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“Virtual Circles” Allow Restorative Practices to Continue in Distance Learning

At Randolph Academy, we pride ourselves on our use of circle practice as an integral part of our program. Level 1 community building circles are used daily to help build a strong relationship between students and staff. We also participate in level 2 and level 3 circles when the situation requires it.

For those who are unfamiliar with circle practice, it begins with the circle keeper giving a prompt or question to the group. Then, each person in the circle gets a chance to respond to the prompt. We sit in a circle and pass a talking piece, which indicates that it is your turn to speak. This gives equity of voice and also creates a format where one or two people won’t dominate the conversation. Being present and listening to others’ life experiences is also an important component.

In spring 2020, the pandemic caused to us change the way we instructed our students. We quickly moved to a distance-learning model where we delivered remote instruction by phone, email, and video meetings. Students and staff members were both hoping we could continue our circle practice, because it was such an integral part of our program. We wondered, how will this work without the use of a talking piece? Will students respect taking turns? Will people stay present and listen to others’ truths?

We knew we had to continue our circles and were relieved to discover they could be a success in a virtual format. To ensure their effectiveness, our Restorative Justice Team completed online training and workshops. We received guidance on what is considered best practice for virtual circles and shared that information with our colleagues. We also learned how important it is to have a co-facilitator (or co-keeper) who types the circle’s order and any prompts in the chat area, and keeps an eye on the time to make sure we can hear from everyone.

Another virtual circle best practice which I especially endorse is the use of PowerPoint. By creating some slides before the start of the circle, it gives the participants visual aids, including graphics, quotes and videos related to the topic. We also include circle etiquette, to remind students of expected behavior such as speaking in turn, being appropriate, and muting your phone or computer when you’re not speaking. We also use graphics to show the circle’s order. It is placed on every slide as a steady reminder, visible through the “screen share” function.

We’ve had many successes thus far with these virtual sessions. Students have been excited to see and interact with their peers and our staff. It’s also given us a unique look at each other’s lives, which helps us understand each other even better. There have been some “show-and-tell” moments, where students have shared work projects or their pets. They’ve also been excited to catch a glimpse of staff members’ homes and asked questions about pictures on the wall or other furnishings. Overall our virtual circles have been extremely successful. As a critical part of our program, it was so important to continue them remotely. At their most basic level, circles build a community, and we continued making ours even stronger, despite our physical distance! For a video demonstration of how you can use this in your school, visit this link.