Earlier this year the report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, confirmed what is intuitively known about supporting student learning but is often left out of the discussion. Based on research and conversations with young people, parents, teachers, school and district leaders, and community leaders, the report found that science and experience converged on one main point: “Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs. More specifically, children require a broad array of skills, attitudes, character traits, and values to succeed in school, careers, and life.”
Inspired by this report and the Student Success Act which proposes robust investments in early learning, equity, safety and social emotional supports, I wanted to find what Oregon classrooms are currently doing to support students’ social and emotional needs. I contacted David Douglas School District to get an update on the Equity Pilot they started two years ago. The Equity Pilot work was created, in partnership with Chalkboard Project, to provide time and attention to relationship building with students and their teachers. One exercise David Douglas developed through the Pilot was community circles. Often carved out for the first 10 minutes of the day, community circles help students connect with their classmates and their teachers on a deeper emotional level.
Belle Koskela, instructional coach and high school teacher at David Douglas, recounted why the community circles were imperative and how they helped students connect authentically and on empathic levels. “One culturally responsive teaching practice is to bring your students’ backgrounds into the classroom, by, for example, providing literature or visuals that relate to students’ cultures. But last year, in my classroom of 31 students, there were 16 languages spoken and 6 different religions. The community circles helped give time and space for students to share their different perspectives and experiences.” The circles gave a framework for Belle to open up discussions with her students and provide time for the whole class to really listen to each other. “The circles were a chance for students to bring their whole selves into the classrooms, which I hope allowed students to be seen, feel included, and develop interest in each other.”
Francesca Aultman is a fifth-grade teacher in David Douglas and regularly uses community circles to engage her students. “If a student does not see themselves reflected in the classroom or curriculum, it can negatively affect how they learn. Community circles not only allow for a safe and dedicated space to represent all students in our classroom, it also teaches us important listening, empathy, and conflict resolution skills.”
Francesca recounted that after PE class one day, her students came back to her class upset about an incident that occurred where a student was picked on. In response, her students collectively called a community circle to talk about it. They told Francesca that until they addressed the incident, it would be a distraction to their learning. At first Francesca was skeptical, were they just trying to get out of the next subject? But that wasn’t the case, in fact, the students used the community circle to talk about how they felt when their classmate was teased and what they needed to do to reconcile it. Ultimately the students that teased their classmate apologized and all the students felt a sense of pride that their classroom had worked together to resolve the issue.
Francesca ended our conversation by saying, “I think community circles help teachers get to know their students better, but they also provide a forum to celebrate and discuss differences in our classroom. Even if we come to a circle with a basic question such as 'What did you do this weekend?', the answers can help fuel a deeper discussion. Someone could answer- ‘I celebrated Chinese New Year,’ and then be given the opportunity to share what that means. On a surface level, the conversations expose students to different backgrounds, but on a deeper level it gives students who may have felt like the minority, a chance to celebrate their identity and be listened to.”
To find out more about the Equity Pilot, watch this video
Find out more about the Student Success Act here