- Cherry Creek School District No. 5
Creating community with class circles at Heritage Elementary
How do you help students build community and navigate conflict resolution when they are still younger learners? Heritage Elementary has launched a new initiative this year that they hope will help decrease conflict, empower students, and create meaningful relationships: class circles.
In a class circle, the entire class sits or stands in a circle and considers their own answers to a question that the teacher asks, such as “What was your favorite memory from fall break?” or “What is one value we look for in friendships?” Each student takes a turn, giving each other the designated ‘talking piece’ that reminds students to respect each other’s turns.
“We launched class circles this year with the goal of helping students build relationships,” Heritage third-grade teacher Beth Shaffer said. “We believe the best way to reduce conflict is to build relationships, and this practice gives students a chance to share and connect.”
Shaffer and her fellow teacher, Jane Hutchinson, are co-chairs of a committee at Heritage that looks for ways to help support positive student behavior. In launching class circles this year, Hutchinson and Shaffer used research-based educational practices to empower students to build confidence and skill in thinking and communicating their ideas. While some students were shy or reluctant, Hutchinson shared that quite a few students have become more excited about class circles.
“We can’t skip a day in my class,” Hutchinson said with a laugh. “If my students think we won’t do the class circle, they want to know why.”
Class circles have five agreements: (1) respect the talking piece, (2) speak from the heart, (3) listen from the heart, (4) trust you will know what to say, and (5) say just enough. These agreements empower students to grow the skills they need to build positive relationships. Many of the prompts include social-emotional learning questions to help students understand their feelings.
“These circles have helped our students feel more in-tune with their classmates,” Heritage Principal Ryan Langdon shared. “Classmates practice listening from the heart, which can mean being more patient. They practice speaking from the heart, which can build confidence.”
Class circles not only build connections, which can reduce conflict, but also gives students a feeling of empowerment. Hutchinson relayed a story where she walked her students through the hall, only to see that half the class had rushed ahead quickly. When she did a class circle to find out why the students rushed ahead, some students shared that they were just following the person in front of them, and others thought their teacher was intentionally lagging behind. This story was memorable to one student who went home to tell their parents that “my teacher really listened to me.” The student appreciated that Hutchinson asked clarifying questions to build the relationship.
The goal is to help students begin to lead class circles themselves, giving them agency and a voice in the process. Students shared their thoughts on class circles recently, with students agreeing that it helped them.
“Circle has improved our community because it helps everyone to get to know each other,” Heritage fifth-grader Alli Hessek wrote in an assignment. “[Restorative] circles help to fix cracks/breaks in the community and help fix problems going on.”
“I believe circle improves our community and myself because we can improve our classroom trust and our ability to know that we can feel safe while we share our thoughts and feelings,” Heritage fifth-grader Jolie Barbour wrote. “It has improved me to be more virtuous and a better person who doesn't need to be worried to share.”