Many of the conflict resolution and listening skills that we’ve explored thus far involve individual efforts (when it comes to listening skills) or conflicts between two people.  However, many conflicts, even though they may only physically or verbally manifest themselves between a small number of people, actually impact larger groups and the overall learning environment.  In addition, the kinds of listening skills that conflict resolution programs seek to encourage are not easy to practice during competitive discussions. By competitive discussions I mean conversations that occur among groups but are essentially individuals just waiting for their opportunity to talk and not really listening to what others are saying.  This is where talking circles can play an important role – addressing a conflict’s impact on the larger community and practicing active and compassionate listening.

A talking or peacemaking circle:

“…draws upon the ancient Native American tradition of using a talking piece, an object passed from person to person in a group and which grants the holder sole permission to speak. It combines this ancient tradition with contemporary concepts of democracy and inclusivity in a complex, multicultural society.

“Peacemaking Circles are being used in a variety of contexts. In neighborhoods they provide support for those harmed by crime and help decide sentences for those who commit crime. In schools, they create a positive classroom climate and resolve behavior problems. In the workplace, they help address conflict, and in social services they develop more organic support systems for people struggling to get their lives together.” (Pranis, 3-4)

This video looks at West Philadelphia High School and their experience integrating talking circles and restorative justice practices into their school climate. The school worked with the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School on how to implement circles processes into the school’s daily routine and address underlying conflicts before they  escalated to points of violence.



Read this short handout that outlines some of the key features of a talking circle, basic ideas on how the facilitate a circle process, and some sample questions to introduce into the circle.

Reflection Question: The short handout on talking circles provides some sample questions one can introduce into a circle process. Which of these questions would you use in your own educational context and why?

Additional Resources:

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22 thoughts on “5.6

  1. I have used a similar process in my practice which was introduced to me by my former instructional coach Dara Feldman who is also affiliated with the virtues project http://www.virtuesproject.com/education.html .I have used it to tackle thins such as bullying and discussions on racial and ethnic differences. I now see the broad scope of this method in the classroom as a way to help students process what has taken place during a given lesson or unit. Some questions I would be interested in using in my classroom are as follows…

    – What do you expect to be different (in your work group or in this classroom) after this circle?
    – What can you take away that is useful to you?

  2. Next week, the Wilson poetry club begins planning their 2nd annual youth poets for peace event. Last year, they set up and performed in it but didn’t really own it. I would like for them to own it. The talking circle process may be just the vehicle to get the momentum going. By discussing last year’s pros and cons and creating their own platform and process for this year, perhaps, they will work with heart to make the day successful. The questions (some verbatim, a few adapted/original) I think I will use, in the talking circle, are:
    Establishing guidelines –
    What agreements would you like for our circle to feel that you can speak honestly and respectfully?
    Getting acquainted –
    Share a funny story from your summer job. What is your pet societal peeve that you would like changed?
    Exploring issues, concerns, etc.-
    Recalling last year’s event:
    • What would you not want to change about the event?
    • What change would you like to see? What can you do to promote that change?
    Clarifying expectations –
    Where do you see yourself moving forward?

    (Note: Suggestions are welcome. Thank you)

  3. We currently use the circle process at my school. I personally love it, it helps establish the school culture and its community. If I could compose questions to be utilized in the circle it would probably be
    to introduce one another for the first time- If you could tell your name one amazing thing about you, what would it be and tell why?

    The next question I would ask is for self expression of what they would imagine their teacher to be like- What would your ideal teacher be like?

    Next question this question would tell us a little about their characteristic traits -If a genie would give you only one wish, which would you pick, and why?
    1. being the most popular student
    2. being a genius
    3. being famous for doing something great

    Another great question- this question would show me how they work in groups with others. What are the qualities that make a good leader of your group?

    Last question- would show and tell me how creative the student is.
    If you could decorate our classroom any way you would like to, what would you do differently from what was done to it already?

    I like all the questions, but if I had to select one it would be question number four showing how they think a leader possess character and leadership skills/abilities. This would also show me how they would possible act as a leader or how they would like to see a leader act.

  4. I absolutely do want my students to be reflective and be able to resolve their conflicts peaceably – and it looks as though the dialogue circle may be a very effective way of doing that.

    That said, I honestly don’t think that Talking Circles as they are explained here, have a place in an elective Computer Graphics class. I am sorry to say that even after watching the amazing the effects that this circle practice has had for the West Philadelphia high school, I can picture a number of my students not taking this seriously — at least if it was facilitated by me, their graphic art teacher! Maybe if these were run by a third party they would carry a little more import – but when I think of the personalities I had in my classes last year, and the degree to which my students were inauthentic even later in the school year, I have trouble picturing this as an effective practice for me to employ in my classroom. Which is not to say that they can’t be a wild success if facilitated in another context with these same students — maybe in a health class, or with an advisory or counseling group.

