Students Talking about ‘Talking Circles’

Talking circles are gaining popularity in many high schools. Typically a dozen students or more sit in a circle and wait their turn to receive a talking piece to respond to a topic raised by a circle-keeper, usually a teacher. A student may describe a feeling, express an opinion, move the conversation in another direction, or decide not to say anything in this first round or subsequent ones. Some circles are conducted more as a quick check-in while other circles begin with an inspirational quote, the significance of the talking piece used, and follow other indigenous traditions.

This seemingly simple process of listening and learning from others can have profound impact. The equalitarian nature of the circle with no beginning or end is designed to create a sense of connected-ness and build relationships that may improve the overall school atmosphere. Another potential benefit of pro-active circles is to resolve misunderstandings, rumors or conflicts and avoid responsive or healing circles. Attention tends to be focused on reactive circles and other restorative justice practices that are intended to replace zero tolerance policies and reduce out-of-school suspensions. Research studies and school district evaluations give less weight to talking circles and in these report cards that we have reviewed, only a handful of quotes by students are included.

Do students believe in the value of circles, dismiss them as childish or mushy kumbaya, or see this process as effective in stopping punitive discipline policies and the school-to-prison pipeline? Individual interviews with students at public high schools large and small as well as our national online scan provide a glimpse at youth perspectives. Not even the most ‘woke’ teacher or restorative justice coordinator can speak for the primary stakeholders in the classroom. What follows are the reflections and recommendations of approximately 50 students from over 15 states.

The vast majority of students described talking circles in a positive light. 

  • a different kind of smart
  • let out emotions
  • reading people’s feelings
  • actually listen
  • confidence
  • help each other out
  • respect each other’s opinions
  • listen with your heart, think with your heart
  • feel more stress-free
  • more sociable
  • feel like I’m heard
  • helps me deal with people and social situations and life

Today’s students represent the first generation to gain these face-to-face interpersonal skills that some claim are even more important given the dominance of digital human interactions. In the words of one Detroit high school student:

Everybody is changing into a better person when they have these small circles. I think all of us have learned to see in a different way and I treat people differently. The circle has made me want to go out now to the public and speak and do some good…you know help change the world!

Not all students had good things to say, for example, one 10th grader said “circles aren’t a waste of time, but they are too scripted and boring.” Student recommendations follow reflections that are organized in the following categories:

          • Creating Camaraderie
          • Connecting with School Staff
          • Confronting Controversy and Crisis
          • Gaining Skills and Confidence
          • Applying Circles Beyond School                                                                        

Click here for the full report. The Youth Activism Project plans another student listening project about conflict circles and other restorative justice practices. Please share with us your own views.

Having a teacher in circle we can connect in a personal way…I’ve gained a lot more friends. I’ve gained more confidence. I’m a little bit more outgoing.   ~ Laris (testifying at the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education)

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