From our Sept. 2016 Newsletter, by Jackie Hicks:

Start the School Year with Circle Time

I’m hoping that you are starting the new school year with excitement, energy and enthusiasm, armed with fresh ideas, confidence in your curriculum, and eagerness to meet your new students.  This is the time of year when possibilities are abundant.  How you deal with the first two to three weeks is crucial in getting off to a good start with students and establishing your classroom culture.  If you are willing to invest in building relationships amongst you and your students as the priority for those first weeks of school, you will reap the benefit throughout the school year.  For that purpose, I suggest you provide regular time and guidance practicing CIRCLE TIME with your students, starting on the first day of school.

CIRCLE TIME can be extremely effective in establishing rapport among students and teachers, while also developing a classroom culture that teaches and strengthens social-emotional skills. Kindergarten is a good place for students to begin experiencing sitting in a circle facing each other as they get to know themselves and each other by listening and sharing their thoughts and feelings.  HOWEVER, Circle Time isn’t just for Kindergarten.  In fact, at every grade level there are important social and emotional developmental growth goals that can be addressed during CIRCLE TIME.  Parents, teachers and community members want to see children develop character, which is becoming more urgent as we see the lack of empathy, kindness, and personal responsibility occurring in our society.

What is CIRCLE TIME?  It is special and regular time when everyone in class (students and teachers) sits together in a circle on the floor or in chairs facing each other.  The purpose initially is getting to know each other and forming a way of being together in the classroom.  Through regular time together, and deepening relationships, CIRCLE TIME becomes a space for developing self-esteem and self-awareness; building confidence and personal responsibility; and creating a place where they belong and feel special.  You will find that over time with regular sessions, students are more comfortable with each other, listen better, think more critically, creatively and collaboratively, and have more fun in the learning process.  It won’t all happen on the first day, but as the year progresses, you will be gratified by the self-management, responsibility and productivity that develop amongst your students.

Here’s how to incorporate CIRCLE TIME into your classroom, starting on day one:

  • Begin with 20-45 minutes daily depending on grade level (less time for lower grades, for the first 1-2 weeks. Then commit to at least 20-minute sessions, once a week minimum. Circles evolve over time and lay a strong foundation for classroom management.
  • It is essential for the teacher to model kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and personal responsibility.
  • Start with icebreakers at first (fun games that allow students to get to know each other better with low risk.)
  • Find out from your students relevant things to talk about, by discovering topics of interest to them, either verbally, from their journals, classroom conflicts, etc. It is good to have suggestions ready if the students don’t have anything to talk about, to get conversations started, such as: bullying, tagging, student activities, too much homework, etc.
  • Participants must believe and trust that they are safe with the facilitator, that they can say anything at all and it will be received without judgment or criticism by the facilitator or other students.
  • Communicate authentically, using “I” statements, and no blaming.
    Treat it as a special time to talk about what students regard as relevant.Circle time is the foundation for building a safe and supportive classroom culture.

Follow these basic guidelines:

  1. Have everyone sit in a circle of chairs (no desks if possible), or on the floor, facing each other.
  2. Set clear goals and/or topics for the circle.A first day goal example could be practicing listening to each other one at a time as they each share one hope for the school year.It is important to state the goal at the beginning of the circle time.
  3. Establish ground rules for communicating fairly, like one person speaks at a time. No one is forced to give an answer. What is shared stays in the circle.
  4. Make it a regular part of the class time.
  5. Use it additionally to address class breakdowns.
  6. As the facilitator, always sit in the circle and participate fully.
  7. Set a non-judgmental tone.Similar to brainstorming, all responses and reactions are valid. Strong reactions, such as bursting out in profanity, are an indication of something deeper bothering the student, and therefore should be explored as such.
  8. Listen empathically and communicate authentically.
  9. In a kind and supportive way, keep focus on the goal, and try to minimize any talking over one another (consider using a “talking stick”).
  10. If a specific issue is happening with a student, take time to prepare the student to share in the circle (offer to hold space in circle for them to speak their mind).
  11. If there is a conflict, talk with all students involved individually and prepare them to share in circle.

Once students see this as a regular opportunity to make their class environment better, they will want to use it to solve problems and support each other.  This can be done even in 15 minutes a day, or one class period a week, or in advisory, and expanded as needed.

There are lots of ideas online for fun icebreaker activities that work for circle time and are designed for specific grade levels. The following is one idea I found:

Food for Thought
To get to know students and to help them get to know one another, have each student state his or her name and a favorite food that begins with the same first letter as the name. For example: “Hi, my name is Latrece, and I like liver.” As each student introduces himself or herself, he or she must repeat the names and favorite foods of the students who came before. Watch out — it gets tricky for the last person who has to recite all the names and foods!  ~Latrece Hughes

Have a great year and enjoy your students!