After his introduction in 2011 to Peacemaking Circles through the Center for Ethical Leadership, Director of Intercultural Affairs Jabali Stewart understood deeply the power of Peacemaking Circles to transform communities. He knew that transformation needed to be intentional and deliberate; it takes time—there is no quick fix. And so, intentional and deliberate he has been over these last eight years, and we have been building a strong foundation of circle processes in our community that will serve and sustain us in the long run.
Simultaneously, “Restorative Justice” has emerged on the national scene, both in the legal system and in schools, as a possible solution to the many instances of conflict and harm. As a part of those Restorative Practices, Conflict (or Repairing Harm) Circles were identified as a way to move from punitive responses to restorative responses. There has been an increase in demand for support, materials, and instruction on how to integrate these practices into a school community. Unfortunately, it is very challenging to implement these types of circles into a community without substantive support; these circles are part of a larger frame of circles that need to be in place to equip a community with the skills, language, practices, and vision to support the success of conflict and harm circles.
Kay Pranis, a Circle Keeper who got her start in Restorative Circles in the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 1994 and has been practicing Circle since, explains this idea through the use of a pyramid.
The first tier, creating positive school culture, requires that all students and all adults sit together in a circle on a regular basis. This regular practice gives everyone in the community the skills to practice a different kind of communication and explore how we can live well together. Community members then have access to these skills all of time, all day long! It helps to create a healthy community. The second tier works on situations where there has been a minor disruption in a relationship(s) that needs addressing. This could be a conflict between two students, a family loss, or a transition, like a move. The third tier supports major disruptions in a community, such as major bullying, the death of a community member, or when major harm caused. In these cases, the entire community is impacted and great care must be taken in rebuilding after such an instance.
There are roughly ten types of circles that fit into these three tiers:
Celebration Circles: Used for anything needing celebrating: goal completions, birthdays, or graduations. At Bush, in the lower school, teachers use circles at the end of each week for appreciations and gratitude circles for birthdays. They also use circles to celebrate student progress as writers. At Upper School Graduation, we use a variation of a Quaker Circle to honor the time that students have spent at the school.
Learning Circles: Used to learn and understand a new thing and it can be used for reflection after learning. At Bush, we use learning circles in the classroom for content and also as a way to train new circle keepers.
Community-Building Circles: Used to build community and strengthen relationships; they are group-focused and on-going. At Bush, this is the most common circle we use. It is used in Kindergarten, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and in the Middle School Human Relations Track. We also use this circle for new faculty/staff onboarding. Elements of this circle are also used in the Administrative Group weekly meeting and House Leadership meeting.
Dialogue Circles: Used to increase understanding on a particular topic when there are disparate points of view. As Kay Pranis says, they are meant to “change the space between.” These circles are not necessarily ongoing for a group; they are topic-based and therefore meet for a specified period of time. At Bush, we used these circles in our Peacemaking Circle series for parents and community members.
Healing Circles: Used after a loss, natural disasters, and/or for grief. At Bush, we used these circles to help us heal after the death of one of our students.
Support Circles: Used when there is a desired pattern/behavior change, such as chronic truancy or persistent procrastination. They are ongoing, sometimes once a week. At Bush, we have occasionally used these with students who are struggling in one way or another.
Reintegration Circles: Used when a community member is returning after an extended absence, perhaps from a suspension or prolonged illness.
Decision-Making Circles: Used when a major decision needs to be made to ensure that all voices are heard. A consensus method is often used as a part of this process.
Conflict Circles: Used when there is a conflict between two (or more) community members and multiple harms have occurred.
Sentencing Circles: Used when major harm has occurred and the community decides the consequences. These circles are often accompanied by Support and Healing Circles. Sometimes these circles are called Repairing Harm or Peer Justice Circles.
Roughly speaking, Celebration, Learning, and Community Building are in Tier One; Dialogue, Healing, and Support are Tier Two; and Reintegration, Decision-Making, Conflict, and Sentencing are Tier Three. The first five circles (Celebration, Learning, Community-Building, Dialogue, Healing) are called Talking Circles. The last five circles (Support, Reintegration, Decision-Making, Conflict, Sentencing) are called Problem-Solving and usually have a plan of action that is carried out during and after the Circle Process.
Here at The Bush School, we have spent the last seven years building capacity to hold the first four types of circles, and over the last two years, have tried our hand at Support, Grief/Healing, and Repairing Harm Circles. We have only been able to move to these more complex and challenging circles because of the faculty, staff, and students’ training in and understanding of the basic Circle principles. Ultimately, Circles are meant to help us move in the direction of our best selves and once we understand that deeply through practice, we can come into a more challenging circle with a more open mind and heart to work through miscommunication, conflict, or harm. For schools that jump into these higher intensity circles without deliberate practice and the real investment of time and energy, there is a much higher likelihood of failure. As The Bush School continues to experiment with circles as a way to address harm, we will, of course, stumble and make mistakes. But the work we’ve put in thus far is setting a strong foundation for our success. We will continue to put in the work to build capacity towards these higher fidelity circles. It is really the only way forward to fully realize the potential of circles at The Bush School.
*The work referenced here is largely from the body of work from the Tagish/Tlingit tribes and passed on through Kay Pranis.