The survey (PISA 2015, vol.3)reported that students who feel they are accepted and liked by the rest of the group and feel connected to others and part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and are motivated to learn .
Eric David Harris and Dylan Bennet Klebold were both seniors in high school who ended up shooting 13 people and wounding 24, before they committed suicide, at Columbine High School on 20 April 1999. Apparently the two boys had met in 7th grade and become inseparable friends. Some described them as outsiders, yet others claimed they were bullied. What is evident is that the two, over the years, kept to themselves, gathered weapons and searched the internet for information on how to make bombs and explosives until it culminated in the tragic school massacre in Columbine, Colorado.
Could the tragic accident at Columbine High School have been avoided if adults in their life had engaged and spoken with the boys and heard what they had to say? Could the feeling of being outsiders, and the feeling of not belonging culminate in such hatred towards their fellow students?
As a teacher in lower and upper secondary, I could enter the classroom and sense immediately that something had happened, and that the students needed to talk about it. Trying to skip discussing the incident in class and move on to academic would not work if I wanted the students to learn. Their minds would not be ready to tune in as they were preoccupied with what had happened.
One of my concerns as a teacher was to make sure that I heard the voice of every student in my class every day.
It is easy to attend to the ones that act out and crave attention, but what about the quiet girl or boy who do not speak? How can we help these students to speak up in class?
I interviewed a young girl who was very shy and never spoke in class. She admitted she had lost self confidence, but even worse , she felt that her peers did not really care about her. Even teachers forgot to call on her in class or notice that she was there. Research has found that extreme shyness can eventually lead to mental distress, depressions and dropping out of school. (Lund, 2008).
After class I would reflect and think about which of my students’ voice I had not heard today or yesterday? Here is an easy exercise to do to make you remember your students. Roll out a piece of string or yarn bout 30-35 cm long. Tie a knot in one end. The knot symbolises the teacher. Then add every students’ name in the order you feel you know your students.
You can consider how much interaction you have had with every one of your students, and if you have heard the voice of the student. There always seems be one or two students that go under the radar. It makes you explicitly ask yourself: how do these students feel?
In 2015, 72 countries participated in the PISA, The Programme for International Student Assessment survey. The survey reported that students who feel they are accepted and liked by the rest of the group and feel connected to others and part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and are motivated to learn (PISA 2015, vol.3).
So how to bring all of this together?
When I came across using circles with the students, it all fell into place. I finally found the practical toolkit I so desperately needed as a teacher. The mindset of Restorative Practices, is synonymous with human rights values and thus aligns with my own beliefs.
When students sit in a circle and every person speaks, one at a time, it has an impact on every individual and on the group dynamics. It is easy to organise, and provides the class with a framework and a structure for tuning in for the day; for discussing matters students are concerned about; and topics that might be brought up. It can also just be fun and letting off steam.
As a teacher you build your own repertoir of ways of conducting a circle with your students. Start with small steps and build your own private toolkit from there.
Costello, B., Wachtel, J. and Wachtel, T. (2010). Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning. Betlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices.
Follestad, B. and Wroldsen, N. (2019). Using Restorative Circles in Schools. How to Build Strong Learning Communities and Foster Student Wellbeing. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hopkins, B. (2013). Just Schools: A Whole School Approach to Restorative Justice. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Lund, I. (2008). ‘I just sit there: shyness as an emotional and behavioural problem at school.’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs.8 (2), 78-87.
Pranis, K. (2005). The Little Book of Circle Process. A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking. New York: Good Books.
Zehr, H. (2002). The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore
Pisa Report 2015: http://www.oecd org/pisa.
Nina Wroldsen has many year’s experience using restorative circles as a school teacher and school leader. She has lectured internationally on the field of restorative processes and is the co-author of several text books for secondary schools on the use of restorative practices in education. Nina serves on the election committee and is a former board member of Safe Learning, Norway. She is a member of the Working Group for Schools for The European Forum for Restorative Justice and she is currently the principal of an IB public school in Oslo.
PETA BLOOD 18 Apr 2021 13:21
Thank you Nina, for highlighting the importance of hearing everyone’s voice. If we don’t provide the safe space and forum for people to communicate, we will only hear the dominate voices who overshadow the quieter ones or those who have something going on for them.
It calls to mind the students who are carer’s for one or both parents due to chronic mental health, physical health and/or substance abuse issues. The sheer act of getting to school after looking after a parent and/or younger siblings is a challenge in itself, let alone anyone knowing what is going on for them. In a busy and large classroom, their stories are often not known, until someone notices and has that conversation.
CHRIS STRAKER 21 Apr 2021 22:26
Thanks Nina, as we say here in Hull: only connect! The power of circles to do that is important.
KIRSTY FERGUSON 22 Apr 2021 04:40
Kia ora Nina, Thanks for your beautiful and thoughtful blog. I was a little startled at the reminder of Columbine but to be curious about what sits beneath our children’s behaviour is so central to our work as educators. I remember reading somewhere that “every behaviour we have is something we have learned to keep ourselves safe”, to observe and connect with our students so that we might understand the origins of behaviour and to work alongside our young ones, as you have talked about to see if the behaviours still meets its purpose, at the same time as strengthening connections- love circles. Thank you.
MARG THORSBORNE 3 May 2021 19:13
Thank you Nina. The rules about being human are so fundamental and so biological – to know we matter and that we belong. I wish circles were more a “normal” part of school life so that it could stop “othering”, and bring the under-the-radar kids into the light.
ANDREW BALLIN 10 May 2021 14:53
That is so true Marg. So much of what happens in everyday classrooms is about belonging, and so much time is spent “disarming the threat” and trying to get through curriculum, it’s completely normalised for “those” kids to stay under the radar unless there is something like circle time to provide space and opportunity for voice. Thanks for your blog Nina, the activity you suggested with the knots in the piece of string as absolute gold! Once you actually do that activity, you become much more aware of your own unconscious biases. I use it in a session on favouritism in classrooms and it is very powerful!
Anonymous 9 May 2021 16:16
One of the greatest things about building a practice of circle time is witnessing how much the students grow to love it. It really does make a difference to classroom culture. One of my RJ teachers always spoke about circles as building relationships that are worth repairing. Thanks for highlighting the critical link between educational outcomes and belonging at school…connection matters.