Restorative Circles in My Math Class

At PCMI this summer, I gave an Ignite talk that I called “Beyond High Quality Math Instruction” that was about how/why I do restorative circles in my math classroom. Some teachers wanted to know more, and this is my attempt to elaborate. 

I am a math teacher who loves math and loves teaching. Being a math teacher is so central to my identity, that sometimes, I forget that there is a difference between Mr. Kelly the math teacher and Joey Kelly the person. For years, my students only knew Mr. Kelly the math teacher, but I am more than that.

I work really hard to get to know my students through mathematics. I learn their strengths, struggles, and interests in great detail, and I do everything I can to build their self-image as mathematicians. But sometimes, my best efforts fall flat. When I talk to their other teachers, it is usually eye-opening. I realize there is so much I don’t know about their family, interests, and social life.

High quality math instruction is not enough to get all of my students to succeed in my class. I also need to devote time and space to getting to know my students as more than math students and for them to get to know and trust me and each other. Restorative circles are how I create that space.

Two years ago, my resident teacher (Bear St. Michael) and I were trying to reach a particularly challenging group of students. Bear was participating in restorative circles in his grad school classes and advocated to try it with our students. At the same time, my school was starting a “Restorative Practices Working Group,” and by joining, I gained some circle experience with adults and some very supportive thought partners. In the Spring, Bear and I started leading some circles with our students. That summer, I attended a really excellent training through AFT with Pam Purdie, Cheryl Graves, and Dwanna Nicole. Last Fall, I went all in, dedicating one day every other week to a restorative circle.

There are a lot of benefits to doing restorative circles with students. Circles provide ample opportunities for social/emotional learning. Students practice listening to each other, speaking honestly, and reflecting on their own experiences. Circles also create a safe space and structure that can be applied to conflict resolution, and I hope that becomes a bigger part of my school’s culture this year. But most importantly, circles build community and trust. Circles give me a chance to share who I am as a person and learn about who my students are in their own words. The relationships that are strengthened in circle pay huge dividends in the rest of class.

Below is a loose outline of the process of I use when I lead a restorative circle. Mostly, I rely on the training I attended, but Circle forward has also been a great resource, and sometimes I find useful ideas by random googling. Teaching a math class and leading a restorative circle are very different skills, and at first, leading a circle was very intimidating, but I suggest jumping in and trying it out like you would with any instructional strategy. Then look for resources, allies, and training to get better. I’m happy to try to answer questions.

Create the Space – Set up chairs in a circle. Put a “do not disturb” sign on the door (the staff at my school have been great about respecting the sacredness of the circle time). Set up some sort of centerpiece to make this a sacred space (I use a cheap rug, a fancy fake candle, and several objects that have special meaning to me and/or my students). Note: circles are really hard with more than 15 or so people, and at times, I have split the class into two chunks (one with me, one with my student teacher) to make the groups more manageable.

Welcome – Usually I just say “Welcome. It’s great to see everyone.” or something like that. The first time, I explain a little about what we’re doing. I like to emphasize that this is intentionally different from class, that in a circle, all points are equidistant from the center, so in this space, I am an equal participant. This can also be a good time to recognize that circles are an ancient practice, drawing from many indigenous cultures.

Opening Ceremony – We use an opening ceremony to make it clear that we are entering a different, sacred space. Usually, I use a quote that I like. Songs and poems work too. This does NOT need to align thematically with the rest of the circle. This can be a great place to start letting students into the planning process.

Icebreaker Game – One of the main goals is to create a sense of community, and icebreaker games set a fun, mellow tone. Last year, some students told me that the icebreaker games were not just their favorite part of circles but their favorite part of math class. I mostly used google for ideas such as on this site.

Mindfulness Moment – A brief guided mediation to help disconnect from everyday distractions. This is a bit outside of my comfort zone, but I’m working on it. I usually do either a mindfulness moment or an icebreaker but rarely both.

Purpose / Basic Expectations – I take a moment to remind participants that the goal is to be present and practice listening, and as such, they should try to limit distractions like cell phones. Usually, I let students choose a talking piece from among the sacred objects in the center, and I explain that we use a talking piece to help focus our listening on one person, and we use something special to us so that the talking piece earns our respect. I take a moment to explain why this particular talking piece has special meaning to me. For example, one of my talking pieces is a over-sized beanie baby that my mom bought me in the hospital gift shop, and it is a symbol of her love and persistence. I add that the talking piece is an invitation to share and not a mandate, and everyone has the right to pass.

Check-in Round – The check-in round is as a low-stakes opportunity to get people to share. I usually use a three-part prompt to add ways to participate. For example, “tell us your name, how you’re feeling today, and your favorite fruit.”

Values / Agreements – This is a tough part for me. When I was trained, I was told it was crucial to start by talking about our values and what we need in order to be comfortable sharing in this space. I am still figuring out how to make this part feel natural, and I usually skip it.

Rounds – This is the meat of the circle and can go in a lot of directions. I usually try to start with questions that give students an opportunity to tell stories about themselves. Some examples:

  • Tell us about a time when you felt particularly successful/embarrassed.
  • Tell us about the best present you ever gave/received.
  • Tell us your most vivid memory of elementary school.
  • Tell us about someone who had a big impact of you and doesn’t know it.

Subsequent questions might be more stories or related follow-up questions. Usually, I only have time for a few rounds, but I always plan more than I need.

Sometimes, the rounds can be activity and a share out. You could take some time to do a reading and then do a round of reflections. Once, I had students write and decorate a postcard to send to someone and then we did a round to share out.

Check-out Round – Send the talking piece around one more time to ask how the circle was for everyone and to see if they have anything to add.

Closing Ceremony – Mark the end of the circle with another quote (or the same one).

Clean Up – And switch back into teacher-mode.


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