Frances Oyola

Students get personal in restorative circles.

January 17, 2018

A member of the administration team at Poinciana is urging teachers to rethink everything they know about teaching, from the formation of desks in the classroom to restorative circles – a deeply personal approach that urges students to reveal personal details about their life.

Frances Oyola
Senior Jamari Key hands the basketball to freshman Charlie David during a restorative circle conducted by Dean Robert Miller during a journalism class. Miller asked personal questions that students could choose to answer or not. To speak, students had to be in possession of the basketball.

Poinciana Dean Robert Miller, is visiting the classroom of any instructor who will invite him to model restorative circles, an innovative form of teaching in which students learn as much from their fellow peers as from the teacher.

And things can get personal – fast.

Restorative circles is an activity developed by Educator Dominic Barter, so students could express their voices as well as build relationships with other students.

The activity works by having students sit in a circle and an instructional leader throws out questions.

Otherwise, Barter argues, many high school students just walk in and out of classes not knowing who their classmates are, never realizing they share the same concerns, conflicts and stories.

Miller modeled a restorative circle earlier this year in a journalism class with about 25 students.

His first directive was for students to move the desks from the five rows the desks were in to a large circle so every student could see every other student.

He stood in the center holding a basketball.

“If I were a teacher, this is the way I would organize the desks in my class every day,” he said.

He then instructed the students that he would ask a series of questions and that answering was voluntary.

The only person allowed to speak is the person holding the basketball. If a student didn’t want to answer, that student was instructed to simply pass the basketball to the next student until the basketball had traveled around the entire circle.

The first question Miller asked: “Using a scale of one through 10, how smart would you describe yourself.”

Most students said “six”.

“Three,” one student answered. A few students laughed.
Miller grabbed the basketball.

“No laughing,” Miller said. “This is a safe space.”

The questions continued:

“How would you describe yourself in one word?”

“What are you passionate about?”

“Name one regret?”

To this question one student responded: “I regret the way I have treated the homeless.”

Through the series of questions students began to reveal parts of themselves that would never be revealed during a normal class period.

One student revealed that she lost her baby. Another admitted to a drinking problem. Another student said she once had a problem with cutting.

Freshman Natalie Resto participated in the restorative circle and said she didn’t expect the answers she heard from some of her peers.

“I was awestruck,” Resto said.

Miller answered the questions too, at one point revealing that he cried more when his dog died last year than when his father died.

Another time Miller talked about a man having a heart attack in front of him and Miller trying frantically but in the end being unable to save the man’s life.

Some questions were lighter.

“What trips have you gone on?”

“What are your plans for the future?”

And some questions surprised everyone, such as when Miller asked,

“Describe your family using only one word.”

“Broken,” said one. “Homophobic,” said another.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen,” Miller asked.

“Seeing my mom live on the streets with a drug habit,” one student said.

Miller made clear that his goal wasn’t to just ask questions but to develop a sense of trust among the students.

“It’s therapeutic – allowing students to get thoughts off their chest,”

Miller said in an interview afterwards.

Miller suggested that teachers do a restorative circle once a week.

Miller said restorative circles offer a framework that teachers can use and students can feel safe sharing and building relationships with one another.

“Students are lined up all day in a classroom where they don’t get to talk to each other,” Miller said. “Restorative circles is about giving students a voice.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “Students get personal in restorative circles.”

  1. Betsy Middleton on January 18th, 2018 1:21 PM

    This is an excellent tool for building relationships and getting to know students on a new level. Some of the information students share can help teachers understand the whole package that walks through the door. Students who are hesitant to participate become more relaxed and open when they see it is okay and safe to speak in the circle….a judgement-free zone. Students can see that they have the power to become involved and even become change agents; many have good ideas for making our school better. This is also a wonderful way to be proactive and open the door for students who may need assistance from a guidance counselor, social worker, resource officer, or other professional to help them work through challenging situations. Thank you Mr. Miller for bringing Restorative Circles to PHS!

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