If you know our program, you know that the Burlington City & Lake Semester is trying to approach school a little differently. We’ve brought together a diverse group of students; we’ve established a new, and natural learning environment; and we’ve committed ourselves to practices that align with these new opportunities.
While there are certainly program elements that are driven by research and projects (see recent posts), there are other things that we do that challenge the traditional definition of “pedagogy” and “curriculum.” In a program that is as much about us – about who is present – as it is about place-based education, some of the most powerful learning comes from the people we are, and the journey that each of us, and all of us, are on.
Circle isn’t new. In the natural world, it is an ever present form, ordering everything from the growth of cells to the arcs of celestial bodies. The indigenous people who have called the Champlain Basin home for more than 10,000 years have understood and applied this principle to everything from cosmology to shared decision-making. In today’s dominant culture, however, with its linear logic and pressure to produce and consume, the circle can feel farther away – even quaint.
Still, many are returning. The Burlington School District has recently been investing in circle practice as an approach to their broader Restorative Practices initiative. People working in this field might call this work “Tier 1.” But while BCL’s approach dovetails with broader District initiatives, its origins run deeper. Each BCL faculty member brings their own connection to this work. For Andy, circle was a powerful element of community life in the Maine Coast Semester. Dov facilitated circles during his years in the French West Indies, working for Visions Service Adventures. Peter and Signe have used community-centered approaches for years. Establishing Circle as a core part of the BCL program felt natural.
On the face of it, the practice is simple: We gather as a community, in a circle, for 60-90 minutes, once every two weeks. A balance of facilitated activities and open-ended space allows every person to be fully present, and have an equal voice. Sometimes it feels like a warm hug; other times, it is a place for group members to challenge themselves, each other, or the community as a whole. It’s not always easy or comfortable. But in the end, Circle is a deliberate investment in community, connection, and belonging.
BCL students’ perspectives offer a window into what Circle is, and what Circle means.
Circle provides an opportunity to separate ourselves from the learning we do and take a pause to focus on the needs of our community. There is a balance between group feedback and valuing individual voices and it is a meaningful activity which strengthens our community and humanizes our community members.
Circle is a time for the class to connect as more than just students and teachers. It allows a chance for everyone to feel heard and also allows a chance for individuals who don’t feel like speaking to step back and for individuals who want to speak a chance to step forward. It’s very low pressure so it doesn’t feel forced and is a time for all of us to enjoy and relax.
Circle allows students to really connect and see each other as trustworthy people. Because we are all sharing literally whatever is on our mind, we connect so, so, so much more than when we’re walking down the hallways at school, where the only form of connection is making quick eye contact and then a slight nod of our heads before we continue down the rest of the empty hallway.
Circle is really what brings our community together. Especially in a semester program like BCL that focuses on community, we need to understand more of what that means and Circle time is a wonderful way to connect, understand, and enter this realm of vulnerability. I personally use circle to express my own thoughts about how I perceive this world and what makes me, me. Other people use it to talk about their days, others use it to talk about their feelings, some talk about random things (dogs, cooking, bike gloves, etc…). Overall, I think circle time is for students to express and understand each other’s lives, which creates a respectful, and thoughtful type of community.
If I never experienced it, I would have had no idea that Circle would be so meaningful. BCL’s tight-knit community and charismatic atmosphere has engendered an amazing sense of trust to open up with fellow peers and teachers. Circle is one of the main reasons I think we are able to have this general trust throughout the day in our group. It creates a very connected dynamic, that personally I can say has made me feel uniquely connected to fellow BCL students, and teachers.
This being said, I think that all classes (even in regular school) should consider setting aside time to sit and just connect with one another as we do. This could be through a check-in question, or going around to see how everyone’s feeling, anything that creates a feeling of togetherness the way circle time has for us, because having a good strong sense of community in school is very important. I genuinely feel like I know every person in our BCL community by the end of this one quarter pretty well, and I think that Circle is a huge contributor to me being able to say that.