[Inspired by a real circle story as told to me by the circle keeper; identifying information and details changed.]
Taisha was a young lady with passion.
On their good days, the staff and teachers at Taisha’s school reminded themselves that this was a positive – that she cared about things – that she was ENGAGED.
On other days, the feeling was that Taisha required a lot of work from a lot of people and that she was always complaining about SOMETHING.
At first, this conflict seemed like another one of those many “complaints”.
Mr. Artsy was in charge of the bulletin board by the cafeteria, which had monthly inspirational themes. The March theme was “Stronger Together” and had quotes about working together, collaboration, and team work.
During passing time, Taisha saw Mr. Artsy stapling a picture to the board of multi-cultural hands clasped together.
“You should add a Black Lives Matter sign to that board” she said to Mr. Artsy.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mr. Artsy said, smiling at Taisha to indicate it was nothing personal.
“It’s not part of the theme. It’s a whole different thing. Not for this month. Shouldn’t you be getting to class?”
Making a disdainful face, Taisha stomped away down the hall to the office of Ms. Open, one of the school’s social workers.
“Taisha, honey, that board is Mr. Artsy’s domain,” Ms. Open said kindly. “I am sure he has a vision for it that he has thought out carefully. We are not going to butt into it.”
“I’m not butting in. This is important. His sign says Stronger Together and BLM is all about that. So what’s the problem?”
“Taisha, the bell just rang and you gotta get to class. Why don’t you let this one go?” Ms. Open advised.
“I am NOT letting it go. This is bullshit! You are all racist! I am going to go to the school board about this!”
Ms.Open gave a tired sigh and tried to listen underneath instead of reacting to Taisha’s tone and threatening words.
“Taisha, I hear this is important to you. That you care about this movement. I also want you to get to class and be able to focus. How about we have a restorative circle about it during your study hall tomorrow so we can all hear each other out? And problem solve together?”
To Ms. Open’s surprise, Taisha said that would work for her.
Ms. Open, who had been learning to be a circle keeper, agreed to facilitate. She was following Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circle process, in which the circle keeper supports dialogue by preparing all parties ahead of time and checking for understanding during the circle.
She met with Taisha the next morning and used a Self-Reflection sheet to help explore underlying feelings and needs. Ms. Open then met with Mr. Artsy and did the same, with an adult version of the sheet.
After that, Ms. Open confided in Ms. Supportive (a teaching assistant) and Ms. Wise (a teacher), since they both connected well with Taisha and were also learning to be circle keepers. Ms. Open shared with them the feelings and needs she heard in the prep meetings and invited them to the circle.
In the circle, Taisha and Mr. Artsy did most of the talking, and things seemed to be going nowhere.
“If we put Black Lives Matter up there we also need to put up Women’s Lives Matter and Immigrant Lives Matter and GLBTQ lives matter. And on and on.”
“What are you hearing, Taisha?” Ms. Open said.
“That he doesn’t care about black people. That he wants to stand up for everybody so he stands up for NOBODY.”
“Is that it? Is that what you wanted heard?” Ms. Open said calmly.
“No. That is NOT it,” Mr. Artsy said in an irritated voice. “I want you to know that I am trying to watch out for the needs of the WHOLE school is all.”
“What do you hear now?” Ms. Open said.
“That other people’s needs are more important than my needs,” Taisha said.
When it was Mr. Artsy’s turn to listen, things went no better.
“What do you hear Taisha saying, Mr. Artsy?”
“That she only cares about her project and not about the opinions or struggles of other people.”
“Is that right, Taisha?”
“This is bullshit! He is putting words in my mouth. This circle is stupid!”
“Well, I don’t think you really want to find a win-win,” Mr. Artsy retorted. “I think you just want your way and you’re using the circle to try and get it.’
And so it went from there, with Ms. Wise and Ms. Supportive adding almost nothing. When the bell rang, Taisha was pouting with her hands crossed defensively while Mr. Artsy sat in stony silence with his lips pursed.
“How about we all re-group and continue this tomorrow” Ms. Open said, feeling drained.
After everyone left the office, Ms. Open emailed me asking for a quick consultation call.