  5. What touches your heart?

    To me the moments that touch my heart are moments when I am at peace. I think that these moments can mean different things to other people, but I believe that moments that do touch your heart make to slow down and recognize what has just happened. Maybe this moment may never come again.

  6. What gives you hope?
    I absolutely love what I do, but sometimes I wonder why am I doing this. Then I look at my students and what they go through everyday. This is what gives me hope. When they come to me asking for advice, this is what gives me hope. When they start your class non complaint, attendance issues and finishes top of the class that gives me hope. When we circle up and free talk this would be an awesome topic to start with and see what happens from their.

  7. I would use many of these questions to create and facilitate a talking circle in first grade; however, I would alter some of the language to be more kid-friendly:
    To explore values – Think of someone who you think is a good friend. What word would you use to describe him/her?
    To establish guidelines – What agreements would you like for our circle to feel that you can speak honestly and respectfully? (I want to replace “agreements” but can’t think of a good word.)
    To get acquainted – What is something you like to do? What do you like most about school?
    To build understanding and empathy – Describe a time when you were upset and how you handled it.
    To explore issues, concerns, and conflicts – How do you feel about this situation? What can be done to make thinks better?
    To take responsibility – What change would you like to see in the classroom? What can you do to help make the change happen?
    To clarify expectations about the future – What do you want to be different in the classroom? What do you want to do differently in the classroom? How will you know if things are better?
    To end the circle – What have you learned? How will you use what you’ve learned?

    Talking circles are a valuable tool for addressing conflicts and, thus, helping to create and maintain a community of respectful learners. I also think regular use of the talking circle may help solve issues before they become noticeable conflicts because each student has an opportunity to participate in voicing concerns. I wonder how much time is suggested to put aside for a successful talking circle?

  8. I saw the circle process modeled at the peace education gathering and liked it there. I plan to try it with my students. Like anything, though, I think it will be important not to overuse it, because then it loses its special quality. I like the idea of associating it with sharing of feelings, both as an ongoing activity and when there is conflict. For example, I’m thinking that for the 9th graders, during the first week of school, I could use it to explore feelings about making the transition to high school. Possible question: What are you expecting in high school and how do you feel about it? For older students: How does it feel to be back in school after the summer break?

    I think that I could have used the circle process in one class this year where some students did not follow my classroom guideline to speak one at a time. They talked over me and other students. Detention, sending the students out of class, and talking with parents did not correct the situation. Possible question for the circle: How can we make sure that everyone in the class gets to share equally?

  9. What is your passion?

    First of all the circle is a brilliant idea, if every student feel that they are apart of something and is able to voice their opinion, then the class probably would roll smoothly. I love this particular question because as an educator we could get a clear understanding at what drives a student. We can also use that to a our advantage. For example, I had a kid who was a straight “F” kid. During lunch he would always ask could he play with the football. I told him that it was obvious that he had a passion for football. Most kid wanted to basketball but not this kid. He keep telling me that he wanted to play for the team. My response was if do want to play, get a 2.0. I was amazed when then kid brought me a 2.5 at the end of the year.

  10. “What would you not want to change about your life?”

    I think this questions is framed in such a way that can take a student’s negative emotions and use them to guide towards thankfulness. As we discussed in a previous class, this would certainly be difficult with students who cannot easily identify an answer, I think it is an excellent opportunity to re-frame perspective.

  11. Maria Schneider–The section on Getting Acquainted in my opinion is one of the most important parts of group building. We have experienced similar questions through partnering, small groups, and ice breakers within our class community and they have all proved essential to creating the great class atmosphere that we have every week. I will use some of these prompting questions in my alt-break pre-trip group sessions to help create an intentional community among our participants and leaders.

  12. I really like the prompt: A life experience when you “made lemonade out of lemons.” Because I would most likely be teaching a film class, this is a good opener because it initiates a story. As filmmakers, we are first and foremost storytellers, whether writing, directing, filming or editing the movie. This can begin with telling the stories of our lives. Having prompts like this one will help give some direction to the students, and they can open up about something specific without necessarily choosing to reveal too much about themselves.

  13. I love the question, “what touches your heart?” because it leads to individuals being able to identify their values and what those values make them feel. On balance, when people begin to share values I’ve noticed that people are willing to be more vulnerable and open to hearing someone that they previously may not have liked. When a group can talk about values, we can see common threads and also understand why someone acts a certain way.

  14. I really appreciate the storytelling questions. I think that there is an important distinction between dialogue and storytelling. Dialogue can be a wonderful process for problem solving, community building, and developing a greater understanding of people and others. However, I think that storytelling can be an important process by which individuals can share and express their personal narratives, experiences, hopes, fears, etc. Where dialogue is a group-owned process, storytelling is a personally-owned process. While the two necessarily go hand-in-hand and rely on each other, in conflict situations and when the circles are used, I think the storytelling questions can lead to deep understanding and sharing while maintaining the personal ownership and safety for those who might be hesitant to enter a full dialogue.

