welcoming. Looking around the circle and recognizing each individual present in the circle takes just a few seconds, but those are important seconds. In that short time the welcoming recognition can draw each student in, encouraging complete participation. This leads to whole-student engagement. This is the environment that feeds creative problem solving, brainstorming, risktaking. This is often where our best thinking happens. Students make suggestions, ask questions, observe patterns. We all participate in making sense of our days and ensuring that we are helping each other do our best work.

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Another thing to be mindful of is setting the tone of the discussion inadvertently. It is very easy to reveal our own bias in the way we pose a question or problem to the group. We take guidance from the “Visual Thinking Routines” promoted by Harvard Education School’s Project Zero. We begin the discussion of a problem by sharing observations. We invite others to comment on the observation, without indicating any particular answer that we may be expecting. Frequently, when asked to comment on observations, students rush to answer. Often, in our situation, the problem or behavior we have observed has also been experienced by others. By asking for comments we are opening a safe space for students to share their own concerns in agreement with, or in contradiction to what others are saying. I have seen students unselfconsciously share their experience with the large group. Other students are more attentive to peers when they express ideas and feelings, and they are drawn in to the conversation as well. But it requires careful and reserved introduction to the issue at hand.

Project Zero’s website discusses this.
“The idea of visible thinking helps to make concrete what a thoughtful classroom might look like. At any moment, we can ask, “Is thinking visible here? Are students explaining things to one another? Are students offering creative ideas? Are they, and I as their teacher, using the language of thinking? Is there a brainstorm about alternative interpretations on the wall? Are students debating a plan?”

When the answers to questions like these are consistently yes, students are more likely to show interest and commitment as learning unfolds in the classroom. They find more meaning in the subject matters and more meaningful connections between school and everyday life. They begin to display the sorts of attitudes toward thinking and learning we would most like to see in young learners — not closed-minded but open-minded, not bored but curious, neither gullible nor sweepingly negative but appropriately skeptical, not satisfied with “just the facts” but wanting to understand. ”

Visible Thinking in Action

Another important aspect of successful group problem-solving is to help everyone have a chance to contribute their ideas and observations. Usually a teacher facilitates our circles, and this is almost always true when it is a problem-solving circle. In this case it is important to recognize each student who wants to speak, and when several want to speak at a time to “keep a stack”. This can be done by an experienced facilitator in their head, and also it can be done on paper. By recognizing each student who would like to speak and announcing the order they will be able to speak (usually the order their hands went up) allows each person to relax, knowing their turn will come, so they can focus on what others are saying.

A good facilitator can also help a circle along by reflecting back what is being said. Frequently there is a common theme that several people express. This can be reflected back to the group. “what I hear many people saying is that they like things the way they are. Is that what you are saying?”, giving the group an opportunity to agree or disagree, further helping the group to define their feelings about the issue.

Our large group circle is a key of our successful community. With the Maker Ring project we are trying to bring the same benefits of the circle to a smaller group of students. Our hope is that in the smaller format they can work deeper, that they can really try out some of the techniques we learn in the larger group, and refine them for the purposes of supporting each other in creation of things and new ideas.

community-buildingecologyfacilitationHarvard Project ZeroMaking Thinking Visiblesystems-thinkingtaliking stick circle

Admin • February 5, 2015

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