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Circle of Learning is More Than a Figure of Speech

November 30, 2010

This is an article about council in schools published by the LA Times. This is what is needed in our world’s crumbling education system. A place where our stories can be heard, where we feel we are not alone, where community has a chance to gather from a hearts place.

Much love,

Teachers are using a traditional technique to help students communicate with one another as a way to build bonds that will foster learning and help them stay in school.

Learning circles

Wilshire Park Elementary student Julia Kim talks during a session about acts of kindness. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times / November 27, 2010)

By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

It’s story time at Amelia Earhart Continuation School, a place where high school students who have ditched class, flunked out or otherwise fallen behind in their academic credits come to catch up.

On this day, the students in Nancy Stringer’s English class sit in a circle. As they pass around a “talking piece” — a black rubber rat named Scar — they share stories of elementary and middle school.

I stabbed a kid. I broke my hand. I got my first kiss. I got straight A’s. I was scared of ghosts because a janitor committed suicide.

It may seem simple, but the North Hollywood students say that sharing stories in this way — a practice known as “council” — has made a huge difference in their lives. Through stories, they say, they have come to know and trust one another, building strong bonds that have helped them stay in school.

“Here, everyone cares about each other,” said Jessica Beristain, a 17-year-old sophomore who added that she used to ditch her classes constantly to escape “screaming teachers” and hostile students at her previous school. “Now school is fun.”

Cultures worldwide have long used speaking and listening circles — most notably, Native Americans. But now a modernized form, developed by the nonprofit Ojai Foundation, has spread to 12,000 students via 600 trained teachers in more than 60 schools, many of them in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Joe Provisor, who helped launch the program in the district in 2006, said research shows that strong school relationships are critical for a student’s success. But those bonds are harder to forge in today’s educational climate, he said, where academic pressures have crowded out time for social and emotional development.

“This is bringing humanity back to the schools,” said Provisor, a teacher advisor with the district’s office of curriculum, instruction and school support. “Schools are so focused now on testing and assessment — the download and regurgitation of content. Council is the practice of listening to children and to one another.”

Judy Elliott, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, called the program a “very powerful tool” to help students transcend race, gender, disabilities and other dividing lines. It also gives teachers a strategy to make the curriculum come alive, she said.

At Amelia Earhart, for instance, Stringer has used council for literature, asking students to say which character they most identified with in the novel ” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Another teacher, Ron Narita, has used it for his Earth science class — asking everyone to tell a story about an earthquake, volcano or other geologic event.

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