“Ok, I think I see the issue,” I told Ms. Open after a few minutes of explanation. “Ms. Wise and Ms. Supportive are acting like silent co-facilitators. Because you did not have prep meetings with them and because you confided in them about how both Mr. Artsy and Taisha were feeling, I think they felt like fellow circle keepers and were being careful not to take sides with a heated topic.”
“I think your circle would benefit from having them become official circle participants who can speak openly as themselves any time. In fact, they are probably your missing link to the circle becoming a true circle. If possible, they need to both be prepped by tomorrow and come back to the circle as PARTICIPANTS.”
“Also,” I added, “remember that even though you want to be multi-partial – you can still support understanding when participants get stuck, by letting them know the feelings and needs YOU hear underneath – and checking if that’s correct.”
Armed with increased clarity, Ms. Open went back to Ms. Supportive and Ms. Wise and explained the plan, asking each of them to prep the OTHER using the adult Self-Reflection sheets.
The next day, despite the difficult start, everyone gathered at the office again. Ms. Open brought candy bars to sweeten the deal.
With Ms. Supportive and Ms. Wise speaking up as participants, and Ms. Open helping people hear each other when they got stuck, the circle had a lot more movement. In fact, it felt to Ms. Open that they actually HAD accomplished a lot of ground work the previous day, even though it FELT like no one had been listening.
After some mutual understanding and empathy was built among them, participants began to create agreements for moving forward.
“How about an All Lives Matter sign?” Mr. Artsy offered.
Seeing Taisha’s face, Ms. Wise stepped in.
“Hmmm. I don’t think that really speaks to what’s in Taisha’s heart. How about one of those Hate Has No Home Here signs in many languages?”
Both Mr. Artsy and Taisha looked resigned. It didn’t quite feel like a win-win yet.
“I have a friend who makes these Etsy signs,” Ms. Supportive said, “In This House We Believe…” and you can add any lines you want to it. Why don’t we make a version of In This School We Believe…“
“Hey. That would be pretty cool,” Taisha said, “We can get all the students to add to it!”
“And the teachers and staff!” added Mr. Artsy with a smile.
“We can go around to homerooms to get people’s ideas!” continued Taisha.
“We will need to check it out with the principal, but that sounds good to me,” Mr. Artsy said.
Everyone agreed to talk about the details after talking with the principal – and the participants left satisfied and connected.
“What I really like,” Ms. Open said to me on the phone afterwards, “is how Taisha is going to use her passion to organize something positive in the school that actually supports the spirit of Mr. Artsy’s bulletin board – Stronger Together!”
In my last post – What Do Students Really Need – I shared the surprising brain science behind human connection.
For instance, we now know that students who feel that they belong in their school, are included by their peers, and have connection with even one caring adult, are more likely to succeed and thrive.
This week we share three specific ways educators can increase this sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection in their settings.
We call these strategies Breaking Good.
The last thing we may want to do is share a meal with a child (or adult!) with whom we are struggling. Our natural reaction in these cases is to avoid them as much as possible.
In addition, breakfast and lunch are precious times for educators to prep, have some down-time, and do self-care.
However, sharing a “no pressure” meal can turn around a challenging relationship. Sitting down with kids at lunch or inviting them into your space for a quick bite allows you get to know each other in a new light.
One teacher, after one of our workshops, chose a specific child with whom she was having a hard time, and started having a casual lunch with him weekly. A month later, she was already reaping the benefits of their meals through greater connection and less struggles during class.
A weekly meal can also be a way to re-connect a small group of kids who are having a rough patch with each other. Another teacher in a Conflict 180 school started having a weekly lunch with a group of five girls who were friends, but often had small skirmishes in school. One week, when the teacher could not make it, the girls asked if they could still have lunch together, maybe with another adult, as the Friday meals were really helping them build peace with each other.
Of course, it is important to be mindful and fair about who is being invited, so this does not become another way to leave out the same marginalized kids. Another teacher, after a class circle that let him know his kids needed to get to know each other better as people, created a rotating schedule to have lunch with four of his kids every Friday. This way, he wound up having a casual lunch with everyone in his class about twice a semester.
Whether you’d like to improve a relationship with a student or a colleague, food is the universal language of care and connection.
Give it a try and have fun with it!
We all know that Ice-breaking activities are helpful in the beginning of the school year to help build a classroom community.
However, ice-breakers can be a life-saver well beyond the first week of school.
