Talking Circles: For Restorative Justice and Beyond

As more schools consider restorative practice in areas of discipline, Talking Circles, a core component of the restorative justice process, enter the conversation. A Talking Circle, sometimes called a Peacemaking Circle, uses a structural framework to build relationships and to address conflict within a community. But Talking Circles serve other purposes as well: They create safe spaces, build connections and offer teachers a unique means of formative assessment.

The Talking Circle Process

Begin by gathering in a circle and creating norms that will help build trust in the space. In my class, we write our norms on a poster board placed in the center of our Circle. A talking piece, an object of significance chosen by Circle members, is passed around inviting equal participation. Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak, while all others listen to and support the speaker. To familiarize students with this process, you might ask them, “What does it look and sound like to listen respectfully?”

The Circle Keeper facilitates the Talking Circle by selecting the time and place, inviting members and preparing introductory remarks. Once the group reviews its established norms, the Circle Keeper can read a short piece of text to set the tone or just dive into the first question or reflection. Although the Circle Keeper is the facilitator, she participates as an equal member of the group. Once students learn the process, they can be invited to be Circle Keepers—an empowering process.

Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice is a philosophy that recognizes that alternative approaches are needed in our criminal justice and school disciplinary systems. As research shows, suspensions and expulsions are often linked to higher rates of future involvement with the criminal justice system. This impact, often called the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately impacts students of color and students with disabilities.

A Talking Circle can be part of restorative justice when used as an alternative to traditional suspensions and expulsions. To begin, invite students who have been involved in a conflict at school to participate in the Circle. In this confidential process, students can invite an ally to attend. As the Circle progresses, the students are welcomed to speak openly about their experiences, as well as to seek support and plan action steps to repair the harm done. All in all, the Circle space is about accountability to one’s community.

Building Connections in a Safe Space

My middle school made a clear decision that we wanted all students to have a close connection with at least one adult in our building. Thus, we began using Talking Circles in each of our advisory periods once a week. Students and advisors select questions that are meaningful to them or that connect to a relevant current event or community need. Often students raise concerns about inequities, bullying and conflicts within their classes. When appropriate, and with students’ permission, we create action plans to help alleviate the stressors in their lives and intercept systemic injustices.

I have been amazed at the strong relationships that develop. One student expressed, “I began to realize that you all [teachers] are real people too and that you have gone through some of the same stuff we have.” Another student reflected, “You know, I didn’t really know some of you before the year began. Now I feel like each of you has become a part of my family.” The Circle allows students to feel vulnerable, to take risks and to speak their truth. Thus, I believe Talking Circles, used in partnership with appropriate actions, have the potential to help restore justice to our youth.

Formative Assessment Tool

In my reading class, I often use Talking Circles to gauge my students’ background knowledge of a topic or to assess their understanding of key concepts or text. For example, I might say, “Let’s think a little more about the poems we read during our close reading yesterday. What is the author’s message about injustice? How do the characters convey this message?” As the Talking Piece moves around the Circle, I mentally monitor students’ progress, asking myself, “Did they get this? What surprises me? Where do we need to look more closely? What do we need to reread later?” Because each student is able to voice his or her thoughts, I’m able to differentiate and plan next steps accordingly.

As you can tell, Talking Circles are a cornerstone of my classroom practice. They allow children to see their community as a place of significance, a place of positive change and a place where their voices are heard. How might you use them in your practice?

Bintliff is a reading teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wis. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

A Humanitarian Crisis: Unaccompanied Children

“I am here [in the United States] because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm.”


Maritza, a teenager from El Salvador, is one of tens of thousands of children—primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico—who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Since last October, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained some 57,000 unaccompanied children, over double the number of the previous year. A pressing humanitarian crisis now confronts communities across the country: Who will care for these children? How will schools respond to the newcomers arriving at their doorsteps? Will communities welcome them or meet them with distrust?

This crisis has already been swept up into the national debate over immigration reform. Earlier this month, protesters blocked and threatened busloads of unaccompanied children, seeking to halt their transportation to immigration processing facilities and temporary housing. Just this past weekend, hundreds of protests were staged against undocumented immigrants, energized by the continued influx of unaccompanied children. Protesters held signs calling these children “threats” and an “invasion,” urging officials to “Return [them] to Sender.” The true threat is actually to the children who make an unthinkable journey to the United States alone—because the alternative is even more unthinkable.

Why are children crossing the U.S. border?

