And no I am not going to talk about the “big” structure of things in the world we inhabit and the constructed reality of our lives.
The structure I wanted to talk about was circles, of course. Through teaching I have the great privilege and opportunity to experiment with different, and what would be called, pedagogical approaches. In Kay Pranis’ taxonomy of circles there are what are called learning circles. This is what I have been experimenting with and their variants. And many other teachers will just be doing what I am talking about all the time.
This year I have toyed with using circles as a teaching device with large classrooms of approximately 50 students in each class. I have been able to do some unscientific research across 3 different groups two of which I had not met before the last week in October. The first class I had had for a 7 week course since their entry into the College in September.
I began each of my first class at the end of October by setting up the classroom in a nice intimate circle without desks, for 50 people. (Notice the irony….often mistaken for sarcasm; more on that at a later date.) I had folks go through a series of icebreakers and “get to know you” exercises, as much for their benefit as mine, since the majority were strangers to me and vice-a-versa. This seemed to work as an initial engagement strategy. People left knowing more people than they had when they had come in and I certainly did. Although there were still about 100 I did not know.
The next week I deliberately put the desks and chairs in rows in the conventional arrangement. Then I asked a few restorative questions to get responses. What were your first thoughts seeing this arrangement? What did you feel? What were the impacts on you? What were your hopes?
I was quite taken with some of the responses. Some people said that they were sad and depressed when they saw the arrangement. Others said that they expected very little to happen. (Imagine….they have spent years sitting like this with few hopes and expectations). A few people said that they were upset because they were getting used to the arrangement. I had to comment to them that “wasn’t that interesting since we had only had the arrangement once but somehow or other it had become a new “normal” .It was a setup that had positive and energizing associations.
I talked a little about the research that Sir Ken Robinson cited regarding the “dumbing” down of children’s natural ability to think creatively and utilize divergent thinking. He cites that children who start out as scoring at genius level at the age of 4-5 (about 98% of children) have had this genius level thoroughly taught of them by the end of their schooling experience. I suggested that it might have to do with desks and chairs and straight rows and the absence of circles and face to face encounters and all other manner of things that arise when we meet each other face to face.
This was also a link to the core content of this course and deliberate teachable moment which has to do with how constructing environments (Healing Spaces; Michael Burns) in their role as Child and Youth Workers working with disadvantaged and at risk children and youth is an ongoing challenge and responsibility. This challenge, which at times can seem insurmountable, can also be addressed in small ways. As one of my wise teachers admonished me it was “to address big things in small ways.”
I also promised that from that day on there would be more circles in their learning experience in this course at the College.
So what else seemed to reflect on this short (7 week) but , albeit meaningful experience of teaching using circles. What were other indicators that the structure of things was actually taking root and having other impacts in this classroom and group of students?
In week 5 the focus was on Therapeutic Storytelling. I structured a number of “story” related activities to demonstrate the various uses of storytelling. The last activity had me read a story called “The Boy and The Wall”. It is a children’s story written at the Lajee Refugee Centre in Palestine which reflects the hope of one boy to have a life that allows him to live a life not sundered by the construction of a wall through the farm lands and olive orchards and ultimately, his life. The ending is fairly emotional (at least for myself) since there is an ongoing dialogue between the boy and his mother and her hopes for him as well. I think the emotion was visible for the second group. This is the group that also I could say that I have a relationship since I have shepherded them through the first 7 weeks of the College adventure.
Two of the students said” why don’t we raise money for this organization”. I had explained that the goal of the Centre and the person who ran it was to create a generation of leaders, who despite the horrors of living their lives confined to refugee camps, could transcend the various indignities and not turn to violence and revenge but lead themselves and their people to a different “space”. I also said that all of this was quite controversial since the mid-east conflict easily leads to polarized conversations. But that when it comes to children there should be no politics or sides.
The long and short of it was the following week they passed the hat (I have a large collection of hats) and raised $42 with a promise to also buy copies of the book.
My thought is that this was a spontaneous gesture supported by the humanness of our contact to date in the context of circle “work” and “learning”. This humanness had to do with relationships and real emotion.
In Week 6 I arrived at my usual time, 6:40 a.m, only to find that one of the students was already there and had moved half of the desks by hersefl. She aplologzied gor not having it all done.
In the last week I had each class do a series of exercises that revolved around claiming, in this space, their:
The last part of exercise asked them to use a postcard that I gave them with an image that they were to use to talk about what they were taking away with them after their first 4 months at the College.
From two of the close 100 quotes that I have;
One of the young women simply said “that now she could talk in front of 50 people, which she had never done before.’
Another said “that these last 4 months have taught me a lot about myself and about the people around me in the the CYW field. Being a CYW student has made me work hard on myself and be a better team player. Working together will make the job easier.”
Another using the image of a old leather storage chest said" This chest is filled with fears, tears, smiles, laughter, freindship but most importantly knowledge. The lock is gone so don't be afraid to be greedy."
So back to the point which is about the structure of things and its impacts.
Well the above says a lot about that dynamic in general, but, in particular, using circle processes that are value driven and aim to build and enhance relationships amongst students but also with the teacher seem to have many intended and unintended effects.
Parker Palmer in his “The Courage to Teach” cites the research on relational trust and school success. Where relational trust is present, then schools have been found to perform in the top 25%. In fact it can be a significant mitigating factor when placed up against larger societal dynamics and the primary and secondary determinants of health.
Maybe I am then talking about the larger structures as well. What would happen if all of us who are affected by everything that happens to us in the present and, for the future that we are creating, sat in one big circle and got to know each other in a very real and authentic way and after that moved on to see what we could do to make the structure of the world one that is fit for humans. Could we all together raise $42 so that no boy or no girl would have a wall in their life and dreams and their hopes? Or maybe something else equally meaningful.
Who knows? But the structure of things does seem to affect the structure of things.