- Sponsorship -

Circles Teach Students How to Talk It Out

The Restorative Circle program being used to solve disputes among students at Godfrey Lee Middle School is pretty simple: sit down together and talk it out.

This makes more sense thanthe usual route of anger, fights and suspensions, says Christine Gilman, who directs the circle in its first year.

“If you just get suspended, the fight is still going to be going on in your head,” Gilman says. “When you come back to school, you’ll probably be 10 times madder than when you left.”

Instead of focusing on who did it and punishment, the group focuses on what happened and how to keep it from happening again, says Gilman, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, an organization that helps people solve problems using a mediator.Teresa Sanchez Perez says the Restorative Circles program helps her look at things differently

“Everyone has a different perspective,” Gilman says. “The important thing is to share what’s going on and how it made them feel.”

Before a session starts, Gilman explains to the participants she’s not there to get them in trouble.

“I’m not going to punish them, I’m just here to figure out how to stop bad behavior,” she says.

Dean of Students Brett Lambert says Gilman takes care of verbal or emotional disagreements and conflicts before they get to his office.

“At my level, it’s already to the point there’s going to be disciplinary action,” Lambert explains, adding that, for the students, knowing they’re not talking to him is less intimidating.

Inside the Circle

The program for the middle school’s sixth- through eighth-grade students began in October. Since then about 25 disputes regarding fighting, bullying, hair pulling — even acorn throwing — have come to the circle.

Gilman visits the school twice a week to meet with students, who are referred by teachers and administrators. State and local grants and area organizations pay for the program.

Grand Rapids Public Schools adopted a similar pilot program last fall in three schools, as a way of healing conflicts and reducing suspensions.

Aryonna Mullins listens during a Restorative CircleAt a recent meeting at Godfrey Lee Middle School, four seventh-grade girls sit in a circle with Gilman. She breaks the ice by asking them about their weekends, then slides right into the issues that brought them to the circle with the help of a funny-looking, stuffed green frog. Whoever is holding the frog gets to speak.

Aydalaz Guzman talks about instigating trouble by calling a girl a name.

“I knew it was wrong,” Aydalaz says. “I wasn’t respecting my cousin’s friendship with her. I was telling her not to talk to her, not to hang out with her, not to be her friend.”

Her cousin Teresa Sanchez, also in the circle, found herself in the middle of the feud.

“I wanted to be both of their friends,” Teresa says. “I knew that they should get along.”

Mariah Quiles talks about a fight brewing between her and another girl. She came to the circle to discuss it, and the fight didn’t happen. Without the Restorative Circle, she says, “I’d have been suspended by now.”

Gilman lets the students do most of the talking.Mariah Quiles says the circles have helped her stay out of trouble

“You give us advice, but we figure it out on our own,” says Mariah.

Making Apologies, Seeking Forgiveness

It surprises students when they sit down together to learn they are facing similar problems, Gilman says. She encourages them to ask for forgiveness and accept apologies.

“Accepting an apology is almost as good as giving an apology,” she says. “When you see that empathy, it’s really cool. I have seen the light go on.”

At the end of a session, Gilman writes up an agreement among the students.

“The best thing,” she says, “is while I’m typing up the agreement, they’re giggling, laughing and talking.”


Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan

Grand Rapids Public Schools Restorative Justice Program

- Sponsorship -
Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


Learning from a place full of living things

Rebecca Perry and her class of eager kindergartners spent their morning exploring the newly redone Living Lab at Zinser Elementary...

Mapping the road to learning

Elementary teachers Billie Freeland and Nicole Andreas are at the forefront of using a curriculum designed to further educational goals, regardless of whether students are in person or online...

‘Even though it is extra work, I don’t mind the changes’

Teachers of specialty subjects — art, music and physical education — share their experiences after the pandemic prompts changes to class procedures...

Bus drivers work as daytime cleaners during pandemic

It’s also a plus to have familiar faces around school...


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

What kind of school bus doesn’t need gas or batteries?

A new/old way to get to school is saving money and having a positive effect on students and families...

Pilot program provides COVID testing at school and home

In partnership with the Kent County Health Department, the district is the first in Kent County to offer school-based testing for the novel coronavirus...

CARES funding helps schools meet COVID-related costs

Across Kent County, schools are benefitting from an infusion of funds thanks to $2 million from the Kent County Board of Commissioners via the Kent County CARES Act School Grant Program...
- Sponsorship -


Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Polls find that students’ engagement in their school work declines as they ascend the grades. Tests that don’t relate to their real-life experiences exacerbate the problem...


Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves...
- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You LiveWGVU