Some unaccompanied children cross the U.S. border to be reunited with family members or to escape entrenched poverty. Many of these unaccompanied children, however, seek refuge in the United States from physical threats including, but not limited to, harm from gangs, drug cartels and other forms of organized crime, or abuse in the home by a family member or another caregiver. A UN report, “Children on the Run,” reveals that as many as 58 percent of the unaccompanied migrants arriving in the United States have “international protection needs.” Sufficient grounds have been found to show that deportation back to their home countries could lead to grave abuse, if not death. 

What happens once they enter the United States?

If detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents, these children are held in detention centers for up to 72 hours. Then one of two things happens, depending on their country of citizenship. A 2008 law (aimed at combating human trafficking) requires that all unaccompanied children from countries that do not share a border with the United States be granted “removal proceedings” in immigration courts, rather than a brief screening process. Therefore, the children from Central America are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and enter what can be a long legal process. Meanwhile, their counterparts from Mexico are not automatically granted proceedings, and if they do not sufficiently demonstrate fear of persecution or trafficking, they are often repatriated within a day or two after being detained and screened.

The immigration court system in the United States is tremendously backlogged. A single case can take several years to appear before a judge, which means that tens of thousands of children are in a legal limbo. In the meantime, the unaccompanied children move from shelters—where they stay for an average of 35 days after being detained—and are sent to live with relatives or sponsors.

What does this mean for schools?

Upon being released from federal custody, the children will enroll in school. According to EdWeek, educators across the country are seeing increased numbers of immigrant students and are often the primary responders to their diverse range of needs. These include counseling and other mental health services (trauma and post-traumatic stress are common), ESL programs and guidance on obtaining legal representation and on navigating a new school culture.

Meeting the multifaceted needs of unaccompanied children requires focused efforts. Come the start of the school year, if not before, consider taking these steps:

  • Remind your school administration that federal law provides all children with the right to enroll in school, regardless of their immigration status. 
  • Discuss with school counselors if appropriate resources are in place to extend bilingual mental health services.
  • Conduct home visits with the children’s relatives or sponsors.
  • Speak out against bias, however it appears.
  • Learn more. “Children at the Border” and “Children in Danger” are two starting points.
  • Connect with advocacy organizations in your community that are working to provide pro-bono legal counsel specifically to unaccompanied children.

How is your school responding to these children? What advice can you offer other educators? 

Lindberg is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance. 

The Place for Activism in English Class

Abigail Adams observed, “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” As an English teacher, I deal in high-sounding words, but I also want my students to learn how to take action against injustice.

My first idea for fitting activism into my English class was to look for fiction on this topic. Contemporary young-adult (YA) novels address social justice issues that, until recently, went undiscussed in schools (e.g., anti-LGBT violence and child homelessness) or that have escalated as problems (e.g., cyberbullying and the effects of climate change). But the trouble with some “issue novels” is that many are written as such—not as great literature. Others rely on tropes that reinforce stereotypes and ignore larger patterns: Children of color get rescued by kindly white adults, plucky heroines use their wits to escape hardship and perpetrators get their comeuppance or suddenly repent.

Of course there are well-crafted works of YA fiction that address social justice issues, but I found a different solution to my activist-literature problem: nonfiction. In Stirring Up Justice, educator Jessica Singer Early describes her unit in which students read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about activists. I decided to design a unit around memoirs so students could read activists’ own stories of responding to injustice with action. The unit aligns to Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Framework, particularly to Justice standard 15: knowing social justice history.

In Early’s unit, the students chose any book they wanted. Since I planned my unit to be more about the concept of activism than any one text, there was room for each student to choose a book of genuine interest. Still, I wanted my students to read well-crafted prose that matched their reading and experience levels, and that meant vetting the books.

Finding appropriate memoirs proved to be a challenge. It’s not like everyone who acts against injustice writes a memoir, and individuals who might be great activists might not be great writers. Some memoirs, like environmentalist Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, were beautifully written but inaccessible to my seventh-graders without the level support I give when the whole class reads the same text. Other memoirs focused on childhood memories rather than the author's work.

I wanted to keep the book list fairly short to increase the chances that several students in a class would choose the same memoir and could help each other with comprehension and analysis—and to make it possible for me to read all the books they’d be reading. Within the list, I wanted diversity in terms of the authors’ identities and the types of injustices they stood against.

Ultimately, I settled on five activist memoirs: The Good Food Revolution by urban farmer Will Allen, Warriors Don’t Cry by Little Rock Nine member Melba Pattillo Beals, Glory Road by college basketball coach Don Haskins, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba and In My Hands by Holocaust rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke.

It’s not a perfect list. As important as the civil rights movement is, two of the five memoirs are about desegregation during that historical period. In several classes, half or more of the girls picked In My Hands, and half or more of the boys picked Glory Road.

