The first step in building a healthy community is to turn towards one another, to shift the seating so we can see and hear each other. Circle Ways honors all traditions that support this turning. When our children learn the “art of collaboration,” they take with them a portable skill that will support them, those around them, and our home, this planet.
At Circle Ways we turn towards one another when there has been harm, because we look to heal rather than punish.
Pervasive alienation can be transformed into meaningful collaboration.
1. Social-emotional and academic learning are inextricably linked. As we grow our hearts and expand our emotional vocabulary and capacity, we deepen our understanding of academic content and experience.
As Thoreau says in his essay, “Economy”:
“Who shall say what prospect life offers to another. Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! – I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.”
2. Schools can be difficult places. There are children in urban schools who say every act of kindness is a sign of vulnerability. If we can’t learn to be kind to one another, we develop a cycle of alienation. When students are alienated, physical, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal health decline and disease results.
So, how do we restore our schools as places safe for emotional and intellectual inquiry?
3. Council is a practice of awareness and respect for each other and the natural world. When a school adopts a council practice, it grows a common infrastructure, a language and means for collaboration. Council engages all members of the school community: youth, parents, educators, administrators, counselors, shopkeepers, police, and neighborhood elders. All re-engage when we return our attention to care of the children and make the school the beating heart of our community.
4. Council: a circle, a center, a beginning and ending, and intentions. It is how we learned when we lived in villages, paying attention to one another and the world around us, listening as a matter of survival. Listening and speaking from the heart are core intentions of council practice. Council is not just sitting around talking. It is a place for play, celebration, dance, art, and music making. It is a way to celebrate, as well as to bring our concerns, our griefs and losses, our dreams, plans, and commitments. Ultimately, council is anything we do with a heightened awareness of self, other, and the world around us.
5. Every culture worldwide has some form of structured practice for meaningful, respectful dialogue. In English we say, “council,” while the Hawaiians say, “Ho’oponopono,” in Zimbabwe, “Dare,” in Lakota they say, “Oyate Omnechia”—circle of great importance. Nowadays, it is often just called “circle.”
6. When we rearrange the furniture or sit on the floor to see one another, this simple act radically changes the ways we relate and learn. While current practices in schools value bringing "relevance" to the curriculum, rarely do we give the children (or ourselves) time to reflect on experience. Reading and writing skills require developing both an appreciation for the value of one's own story and an appreciation of the stories of others. Through council, academic teachers learn to link concepts from all disciplines—including math and science—to the lived experience of the students, bringing an evolving relevance to the classroom.
7. The children teach us in these circles. They teach us about what they need, what they experience, the parameters, joys and challenges of their changing world. When we, as educators, are privy to these needs, we can respond with meaningful curriculum. Without it, we are always hopelessly behind in our service to the children.
8. For council to be authentic for the children, the adults in the school must practice with one another. The atmosphere of a school campus depends largely on the quality of adult interactions. If we ask the children to speak with authenticity and listen with respect, we must do so ourselves. When the adults in the community walk their talk, the children feel it and respond in kind. When children witness the elders meeting on their behalf, their confidence in the future is evoked. In "wisdom councils," staff, parents, and community members learn from one another. As students, staff, and parents practice council at your school, people visiting the campus feel an atmosphere of mutual respect—an environment that nurtures learning.
9. Adult participation in school-based councils requires bridge-walking between one’s humanity and one’s role. The challenge for an administrator with staff is like that of the teacher with students. As it turns out, students understand how to shift between seeing the teacher who stands and delivers and the human being who listens and learns along with everyone else! And when teachers see the humanity in their administrators, they are more, not less, likely to value the managerial responsibilities assumed by them.
10. When a relational norm is broken and harm is done, the circle is the form for “restorative” justice. As Beverly Title says, our task is to develop "accountability within a context of care.”