Indigenous cultures throughout the world have relied on circle ceremonies for millennia to discuss often painful issues honestly, respectfully and safely. Circles have also traditionally been used to resolve problems by shining a light on how someone’s offense affects others.


Today, drawing on these traditions and more recently on restorative practices in the juvenile justice system, more and more schools (often with the help of community partners like YWCA Madison) are incorporating circles into their culture. These circles are outgrowths of the restorative justice philosophy.


The circle keeper

Kay Pranis, author of The Little Book of Circle Processes, writes that “stories unite people in their common humanity and help them appreciate the depth and beauty of the human experience.”


It is with this end in mind that East High School has led hundreds of students in restorative circles, strengthening ties by giving students and teachers windows into one another’s experience. Here circles fall into two categories — classroom problem-solving circles that seek to resolve classroom-wide issues and community-building circles in which participants are guided in candid, confidential discussion. This article explores the latter.


East’s resident expert on circles is Positive Behavior Support (PBS) Coach Rob Mueller-Owens, who taught in southern Louisiana, Detroit and Boston before moving to Madison to attend graduate school.


Positions at Shabazz High School and Transition Learning Center led him to his current home at East. Mueller-Owens holds community-building circles regularly, whether to discuss a community-wide issue or say goodbye to a student.


Strengthening student-teacher relationships

Recently, some students in East’s AVID college preparatory program came to him with a special request; they wanted a circle to discuss how students of color can feel out of place in the program.


One of these students is Lupe, a friendly, confident eleventh-grade student who moved to Madison from Mexico City at 6-years-old. She describes the isolation that can haunt students of color in advanced courses, if not the community in general.


“There are very few of us in higher level courses,” she explains, which leads to feelings of being “not really heard, invisible.” It also troubles her that “we’re sometimes underestimated because of our color. We felt we needed to get our feelings out to staff.”


To begin to solve this, Mueller-Owens asked himself: How do we break through the isolation? He knew that a key element would be a stronger bond between students and teachers.


A circle was summoned, with students inviting one or two of their teachers to join. Participants — students and teachers alike — were asked to bring with them one meaningful object.


As facilitator, Mueller-Owens led the discussion with a “circle script” (scripts offer a structured dialog process) he had created specifically for this occasion. His script began by asking attendees to reveal their item’s significance.


Then they were asked to share the following with the group: Describe a moment when you were at your most vulnerable. Who was there for you (if anyone)? What kind of person do want to be if you are called on to help someone at their lowest? Think about the students or teachers you feel connected to and consider what mechanism was in place to allow that to happen.


They took turns speaking by passing around a talking piece, a deer antler. “There’s something powerful in that nearly 900 kids have told their story holding this object,” he says. “It’s an icon of the community and all the stories that we share.”


The experience, Lupe says, was “really powerful,” especially because the teachers, inspired by the students baring their souls, became vulnerable themselves.


“It took an hour and three boxes of Kleenex,” says Mueller-Owens, calling it “one of the most powerful things I’ve done as a teacher.” Students and teachers walked away with a deeper understanding of one another’s life experiences and a strengthened bond.


Counseling students through a difficult time

Mueller-Owens has been preparing to lead talking circles for students to process the decision made by the District Attorney regarding whether or not to press charges against Police Officer Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Robinson.


The district’s Department of Student Services has been working closely with East High School staff to identify students directly involved in Tony’s community, and is inviting them to participate in processing circles. “They’re really going to be grief circles,” admits Mueller-Owens without illusion.


He hopes they will give students time and space to consider ways they might cope with their feelings and impact change in the community. And he wants them to feel supported. “I’d really like students to see East as the institution that’s got their back,” Mueller-Owens says, “that everyone at East knows me and loves me and I can go to them."


Nodding in agreement, Lupe adds, “If the decision turns out to be what we fear,” and if students see the school as a source of support, “people will come to East and see it as a community center rather than just a school.”


Teaching staff to become circle keepers

This summer, Mueller-Owens will offer summer training to East staff interested in leading circles in their classrooms to build the school’s capacity to utilize them. This will build upon the professional development work he has offered throughout the year, including a series of lessons for staff on restorative justice, the school-to-prison pipeline and related topics.


“We want to weave restorative practices into the school culture,” he notes. “Someday, ideally, all staff would facilitate circles on a regular basis.”


In the next edition of the newsletter we’ll hear how East High School is using problem-solving circles to productively address classroom-wide behavior problems and issues.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a reference to the Lakota Sioux tribe that we have since removed.

May 2015