Activities that let kids and adults get to know each other promote social bonding and team-building throughout the year. This can be particularly useful as things start to get tough and class morale breaks down.
Some teachers use a short ice-breaker once a week (usually on Fridays) to keep the wheels of connection in their class lubricated.
Others break out the ice-breakers as an intervention for tough times.
For instance, one teacher told me that she finds January to be a difficult time for her kids and she uses ice-breakers liberally after they return from break.
It’s important to remember that not all ice-breakers are created equal. Try to choose activities that help vulnerable kids feel safe and free from teasing, especially in a class where relational aggression is present.
Here are a three suggestions from Cult of Pedagogy:
As with all other team-building activities, have fun and choose something you actually want to do with them! After all, part of the goal is connection with YOU.
For building classroom community and a sense of cohesion, the formation that works best is a circle or U shape – where people can see each other’s faces.
Many classrooms around the country are experimenting with using circles to learn academics, from Spanish to Social Studies to Writing, as described in the book “Circle Forward” by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.
Of course, circles are not ideal for every learning activity.
Studies have shown that, for doing independent work, students seated in rows stay on task better and work more diligently.
For classroom discussions and cooperative learning activities, students benefit from sitting in circles (or semi-circles).
Students seated in circles and semi-circles for cooperative learning activities have been found to:
Circles also allow students to see each other’s faces during vulnerable or sensitive discussions (e.g., about gender, race, identity), creating more openness and less friction.
In many classrooms, learning in a circle even once a week has made a big difference in increasing engagement, reducing classroom struggles, and improving student connection.
Let us know how it goes!
In February, many of us were grieving the tragic loss of life in Florida. I hope it will still support some of you.
1. Limit exposure to footage
We want to watch and read about tragic events because we think more information will help us deal with them. However, repeated exposure to violent and upsetting content actually de-stabilizes us, increases our stress, and makes us LESS resilient over time. Get the information you need and move on to other strategies to support yourself and your kids, such as assuring them that schools are still safe places (while acknowledging that we all may FEEL nervous or scared or upset at the same time).
2. Support Expression of Feelings
Our tendency is sometimes to minimize kids’ feelings after a difficult event, telling them “it’s ok” or “don’t worry” or asking them to focus on something else as a distraction. While this is natural, feelings are guideposts to important unmet needs and values. Part of recovery is focusing on those feelings and understanding that they mean we have values that matter – and that is a good thing.
Begin with a moment of silence for all those who are affected by the violence in Florida and around the world. The truth is that violent acts happen every day in many communities around us, often involving young people, and do not get acknowledged in many cases.
You can then center an activity around a Feelings List like this one from CNVC – for instance, trying to identify all the different feelings we have after something awful happens. We can remind kids that all feelings are normal and ok – including relief, sadness, anger, and even numbness (which might be a way to protect one’s heart) – and that tears are just an indication that something is important to us.
3. Focus on Common Values Instead of Looking for Blame
In the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s natural to want to focus on what went wrong and who failed whom and how. However, this does not actually help kids (or ourselves) heal or move forward in a productive way.
Instead, help kids realize that underneath we are all connected by the same human values and needs, such as the need for safety, community, connection, belonging, love, and family. Again, you can do an activity using a Needs List like this one from CNVC to show how in tough times we are all one community coming together around the same desires.
4. Channel Feelings into Positive Actions
This is a chance for your kids and you to come together and support each other and use your feelings of helplessness, fear or grief to do something positive. This helps everyone feel more empowered and less hopeless.
Begin by modeling good self-care by showing them that you have processed your own feelings with others and are giving yourself extra chicken soup for the soul today. Ask them what chicken soup for the soul would look like for each of them today?
In a similar vein, you can come up with a list of things we all do to help us get through tough times and post them around your home or classroom.
Then, turning outwards, you can make cards or write letters to the staff and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and send them to the principal. You can make handprints or leaves or hearts with positive messages and send them to Florida or hang them around your home or classroom. You can pray or send loving kindness to the people who have been affected by this, listing them one by one (students, staff, students who were injured, students who were killed, families who were affected, the family of the young man, and depending on your spiritual beliefs, the young man himself).
You can also ask kids what they would like to do, if anything, giving them some examples. The important thing is to model that during tough times we focus on expanding our hearts by being open about our feelings and being loving – and remembering that we are part of a bigger whole.
