Varieties of Circle Formats
There are various ways to use circles, and specific forms have evolved to support different circumstances. This section discusses some of the forms that circles take. This section also includes a selection of tried-and-true circles that help build community. Use these in between the lessons in Part 3, as needed.
In a basic circle everyone sits facing the center. Apart from an (optional) decorative center piece, there should be no obstructions, such as desks or tables. The circle is started with a reminder of the guidelines and agreements, followed by a check-in round. A talking piece is used for the check-in round and the following rounds. The leader can ask for a volunteer to take the talking piece and begin; it is then passed around the circle in a clockwise direction (having an agreed-upon direction prevents confusion). Some students may pass; when this happens, after the talking piece has been passed back to the first person, the leader can ask, “Would anyone who passed like to share?” Very often most or all of those who passed will raise their hands. Going clockwise, the talking piece is passed to each one in turn. At the end of the circle the talking piece is passed again for a closure round in which students may comment on their experience in the circle.
Like a basic circle, but often without a talking piece and without going around in sequence. Students may raise their hands when they are ready to share, and the leader can call upon them in “popcorn” sequence (no particular order). A variation is to challenge students to speak in popcorn fashion without raising their hands, so long as they do not speak over or interrupt each other. This helps develop sensitivity to the group. Another variation is to use a talking piece; it is placed in the center and when someone is ready to speak they go to the center and pick it up. When they are finished they may either put it back in the center, or hold it in front of them until someone else requests it. You might use this instead of a basic circle when it is not so important that every student speaks. It is also a good choice for when there is limited time for responding to a prompting question.
Fishbowl Circle (aka Witness Circle)
Form a basic circle and check in. Then invite volunteers or a selected group to form a smaller circle in the center; in a class of 24 students, invite 4-6 into the center. Those who are not in the center are instructed that they are active in the circle in the “witness” role. The circle dialogue is conducted with those in the center; a talking piece may be used but is optional. Those in the outer circle stay silent until they are asked for witness comments. Witness comments may be elicited at any point during the circle, and should always be elicited at the end of the circle. Ask witnesses to make observations about the circle: how it functioned, if it was effective, what could be done differently. Often it is possible during a 45 minute circle to have two or three groups in the center, particularly if response time is being limited and monitored (see “response circles” below).
In a feedback circle the person speaking is given a limited time to share, and the person to speak next is given the responsibility of timing them. For example, the rule may be “share for two minutes.” (Sharing time of 5 or 10 minutes is possible in smaller groups). The next person uses a watch to time, and warns when one minute has passed and when two minutes is reached. After the share, the entire circle can be given a similar amount of time to give feedback. If the time allotted for feedback is two minutes, this can be one person speaking for two minutes, two speaking for one minute each, and so on. Move on when the two minutes are up.
For this circle-in-a-circle, ask every other student to move their chairs a few feet into the center of the circle, then to turn them around so they are facing another student, forming pairs. Give the circle a question to work with, and have each person in each pair respond. After a few minutes, ring a bell or give some other signal. Instruct the outer circle to leave their chairs where they are, and move to the left two seats. This creates new pairs. Students find themselves talking with other students who they don’t normally interact with. When teachers participate in the circle there is opportunity to connect with many students quickly. After a couple of rounds, when it’s time for students to move you can ring the bell and call out “bump!” and students will know what to do.
Small Group/Student Circle Leaders
When there is a large group with a lot to share, it can work well to meet in multiple smaller circles of 4-8 students each. The basic circle with talking piece is best suited for this. Before moving into small groups explain what the question and ask if the students will agree to stay focused. The success of this type of circle is supported by designating student leaders for each circle, and making sure each leader has a talking piece. Small group circles work best with students who have considerable experience in circle and in classrooms in which there is high compliance with circle guidelines and agreements. When student leaders are involved consider making enough time to have a fishbowl circle with the leaders in the center. Ask the leaders to reflect on what worked well in the circle, what challenges arose, and what they learned that they can carry forward when leading circles in the future.