Creating Caring Climates

Practicing Active Listening

Sophomore English, midday on an October Friday. When students arrive and see the desks in a circle, they know what to expect—circles already represent something fun and off-topic! Teacher Vicky Weiss picks up a stuffed green frog and asks the class: if you could travel anywhere—money was no object—where would you go? “I’d like to go to Greece,” she said, and passed the frog to her left. 

Iceland. Greece. Italy. Boston! My house. Each student holds the little frog as they answer. It indicates to the rest of the class that they have the floor. They laugh at silly answers and learn a little bit more about each other. 

Building a sense of belonging and connection; resolving conflicts and addressing problems

Circles like this are happening throughout John Jay High School, taking approximately five minutes once a week in each class. “They build a caring environment, which supports a healthy community,” said Candy Wilmot, the staff developer who brought the practice to the school. The entire teaching, administrative and clerical staff have also been trained and use the circles at meetings. It’s part of the district’s goal to affirm adults and children’s sense of belonging and connectedness.

Building belonging is not the only goal of the circles. They are also used to resolve conflicts and address problems.

When a racist drawing was found in a high school textbook earlier in the fall, every English class in the school held a more serious circle for the entire period. The amount of time signaled the importance of the situation to the students. Thoughtful sharing was made possible by the norms of respect and the connections already in place.

Talking about hard topics

Personal reflection within a class community

In Vicky Weiss’s senior class, students were somber as they read Principal Steven Siciliano’s letter to the community about the infraction. Weiss asked students to underline the phrase in the letter that stood out to them. They went around the circle reading those portions aloud; the little green stuffed frog holding space for each student to be heard. 

Additional rounds that period included “Who has been hurt?” “What can you do to prevent this type of behavior?” “What else do you want to share?” She reminded the students that what is said in the circle stays in the circle. 

Creating a Culture of Care in our schools

Wilmot provides the name for this type of circle: a Restorative Justice Circle. “Justice typically deals with chasing down the person who caused the harm,” said Wilmot. “A Restorative Justice Circle places the people who were harmed in the center. Our goal is reconciliation. It’s a different way of keeping kids accountable for their behavior.”

At the end of the class, the mood was peaceful. “I’m glad we did this,” said one of the students to her classmate as they walked out into the hallway.