Respect can be a surprisingly difficult topic to explore in a circle. In this post we’re going to share an easy way to engage students in some critical thinking about respect.
I’ve noticed two challenges in exploring respect in a circle. One is that the word means different things in different contexts. For example, as used within gangs and prison culture, respect goes to those who are most feared due to their capacity for inflicting violence on others. This idea of respect comes up even among school children who are apparently far removed from gang culture. Perhaps this is a reflection of the abundant revenge stories portrayed by popular media. In many films the hero earns the respect of the audience (and, in the story, self-respect as well) by destroying evil others in vividly violent ways.
Another challenge is that it is inherently difficult for younger students, like our group of sixth grade boys, to define abstract terms like "respect."
If you provide a circle prompt like, “What does respect mean to you?” it’s been my experience that many students give recursive answers that do little to clarify: “It’s like when someone, you know, respects you.”
The same applies to the question, “What is self-respect?” Students may respond, “It’s when you respect yourself.” They are searching for words, but the challenge is just beyond their capacity.
In our circle today we tried a different approach that worked very well. The circle included two leaders and 10 sixth grade boys. The boys had each participated in about a dozen prior circles and had all developed some fluency in circle participation, such as knowing and following the guidelines and respecting the talking piece. Following a brief check-in round with an update on how things have been during soccer games, the circle went as follows:
Fishbowl round: The two circle keepers, a man and woman, went to the center for a two-person circle. The prompt was, “In our work together, do you feel respected by me?” We did two rounds with this, engaging in an authentic dialogue that touched on some important issues. The students were very engaged in listening to us. It is a sad truth that many students never have an opportunity to observe and listen to two adults engaged in respectful dialogue. In my experience, they find it quite fascinating—as long as it is truly authentic, and doesn’t go on for too long.
Part of our agenda with the fishbowl round was to model respect between genders and also between generations. I am an elder man and my co-facilitator is a younger woman; this cross-generational co-facilitation strategy is intentional.
Here’s the clever prompt you’ve been waiting for. We asked the boys, “Who deserves more respect, a dog or a cat? Why?”
The boys were eager to answer this question, and were immediately as engaged as we had ever seen them in circle.
By describing why they thought one or other deserved more respect, they listed the qualities that are foundations of respect: loyalty, self-care, obedience, strength, intelligence, and so on.
The boys were unanimous in the opinion that dogs deserved more respect than cats. They had clear rationales for why. Surprisingly, it was not so much about the strength of dogs as it was about their loyalty. We decided to explore further with another round, offering a twist.
The prompt for the second round was: “Who has more self-respect, a dog or a cat?” Again, the boys were quite engaged. This time however the opinions were more diverse. Indicators of self-respect that the boys felt were specific to cats were heightened attention to self-care, the fact that they bury their feces, and they choose for themselves what to do instead of following commands of people.
Between these two rounds we had a lively and nuanced discussion about the qualities that define respect and self-respect.
Taking it Deeper
Setting the talking piece aside, I shared that there were other ways I might have asked the respect question, for example: “Men or women?” The boys discussed this for a while and agreed: “Both, but women slightly more than men because they are stronger and we depend on them, and they bring us into the world.” “Olders or Youngers?” “Both, but in different ways.”
This led to a discussion of why the question had to be “Who deserves more?” Why should we look at the issue of respect as a binary, “this or that” “either or” question? It became clear that while it may help to begin with a binary choice, if the circle is supporting deeper learning it will eventually move beyond that framework.
The boys began to see that respect is a nuanced quality, and that everyone and everything is inherently deserving of respect, perhaps of different types and different measures depending on circumstances.
Our hope is that these insights carry over into their efforts to understand themselves, to define what qualities they want to embody, and to act upon those considerations.
After 45 minutes we came to a good closure. We checked with boys on how the circle was for them, and they were unanimous again that it was very interesting and worthwhile
Notes on my internal process as a circle leader:
The “dogs vs. cats” idea came spontaneously; it was not pre-planned. I was very happy that it worked well. It generally works well for me when I trust ideas that arise spontaneously, and modify my circle lesson plan if the new ideas feel like a better fit for the moment. Circles must be responsive to what is real and actually in the field, or they will not feel authentic.
Quite a few ideas about other binary choices occurred to me. I filtered many out because of potential parental or teacher sensitivities that could lead to conflicts among adults in the community. I assume that anything we cover in circle is going to be reported by at least one student to an adult in their life, often in a garbled, out-of-context way. The topics I filtered out are important and could, in the right setting, be a basis for circle dialogues that support significant social learning and development of moral reasoning. However, these potentials do not outweigh the requirements that as circle leaders, especially from an outside agency, we be sensitive to and respectful of the social and political realities of the school, the district and its community, and the culture as a whole. Three examples of binary choices I would NOT use in this circle, given the times we are in:
Who deserves more respect…
· Republicans or democrats?
· Wealthy people or poor people?
· Christians or Muslims?
I hope this report is helpful to you. Please share your thoughts in the comments. What are some ways you might explore the concept of "respect" with your classroom?
Amos Clifford, Guide and Restorative Council Mentor; trainer in restorative justice, restorative dialogue with nature, and circle-keeping and the way of council; mentor.