Other resources from the web
Life as a teacher or parent can be hard, and we need all the help we can get being more loving, patient, and compassionate.
In the first issue in our Love series, I explored how experiencing our negative feelings can create more love and wellbeing for us.
In this issue, I want to share a practice that we used to do with our kids at home regularly (we need to pick it up again!). This practice, called “loving kindness meditation” or “metta” has been shown by multiple studies to increase our compassion, kindness, and social connections.
Metta asks us to send kind thoughts to ourselves, people we know, people we may not know, and even a person with whom we are having difficulties.
Monks and serious practitioners who have done loving kindness meditation for 10,000 hours or more can have significantly more activation in the empathy and emotion areas of their brains via MRI scans.
However, even 10 minute of loving kindness meditation a day has been shown to increase people’s feelings of social connection and positivity towards strangers.
Metta even helps people experience less interpersonal bias.
This month I’ve been exploring the concept of love and wondering about how to have a more open heart.
This three part series shares three ways I have re-remembered (with the help of others) how to bring more love into my life.
When I get particularly busy, as I did earlier this month, I find myself going a bit into “robot” mode, getting things done and putting out fires at the cost of feeling less connected to myself and others.
Talking with my friend Lyndsey of Rantoul Yoga, who’s also exploring being a more loving being, we re-remembered that one of the ways we block out love is by blocking out expressions of negative feelings like sadness and grief. By hardening myself to the deep sadness of what’s happening around me (and within me), I also harden my heart to feeling love for others.
Kit Miller of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence says that she does not know how to numb herself to pain without also numbing herself to joy and love. Somehow, these emotions are yoked within our system and closing the valve on one closes down the whole thing.
Miki Kashtan of Fearless Heart says that moving towards our despair rather than avoiding it allows our hearts to expand, to hold more without collapsing.
Of course, this concept is supported by neuroscience, as explored in the movie Inside Out – where Joy could not survive without the help of Sadness.
The invitation is not wallow in sorrow or sink into deep depression.
On the contrary, we are talking about allowing ourselves to experience and express short bouts of pain in a healthy manner.
So – how do we move towards sadness in a way that expands our hearts? How do we feel the pain of our lives – and of the world – without losing ourselves in it?
One way that my explorations have led to this month is to have a good cry (or even private car-bound scream) regularly. Crying has several health benefits, including stress reduction and mood improvement, even for people crying at a sad movie. The U.K. and Japan have taken this to heart (not pun intended) and created “crying clubs or classes” in which people can weep in the company of others.
I am reminded of a story a friend told me about John, a hospice worker who managed to hold the pain and loss of others with extraordinary care and tenderness for many decades, without burning out or contracting away. When asked about his secret, John replied without hesitation that the only reason he can do the work he does in the way he does it is because he makes sure to have a good cry EVERY DAY.
My tendency when things get rough is the opposite: to lock myself away from the tragic news of the world, to hide my heart behind a thick curtain and protect it from suffering (one of my preferred strategies is losing myself within a good fantasy novel).
However, I know that hiding from pain actually shrinks my heart, rather than expanding it wide enough to allow both sorrow and love to live within.
Since being reminded of this pathway to love, I’ve been practicing little moments of grief – and already I feel myself softening into more tenderness and care for those in my life.
“So – I can’t believe it – but my class had a successful conversation about cell phone use last week!”
Ms. Tryit, a 7th grade teacher at one of the Conflict 180 schools, was beaming as she told me her story.
“So we had been experimenting with check-in circles and temperature checks in the beginning of class – maybe for a month? First they acted like they didn’t really like it, but when we didn’t do it, they would ask – are we gonna do temperature checks today?”
“Well – you know how the cell phone use drives me crazy around here. Nothing was working. Reminders. Referrals. Threats. Calls home. And every teacher in the school has their own rules.”
“I was so tired of it. Well – I remember what you said – just try it – you can’t break this. So I thought I’d just go for it.”
“I got them all together and after the usual temperature check I told them I wanted to talk about something important.”
“I introduced the topic and explained how I wanted to do the discussion. First we went around and said how we feel about the cell phone use NOW, what our HOPES are for cell phone use, and then how we wanted to move FORWARD. Then it was kind of popcorn from there.”
