M. Amos Clifford
This paper describes three circles that took place in a three-day period at an elementary school campus in California. It is a narrative history told from my perspective of the circles. But it is also a story of what it is like to work with restorative circles. I have never participated in a circle without learning something new. The story below includes my view of what happened, of what I was thinking, and of some of my reflections on the process. While there is a general framework for leading circles, each one is unique and circle leadership, like art, is a process of improvisational creativity within the framework of restorative principles and circle techniques.
This story is offered with the intention that it may serve to inspire and instruct other circle leaders; but also that it might help to loosen too-tight grips on illusory notions of circle perfection, and of restorative practices omnipotence. The circles went well, but not perfectly. It is in the imperfections that the learning opportunities exist.
Sixth grade students who are soccer enthusiasts organize daily games on the playground. At first it is fun but as the weeks and months go by it becomes less fun for everyone. With no referee, games often involve long delays while teams argue over if a goal was valid or not, or who has possession of the ball after it is kicked out of bounds, and similar issues. This leads to name-calling. Lately the name-calling has started including racial slurs. There is lingering hostility after the game ends, and this has been affecting classroom climate. The trend has been toward an increase in troublesome behavior spilling over from soccer games.
Choosing teams is a challenge. There are a couple of boys who are very passionate about soccer and quite skilled; everybody wants to be on their team. Over time a losing team and a winning team have evolved. Kids on the losing team feel that it is not fair. Kids on the winning team don’t want to change things.
Wednesday Morning: The First Circle
After one of the sixth-grade teachers explained her take on the situation to a restorative practices consultant, the consultant offered to hold a circle with the boys involved in the soccer disputes. A date was set for a week later. The meeting would be held at 1:15.
The RP consultant arrived at 11:15, a bit confused about how to proceed. A lucky encounter in the office led to a planning meeting with a Student Engagement Specialist who had several days of training in restorative circles. Together, the Student Engagement Specialist and the RP consultant visited each of the three 6th grade classrooms and spoke with the teachers. They also met for 30 minutes with the principal. These meetings served to gather information and clarify what approach to use. The plan that emerged was:
A circle, as previously planned, at 1:15 on Wednesday, co-led by the Student Engagement Specialist and the consultant. Instead of including every student who plays soccer, this circle would include 8 boys who were identified by teachers, the principal, and Student Engagement Specialist as the most influential in regards to the behaviors of concern. The aim of this circle would be to support the students to come up with one or two agreements.
The next day the sixth grade soccer recess game would be held as usual. This would be a field test of the agreements made. The day after that, on Friday, there would be a larger circle involving more students who play soccer. The consultant envisioned a fishbowl-style circle, with the Wednesday group in the center and the others around the periphery. The Wednesday group would evaluate how well they kept their agreements. The outer circle would be invited to make comments and suggestions.
The circle commenced at 1:20 on Wednesday afternoon. There were nine boys and one girl in the circle, along with the Student Engagement Specialist and the consultant. The consultant prepared a list of questions for the circle adapted and condensed from the standard restorative questions. They were printed out and a copy given to each student:
The consultant opened the circle with a brief overview of its purpose. Of the 10 students present four had prior circle experience. When invited, they were able to remember the guidelines. One of them provided a talking piece.
Round 1: What do you love about soccer? Give an example from a recent game. The first round was brief and gave each student a chance to connect to what they liked about soccer, and also to connect with the group around shared values (they all liked pretty much the same things: fun, challenge, winning).
Round 2: What problems do you see in how you play soccer together? The students were very open about the problems they saw in the games. After all students had shared the RP consultant stood at the nearby whiteboard and asked the group to help remember the problems they had shared so they could be written down. The consultant recorded ideas until the group agreed that the list was complete.
There was a poignant moment during this round. When the talking piece came to the only girl in the group she held it quietly. Her posture and facial expression gave the impression of deep thoughtfulness and inner conflict. After a few moments she sighed audibly; the RP consultant had the distinct impression that she had come to a decision. She shared her perspective on the problems; but what she shared was not substantially different than what the boys who had spoken before her had shared. Again, a distinct impression: she had made a decision to withhold at least some of what she thought. This is often an indicator of wisdom; what she had considered saying may have been something that would be particularly vulnerable or that would surface issues leading to deeper conflicts. The RP consultant made a mental note to follow-up later, beginning with sharing his observation with the principal.
Round 3: What can you do personally to help make things better? In this round each student had at least one idea about how to make positive changes. At the end of the round these were written in a separate list (using a different color) on the whiteboard. Now the whiteboard included two lists: problems and solutions.
Round 4: Can we make some agreements that will help make things better for everyone? What ideas do you have? This question was done as a group discussion instead of using the talking piece. By now the circle had normed on listening when someone was speaking, and everyone was authentically engaged in the discussion.
Among the topics that were discussed was the role of referees and their importance to the game. Some of the students said the problem with referees was they sometimes made bad calls. This led to a discussion of how games would go without referees. When asked, “How would a match between two professional teams go if there were no referees?” the immediate answer was, “Chaos!”
The consultant had the impression that this was an important discussion that could support moral reasoning and development. It is an example of how conflict can become a learning opportunity, when conversations about the conflict are facilitated so everyone’s voice can be heard.
Another topic discussed was about procedures for choosing teams. One student remembered a system he had experienced with baseball, choosing markers from a box so that players were randomly assigned to teams. There was a lot of back-and-forth on this, including concerns about the best players winding up on the same team. The adults in the room offered an explanation that the nature of random selection would be that on some days there would be an unfair distribution but overall that would be evened out, so long as random assignments were made daily. It seemed that most of the students got the basic gist of this. The consultant’s impression was that this would be a great opportunity to teach some statistical reasoning around random assignment.
Another issue raised was that students would sometimes find themselves on teams with other students who they were in conflict with or didn’t like because of previous bad experiences. During this discussion the possibility emerged that perhaps even students who didn’t like each other could learn how to get along.
After about 15 minutes of discussion the consultant gave each student three post-it notes. They went to the list of ideas about agreements on the whiteboard; each used their post-its to make three votes. They were allowed to distribute their votes in any way they wished, including voting three times for one idea if they wanted. They accomplished this task very harmoniously.
Two agreements emerged as top vote-getters. After further discussion the group agreed that:
Closing Round: The circle ended with a closing round in which students were invited to share how the circle was for them. They were unanimous that it was useful, that good ideas were shared, and that they listened to each other very well.
Will the agreements stick? What can we learn from this experience?
To Be Continued... Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon.
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"Five Frameworks of Restorative Process" (1 Day Workshop)
M. Amos Clifford
Amos Clifford, Guide and Restorative Council Mentor; trainer in restorative justice, restorative dialogue with nature, and circle-keeping and the way of council; mentor.