Students selected their memoirs a month before the unit began so they could pace their reading and know their activists’ stories when our inquiry started. During the unit, I paired students who did not read the same text so they could think about how the concepts they learned—what an injustice is, what kinds of action people can take against it and the strengths and supports activists need—came up in both books. Students thus had an authentic context to describe their activists’ work, and they often commented on the surprising similarities and differences between their activists’ experiences.

One student noticed that Irene Gut Opdyke and Will Allen each helped strangers by giving them access to food, albeit under vastly different circumstances. Another pointed out that William Kamkwamba and Melba Pattillo Beals risked physical and emotional harm in order to get better educations, and a third saw that Don Haskins and Opdyke used their positions of relative privilege to act as allies to targeted groups. In all of my classes, it came up that Opdyke, Kamkwamba, and Beals all worked against injustice as teenagers. That was particularly inspiring to students who’d said they were “too young to do anything.”

I want my students to read not only critically but hopefully, to see reflections of their past experiences and indications of their future ones and to consider what’s possible for them to do—even at their age.

I’d also like to find more well-written activist memoirs on the students’ level that would become popular choices and further diversify the list. Any suggestions?

Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.

Dystopian Young-Adult Literature in the Classroom

Dystopian young-adult (DYA) fiction is used sporadically in the classroom, but these two TT bloggers find the genre particularly useful to engage their students. Take a moment to learn how they teach DYA fiction as a method to address tough topics like violence, civic loyalty and power.

Liz Clift

Occasionally my students will say something along the lines of, “I belong in Amity” or “I’m Erudite.” To an outside observer who is unfamiliar with DYA fiction, these statements might seem a bit odd. In fact, “Amity” and “Erudite” are references to factions in a dystopian Chicago—the backdrop of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy.

At age 16, the teenage characters in the trilogy must choose to join one of the five factions—each based on a singular quality. “Amity” is the faction for the peaceful, and “Erudite” for the intelligent, so when I hear a student state that they belong in Amity or identify as Erudite, I take this to be more than a mere preference. It makes me wonder: Why do they opt for the peaceful faction over the intelligent, brave, selfless or honest one?

It’s perhaps easy to write off the Divergent trilogy as just another popular young-adult series that will soon fall by the wayside, but it stands up next to other dystopian novels, including The Hunger Games and perennial classics such as 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Divergent has particular appeal among my students quite possibly because it deals with intergroup and state-enacted violence and divided factions—salient issues in their own communities.

The youth I work with regularly witness violence perpetrated within their communities as well as against their communities by the police and others who are in positions of power. They see their communities divided by allegiances—to different gangs, to getting out of their neighborhoods versus staying, to the pressures of gentrification. They observe neighbors being denied medical care because of the stigma around drug use and marginalized by the local news station whenever an unknown perpetrator commits a crime. 

Divergent provides opportunities to address with my students what it means to struggle for a more just and united world. The protagonist—Tris—defies categorization, bringing into question the existence of the factions. Divergent and other titles within the DYA genre offer us opportunities to engage students around difficult topics such as violence and intergroup tension through an engaging and inclusive framework. When you hear your students mention a DYA novel, consider keeping the following questions in the back of your mind:

  • Is the appeal of a DYA novel (or series) merely its popularity, or does it parallel your students’ own experiences?
  • Can the title prompt your students to discuss tough social issues?
  • How can a discussion centered on a DYA novel complement other teaching tools?
  • Can a given DYA novel replace a more traditional novel as an assigned reading?

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Dr. Sharon Chappell

The DYA genre is ripe for considerations about students’ political identities: What issues are your students confronting right now? How do you teach about systems of power and control in their lives, their place within a broader community and the meaning of citizenship?

I compiled a list of DYA literature-centered activities that you can consider incorporating into your classroom. These activities can be used to make text-to-self and text-to-world connections.

Sense of belonging. What happens when the expectations of communities contradict one another or demand a choice of allegiance, as they do in the Divergent series? To explore this theme with students, ask them to create one or more self-portraits that reflect their identities as individuals and as community members. Start by listing the identity groups that students feel they belong to. Then draw an outline of the self (full body or bust) on the board. Fill this outline with words, images and symbols that reflect these identity groups.

Civic loyalties. In the book Delirium by Lauren Oliver, the protagonist, Lena, questions the narrative of her government. Do your students feel loyal to nationally held ideas, values and traditions? Ask students to reflect on this theme by creating a chart in which they will reflect on places of loyalty. These could include the home, school, place of worship, community organizations and the government. Have students list activities they "have to do" at each place, and then have them put a star next to activities they “want to do” and a question mark next to activities they “do not want to do.” Discuss as a class whether or not we should participate in activities at home, school, etc. that we either dislike or make us uncomfortable. 

