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Creating a School Culture with Dignity for All

Heidi Byler, 3rd grade circle

Sitting in a circle and talking sounds easy. But using a “circle process” to ensure every voice is heard and respected takes discipline and hard work. That’s what K-12 teachers at Eastern Mennonite School are learning as they commit to restorative practices in education.

Using a “circle process” is one way administrators and teachers help to make sure every voice is heard and respected at EMS. In a circle, participants face each other and pass a “talking piece.” Only the person with the talking piece may talk; others listen. Participants can “pass” when the piece comes to them. Everyone has a chance to be heard.

Each week, middle and high school students meet in Neighbor Groups of eight to 10 student where they often practice the circle format to discuss a common theme. A recent theme was the role that technology plays in each person’s life and the impact that has on relationships, study habits and learning.

In a disciplinary situation, the circle provides space for those who have been hurt to share how they were affected by others’ actions. Perpetrators listen and learn to understand the consequences of their choices; they get a chance to talk too.

At a practice session with teachers, Justin King, high school principal noted that some students — and adults — may be skeptical about the process. “What is this ‘mumbo jumbo?’ students may ask,” he laughed. But, he explained, there is something special about sitting in a circle. “It slows us down. When we make time for one person to share and others to focus on them, it’s hard not to listen.”

“We are committed to making sure we — students and teachers — are accountable to each other,” says Maria Archer K-8 principal. “When restorative practices become a part of our everyday lives, conflicts are addressed and, most importantly, each person has a voice.”

Read more about the EMS peacebuilding culture and curriculum.

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