Equity in Action Spotlight #2

Faculty Info

Name: Danna Lomax
Academic Program: School of Education: Credential Program
Average Number of students per section: 30
Featured Course:

  • EDSS 533: Teaching English In Middle Schools

Had you taught online prior to the rapid shift to virtual instruction in response to COVID-19? 

Yes, for 3 years prior.

What practice or technique have you implemented in your course?

Community Circle is a practice of fostering teacher-student and student-student relationships in the classroom. Sometimes referred to as “talking circles”, the objective of this practice is to collectively create a space in which students can tell their stories. Circles are more about our feelings and our experiences than our thoughts. Be using this approach, students and instructors have the opportunity to learn about each other in meaningful ways.

In Community Circle, students are seated in a circle, or for virtual settings, students’ names are placed in a circle on a graphic organizer. Since one person’s lived experiences are no more valuable than those of others, an important premise of Circle is that it is non-hierarchical. As a result, the instructor is the facilitator of the process and an equal participant.

There are 7 main guidelines for this practice:

  1. Listen from the heart. (Practice suspending judgment. Listen to understand.)
  2. Speak from the heart. (Practicing suspending judgment. Trust that you know what to say.) Participants never have to speak they may pass. Also, circle is not a dialogue. There is no discussion or comments like, “Yeah, I get that.” The only way one can show agreement in circle is with jazz hands or snaps, both of may which feel odd at first, but become second nature in this practice.
  3. Respect the talking stick. In face to face circles, a talking stick is passed around the circle. Whoever holds the talking stick has the floor. When they finish speaking they pass the item to the next person. In virtual Circles, when a person has finished speaking they show that they have finished by saying, “I pass to (next person’s name)”.
  4. Be spontaneous. (Trust that you will know what to say.)
  5. Say just enough. (For the sake of time, say what you need to say, and be aware of air time.)
  6. Respect confidentiality.
  7. Know that we are mandated reporters.

The format of circle is: Open Circle, Speed-rounds, Deeper Questions, Witness Round, Closing, and Debrief. The opening of Circle signifies that the class is participating in a very specific experience in which the guidelines above are in place. Students may clap together to open circle, stomp their feet, or chorally repeat a word. Once the Circle is open, the facilitator asks a series of previously prepared questions. These questions generally start out with fun, light questions or games and scale up Bloom’s taxonomy into deeper questions. Some practitioners of Circle use poems or texts and ask students what line stands out for them or what the text reminds them of from their own experience. One by one, students respond to the prompt or pass. After all the questions have been asked, participants hold a witness round. In the witness rounds, students show that they were listening by restating something from the Circle that resonated with them. I often offer the language frame, “I heard someone say…..” They do not explain why they chose to share what they heard. They simply bear witness to what was said. Then the Circle is closed. Again, claps, snaps, stomps, or choral responses may be used to close the Circle. Closing the Circle signifies that the experience has ended. Afterwards, students debrief the experience with the instructor.

Invariably, students are grateful for this social and emotional learning opportunity in which we build community as class. This has been especially true during the pandemic when so many of us are longing for connection during isolation.

Why did you choose this approach?

I choose to utilize Community Circles because I want my classroom to be student-centered. Circle clearly places students’ stories in the center of the learning experience. This practice models how we teachers can move away from what Freire calls the banking model of education in which teachers assume their students’ are devoid of knowledge and thus work to “deposit” knowledge in the students’ minds. We know that students’ are not blank slates. They come with their own backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences. This practice is one of communication in which students have the opportunity to share the unique knowledge and perspective they bring to our classrooms. In addition, I want to know my students, and Circle offers a space for us to get to know each other and hear multiple perspectives. Finally, I employ circle because it helps students feel engaged and motivated. John Hattie’s work shows the importance of teacher-student and student-student relationships in fostering engagement and academic achievement.

How have students responded to this practice or technique?

Students LOVE circle. They are so grateful to have a chance to get to know each other in a structured way at the beginning of the course. After a circle last week, one student said, “I have been in classes with many of you, and I have seen many of you around. But this is the first time I felt like I got to know you.” For many students, being online does not offer the social interaction they were hoping for in college. Circles helps students connect in ways that can be challenging at this time.

When courses resume on our physical campus, will this practice transfer to your in-person classes? If so, why?

This practice was designed for face-to-face interaction, but it has been easy to transfer to the online setting using the circle graphic.

Which 3 resources and/or tools do you consider essential to effective virtual instruction?

One thought on “Equity in Action Spotlight #2

  1. Thank you for sharing this information about Community Circles and accompanying resources, Danna! Your wisdom about the kinds of things that are truly important in the classroom (and in life) and your passion for helping students to connect with those things and with each other have been inspiring me since I met you in 2006. You inspire me still.

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