“I couldn’t believe it! It was a great discussion. I mean these are kids who never listen to each other. And the most amazing part is that THEY said it was distracting and needed to stop!”
“We agreed that students would have five minutes of phone use at the end of class if their work was done. And they came up with their own rules that were tougher than my rules would be. They decided how many reminders there would be and then I would take away the phone for a week!”
“That was Friday. And this week has been the best week ever!”
“I mean it has been SO PEACEFUL. Every time I see someone using the phone I just gently remind them about the agreements we made. And it’s really working so far.”
“I’m guessing it won’t last for ever and we will need to have another conversation at some point. Also, I think taking the phone away for a week is too long so we may need to adjust that. But let me tell you. I am really enjoying my class right now. For the first time in a long time.”
Thank you to Ms. Tryit for sharing her true story with us. You too can be brave like her and just Tryit.
The Restorative Hack below was brought to you by a teacher from a different Conflict 180 school.
Ms. Creatit printed out the 4-Card Restorative Kit from Conflict180/Resources, laminated the cards, and hung them on rings. When she saw me, she was excited about it.
“I love my cards and use them all the time. Thank you so much for making them!”
Ms. Creatit was too modest to have her name listed here. However, she sent me a photo to pass on her hack to you.
It’s helpful to remember that gratitude practices increase motivation, improve mood, and shift dynamics between people. As one teacher told me this week “After I did this gratitude practice in my class, it changed the whole day. It was one of the better days lately.”
This particular Gratitude practice comes from the true story of Mark Eklund and Sister Helen, published in Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul, and even put to music by David Roth.
I can attest to the power of this practice, as I have used it with my kids and nieces and nephews – and they treasure their Appreciation lists. Our son, who is 15, still fondly looks at his list from his 9th birthday.
A grownup variation of this practice is to do an Appreciation circle out loud – for instance, appreciating the office staff – and have a note taker write the appreciations down and type up the list for them later.
Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or both, parent-teacher conferences do not have to be stressful. Instead, they can be an opportunity for everyone to get on the same page on how to best support our children.
This is because, underneath all the facts, figures, and rubrics, we care about the same fundamental things.
We want to support kids in values such as:
We want to have adults in the kids’ live who can:
The other thing we share as a “team” of adults are underlying feelings – such as WORRY, FEAR, CONCERN, HOPE, CONFUSION, and GRATITUDE.
These fundamental SHARED VALUES and SHARED FEELINGS can create a connecting language for us during parent-teacher meetings.
1. SPEAK IN VALUES
When YOU speak, tell the other adult what is important to you UNDERNEATH rather than focusing on your JUDGMENTS of them or their actions.
2. LISTEN FOR VALUES
When THEY speak, say back to them the SHARED VALUES and FEELINGS you hear – even if they are speaking in judgments. This gives them the sense of being heard at a deeper, connecting level.
TEACHER SPEAKING IN JUDGMENTS: The main issue is that John is talking too much (judgment). He is a bright kid (judgment) but he needs to stop (judgment). I have talked to him several times and he’s continuing (observation). It’s actually disrespectful to me (judgment) and the whole class (judgment).
TEACHER SPEAKING IN SHARED VALUES: I’m worried about John (feeling) because he is a bright young man (judgment) and his talking is getting in the way of his learning (shared value) and other people’s learning (shared value). I want him to be able to express himself (shared value) but I also want him to know (shared value) when it is time to settle down and work (shared value). Do you know what I mean? (inviting parent as ally)
PARENT LISTENING FOR JUDGMENTS: “I think you are being too harsh on John. I know other boys in that class are always talking too, but they don’t get in trouble.” [hearing judgment of John and responding defensively]
PARENT LISTENING FOR SHARED VALUES: “So you are worried about John talking because you want him to be able to succeed in your class? And for all the other students to be able to learn?” [hearing the judgment but then looking one level deeper to see what shared values are also there – and then saying which shared values you heard out loud]
You only have a few minutes. If you can connect quickly on shared values, you can be more creative in finding an action plan that works – and that will feel more like a win-win.
Many people tell me this sounds intriguing but they could use a little help with listening for feelings and values. This way of communicating is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication (NVC).
This handout lists common feelings and values (called needs there) on one page. More thorough lists are available at Conflict180.com/Resources.