Private wealth vs. the common good. In the Legend series by Marie Lu, the protagonist, June, learns her government is abusing its power and must decide whether to pursue her own wealth or expose the ways the government is impoverishing the people. This novel is a good springboard for asking students to define the terms "private wealth" and "common good." Have them talk about what jobs they would like to have and why. (They might interview one another or have a small group discussion.) Have students research their selected occupation: What is the occupation's educational requirements, salary and contributions to society? Then discuss whether their choices were motivated by private wealth or the common good. Lastly, look at examples of public figures who work toward private wealth, the common good and both. 

Power. The Matched series by Allyson Braithwaite Condie raises questions about how we can create new systems that address inequities and what we can learn from young people about traditions that should be maintained or changed. To explore this theme, play a version of Augusto Boal's Game of Power. In this game, place six chairs in the middle of the room. Ask students to rearrange the chairs so that one chair shows more power than the others (for example, a single chair facing the others). Discuss as a class how power is shown through the chair arrangement. Ask students to create other arrangements and then discuss. For at least one arrangement, ask students to fill the seats, so that one student has power. Then the next student takes a seat and "takes power away" from the previous student, using gesture, body position, etc. Discuss how power is given, taken and why these power arrangements are beneficial or damaging—and to whom.

Chappell is an assistant professor of elementary and bilingual education at California State University.

We’d like to hear from you. What DYA titles do you use in your classroom? How do you use it? What themes in DYA novels do your students typically gravitate towards? 

Create Safety by Modeling Vulnerability

"I’m nervous reading this memoir aloud to you because it’s really personal, and I’m afraid of what someone might say about it. But I’m going to read it anyway."

That wasn’t one of my seventh-grade students. That was me, their writing teacher.

I was making a conscious choice. My practice of nonviolent communication (NVC) had inspired me to share something I find scary to inspire courage in my students. By trusting myself in front of the class, by going forward even though I was vulnerable and afraid, I was showing that they were worthy of trust. This was how I was choosing to exercise my role as the leader in my classroom: setting the tone of productive risk-taking.

The classroom model that I had experienced as a student, and then learned as a new teacher, was based on closing or obscuring any vulnerability on the part of the teacher. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Sure, this approach helps us gain confidence when we still doubt whether we are ready to teach. What I want us to examine is when our vulnerability is actually an asset.

In the example above, I made two key choices: to share a personal memoir that disclosed details about my family, including mental illness, and to tell the class how nervous I was to share it with them.

After my introduction, I sensed a stillness in the room. Every face was trained on mine. There were no giggles, there was no whispering, just a focused silence as I read my piece. Then students dove in to writing their own narratives. They wrote what was real: growing up fatherless after a parent’s suicide, being teased for being overweight, deciding between friendship and schoolwork. They treated each other’s topics with the same care and tenderness they had shown mine.

My choice to take that leap, to inhabit a high level of vulnerability and authenticity in my classroom, shifted the entire atmosphere of the room and the learning experience of my students in just a few seconds. It had clearly become an open, emotionally safe space.

That example might seem unique to a writing teacher, but any educator can relate to some of my most profound moments of vulnerability. When a teacher is up in front of the class and a student says something mean or offensive, the usual response is to shut down the comment and usually the student. But when I stay committed to nonviolence, to not shutting out that student, then it becomes an opportunity: I can restore connection in the class by making transparent what the comment has triggered in me.

First, I pause. That in itself is vulnerable. It’s scary to stand up there in front of a room of seventh-graders and just be still with my feelings for a few moments, especially when students are not supposed to have the power to elicit emotions from the teacher.

The pause gives me a few seconds to get underneath my initial reaction of anger. I tell the class what I'm doing. I might say, "When I heard you say that just now, I had to stop for a moment. It upset me because I really care about everyone in this room. We have a classroom agreement to respect each other, and that’s not happening.”

The students are usually taken aback: A teacher is telling them she’s emotional! Isn't she just supposed to punish the student who made the comment? But rather than the moment causing a disconnection where most of the students hold their breath waiting to see how one student will be punished, they see how much I care about them, including the student who made the comment. It’s transformative. How many times in a school day do students hear how much their teachers care about them?

I'm imagining you might be wondering what happens next. I'll talk more about that in my next piece about discipline. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder this: How do your feelings show up in your classroom, and what choices do you have?

Editor’s note: Personal anecdotes—respectfully and thoughtfully shared by teachers—have great power. Stories should be chosen carefully, kept brief and told at a level that invites appropriate student sharing. Read about this and other classroom culture recommendations in Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.

Blaine is a public school teacher and dialogue facilitator and is currently studying nonviolent communication and social change.

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