My First Circle in a Prison: A Lesson in Trusting the Process

On July 19, 2017, I facilitated a circle for incarcerated men who are students in the Common Good Atlanta program at Phillips State Prison. Common Good Atlanta serves as a liaison between prisons offering college courses for incarcerated men and universities teaching the courses.

While heading to the prison with Dr. Elizabeth Beck, who invited me to share how restorative practices are used in schools, I was excited for another opportunity to hold circle and nervous about my ability to create a safe space in a prison setting.

I was quickly reminded that I had no reason to be nervous because together we could hold the space. All I had to do was be authentic and trust the process. Trusting the process means trusting yourself and those who are with you. It means believing in the goodness of people and knowing that collectively, we have everything we need to hold the space.

This circle was no exception. Yes, these men were convicted of crimes, but they are more than the incidences that landed them in prison.  Therefore, we shared authentically and they emanated wisdom, power, and goodness though their status often leads to them being viewed as unlearned, powerless, and insufficient.

I could sense our interconnectedness and collective strength which stirred up a variety of emotions. I was happy they had one another, sad their knowledge and strength was caged in a prison complex, and thankful for our time together.

If given the opportunity, I would gladly return to Phillips State Prison. My only hope is that I have helped them as much as they helped me.

Restorative Practices in Schools: Using Circles to Support One Another in the Aftermath of Hurricane Irma

In Georgia, thousands of students and staff will be returning to school in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma that began on September 11th, 2017. News and social media have been filled with updates and pictures showing the impact of Hurricane Irma. Many Georgia residents were impacted by the loss of electricity and falling trees while others struggled with the injury or death of a loved one. Our hotels were filled with dislocated Florida residents. Many Georgia residents took in friends and family, others wondered how those who remained in Florida were doing, and some received unfortunate news.

Restorative practices provide a framework that engages and supports one another in addressing the feeling and emotions caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Students and staff may try to act as if Hurricane Irma did not impact them, though thoughts and actions would say otherwise. In such difficult times, remember the importance of taking care of yourselves and one another as a collective school community.

One way of addressing the trauma and stress that staff and students could be feeling is to have a restorative circle. Here is one example:

  • Have everyone sit in a circle.
  • Use a talking piece and ensure everyone gets an opportunity
    to speak.
  • Have each person share how they are doing on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10
  • If time permits, add “Feel free to share why.” Framing the statement in
    this way does not force participants to share. Instead, it gives them the space to
    share if needed.
  • Explain the importance of hearing everyone’s number and supporting one another.
  • Acknowledge that everyone will find themselves at the lower and higher ends of the
    spectrum throughout the school year
  • Lead a brainstorming activity to identify ways of supporting one another when
    someone is at the lower end of the spectrum

Remember there are many acts of kindness and generosity that requires minimal time and get great results (e.g. loaning someone a pencil, holding the door for someone,
saying “good morning”, or saying “I’m glad you’re here”).

When considering the circle process, remember the importance of training. As I often say, “Anyone can sit in circle and pass a talking piece.” A restorative circle embraces equity, is trauma-sensitive, values every voice, and is safe and supportive.

Restorative Practices and Social-Emotional Learning

Chauna-in-circle-wirh-students has been addressing the use of Restorative Practices in schools. In November, 2016, Maurice J. Elias wrote a blog interviewing Dr. Brian Smith who is a research scientist with the Committee for Children. In this blog, Dr. Smith explains how punitive approaches to discipline impact students (particularly students of color), why Restorative approaches support students, and how Restorative approaches connect to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
Dr. Smith makes many great points. However, I question if “Restorative practices that build positive school climate and healthy relationships depend on the foundation provided by SEL.” Instead, I suggest regular use of the circle process with existing practices and programs naturally increases students’ Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies evidenced by my experience in a school serving at-risk students where staff and students participated in circle every two weeks. Students also created and led many of the circle discussions.

The circle process also encourages students to operate out of the Social and Emotional Learning competencies they have. Students are defiant at times and for a variety of reasons. That defiance can be as simple as making an irresponsible decision to talk at a time when they shouldn’t or as complex as a trauma trigger that causes defiant behavior. I remember being contacted toward the end of the school year to support a school where disruptive behavior had been the norm. After meeting with staff, we decided to use circles in 3 different classrooms for 4 weeks. Upon completion of the 1st circle, students completed a survey to determine if we should continue and 94.83% of students stated circles should continue. After talking with staff, I learned that student behavior exhibited in circle was far better than their behavior during instruction. At the end of the four-week session, students completed another survey and 87.93% indicated that circles should continue the following school year.

Therefore, I ask educators to consider using the practices regularly to increase SEL skills and use the practices with existing practices (e.g. lesson plans) and programs (e.g. Second Step) to increase participation, engagement, and critical thinking.