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Connecting through circles

Kentwood — On a mid-December morning the Thursday before holiday break, Pinewood Middle School sixth-grader Ella Schalk said she felt like a four on a scale of one to five, with five being the best.

She explained why: “I saw all the games in here,” she said, referring to video games her teen leadership class was allowed to play for most of the hour. “And I got an ornament.”

Ella was sharing how she felt with her peers in teacher Vincent Mayfield’s class, as they gathered in a circle on chairs in the middle of the room following the special gaming time.

They discussed highlights in their lives: a fun experiment that day in science; the anticipation of an evening choir concert; a Christmas trip to Denver, Colorado. Students passed around a squishy Earth-themed ball, expressing their feelings when it was their turn to speak. Though the morning was a happy one, students also had the chance to share if they felt less than stellar, or more like a one or two than a five.

From left, Brian Johnson and Seyvon Copeland talk about how they are feeling

Students also shared one word each about starting break. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” was the most enthusiastic. 

Ella said she likes to hear how her peers are feeling and their thoughts. “It’s a good way to know how you and the other people are feeling,” she said. “It’s funny when another person tells a joke in a circle. It helps you communicate.” 

Circling Up to Create Connections

Mayfield often invites his students into these kinds of restorative circles, which are a main component in restorative practices. Kentwood Public Schools is in its first year of a three- to five-year process of implementing the practices district-wide as a way to create community, a sense of belonging and to prevent discipline problems. 

Educators are being trained through the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a Pennsylvania-based graduate school that specializes in the field.

‘When you are building a community, you are establishing a culture. When you have kids that feel safe, you are going to start to see positive movement in all student outcomes, not just academic but also behavior, attendance and mental health.’

— Andrew Tevlin, MTSS coordinator

Mayfield hosts circles for a variety of reasons, both academic and social-emotional. It’s a way to give everyone in the class a chance to feel heard. 

“We check in to see how kids are feeling, where they are at, to also be able to make connections with content,” he said. Teen Leadership helps students develop skills that will help them become better students. “We may have a circle that is specific to the introduction to or a closing of a lesson, or we may have something around just being able to connect with students.”

Restorative practices are often used to help districts move away from zero-tolerance discipline policies and toward restorative approaches to addressing conflict, such as helping students learn to regulate mood and talk through problems. The main focus is on prevention, said Veronica Lake, executive director of student services. Creating an environment of belonging for all results in fewer behavior problems.

“The perspective we have around equity and inclusion is giving everybody the opportunity to engage and to be able to have a voice. We are using the framework that restorative practices offer in order to get us where we want to go, so we prevent the need to discipline, if possible.” Lake said.

Teacher Vincent Mayfield talks with students during the week before holiday break about how he’s feeling. From left, Mattias Hutt, Athieng Atem, Mayfield, Kaia Gundersen and Jazlynn Glover

Healthy Culture Brings Better Outcomes

Much of that starts foundationally, said Andrew Tevlin, the district’s MTSS coordinator. All students are learning conflict resolution strategies and having chances to form relationships. 

“When you are building a community, you are establishing a culture,” Tevlin said. “When you have kids that feel safe, you are going to start to see positive movement in all student outcomes, not just academic but also behavior, attendance and mental health.”

He said restorative practices ties in with Multi-tiered Systems of Support, a framework schools use to support all students in the areas of attendance, behavior and course proficiency.

‘Everyone leaves my office feeling great and heard. I wish I would have had it in middle school so I would have had a voice. I wouldn’t have been the kid afraid to say anything.’

— Aaron Bailey, athletic director and behavior specialist

Aaron Bailey, athletic director and behavior specialist, works with students who are facing discipline. He meets with them one-on-one or in groups for restorative conferences and interventions. Educators also bring students, parents and staff members together to talk through conflict. 

They talk through restorative questions about what happened, what a student was thinking, how they were affected and what needs to be done to make things right. For those harmed, they also talk through the impact and what would help them feel better.

Bailey sees the importance of giving all students a voice. He recalled that as a child he was “quiet as a church mouse,” a student who could easily fly under the radar. 

“I feel like I’m batting a thousand when it comes to restorative practices,” he said. “Everyone leaves my office feeling great and heard. I wish I would have had it in middle school so I would have had a voice. I wouldn’t have been the kid afraid to say anything.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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