  15. I would use, “What is your passions?” and “Share a time when you were outside your comfort zone.” I chose the first question because it’s usually an easy question to answer. Everyone is passionate about something. Knowing my students passions can benefit me when planning lessons. The second question is a riskier question. Students have to expose a weakness or share a time when they were uncomfortable, but hopefully the stories they share lead to a positive outcome. Creating a space in which students express a shared anxiety and hopefully triumph in a similar situation might help students feel more comfortable getting out of their comfort zones in class.

  16. I would use “what gives you hope?” and “when you are at your best, how would you describe yourself?” (modified – I don’t like the implication that people are ever labeled as *not* “being human”). I like these questions because they remind the students to think about themselves in a positive light, and it also allows me to see how they believe themselves to be at their core. I need to be reminded that they want and perceive themselves to be good people, and this will help me to know how to encourage them in these strengths.

  17. As an ice-breaker for any type of group, I like the question “what would you do with an unexpected free day?” It’s simple and low-pressure, but it lets participants be as creative, personal or funny as they wish. A similar question could put people at ease, get the group thinking of happy/peaceful thoughts, and open up the mind to be more imaginative. I think that these structured talking circle guidelines would be really effective among the Girl Scouts I work with – there’s something I love about the ceremonial aspect of this exercise that really elevates it to something more than just an exercise. It can become celebratory, because each response by each participant is ideally celebrated by the circle.

  18. I would use and have used different questions in different educational contexts. In the adult learning series of seminars organized for very senior World Bank staff, I used: An embarrassing moment that you can laugh at now. This was most powerful, but took a while (a day or more of other interactions) and normally took some prompting. Sometimes it required that I lead with an example so people could see how far the boundaries of embarrassment would go. Nothing like a bit of humor, self deprecating or otherwise, helps in breaking the ice – peeling away the onion skins – to make people who are accustomed to rank and status, relax and get into a frame of mine to share, learn and teach.

    With University students, I would use: What touches your heart? I am yet to meet a jaded undergraduate student who is beyond the “heart”. This opens up many avenues to understand the student and their aspirations and how the educational experience can meet their needs.

  19. I think that establishing guidelines is an important way to start a talking circle and those guidelines that are established should continue to be added or modified. Getting acquainted questions are good in the beginning and I particularly like the question of how your best friend would describe you as an easier way to describe yourself by looking through another person’s perspective. Working with teenagers again, I think that the questions about a time in which you felt outside of your comfort zone or an experience of feeling as if you don’t fit in are very appropriate yet should be saved for when there is real trust and safety built up.

  20. This semester I began teaching a human rights course at Wilson High School, and have been searching for activities to build community and create a respectful, cohesive learning environment. I think that a learning circle is a very appropriate activity for my class. We are small in number, but the students are very distant (and I have been told by the homeroom teacher that several previous conflicts have occurred between the students in this class). I would like to use the questions from the storytelling section of the handout, particularly the ones about past experiences that have shaped who we are. This would be valuable in assessing the background of my students (since I am still learning about them) and it would be very helpful for them to make connections with their classmates by identifying similarities and shared experiences.

  21. I lead an Honors 101 group and this week’s meeting is about planning ahead for next semester. I know a lot of people in the group are still undecided or thinking about adding a double major or a minor. I would ask them, “What do you keep returning to in your life?” Too often I find myself looking only at what is right in front of me– the classes I am currently enrolled in or my future plan du jour. When I look back at my life through old journals or pictures, I often see how ideas I had when I was young are ideas I am still having now. I see these interests as my “calling,” no matter what I can’t let go of them, so I ought to make an active choice to have them in my life! I think freshmen could benefit a lot from this activity.

  22. Daniel Knoll – This semester Ive had the chance to lead an informal class within my fraternity that focuses around building relationships and understanding of one another. The set of questions that jumps out to me is the series that focuses around story telling and sharing experiences with others. I like that the questions are often things that we don’t talk about in everyday conversations. Questions like “a time when you were outside your comfort zone” require self-reflection before one can answer, making the entire experience more personal.

    One thing that I’ve noticed about Talking Circles since I started partaking in them last semester in EDU 285 is the detail that the talking piece MUST go around the outside, and cannot be passed across the circle when somebody wants to contribute something. I’ve found that I may have something to contribute about a certain topic, but by the time the talking piece comes to me, the subject of the discussion has completely changed and I feel as if my contribution is less valuable (especially in a large group). I’m not sure if there’s a modification to this exercise that would help alleviate this problem. Or maybe I’m missing a critical point of the circle exercise in that its ok to not contribute something if the subject of the discussion has changed.

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