ARCHIVED—The Simplicity and Power of Circles
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Both Muriel Sawyer and Rob Dougherty have students sit in circles to help them learn how to respond respectfully and helpfully to what others do. Sawyer has students interacting in circles as an important part of Ojibwe culture. Dougherty uses them to teach drama, because a circle makes everyone equal, performer and audience.
Although a circle is a simple enough concept, it has powerful beneficial effects, says Sawyer. There are lessons about respecting others and ourselves that can be learned effectively in circles.
There is no order of precedence in a circle, explains Dougherty. Any activity undertaken will begin with everyone as equals. That means that the activity itself establishes the norms for interaction. Dougherty uses circles to establish his "equality within" philosophy. The regular ritual of coming into the class and setting up in the circle reinforces lessons about listening to each other respectfully.
A circle interaction is not an independent technique but something that is used in conjunction with activities during which students are expected to work together. In the Ojibwe culture Sawyer teaches her students, for example, it is an important rule that the person holding the eagle feather has the right to be listened to without interruption. Sitting in a circle, it is obvious who has the feather, and everyone can focus on that person.
Dougherty wants his students to learn two distinct activities. He wants them to learn to present to the group and he wants them to watch and listen attentively and respectfully while others are presenting.
Students pick up more than the teacher realizes from the sense of community that comes with the circle, says Sawyer. "When we have had larger circles with elders in attendance, I have noticed that all the boys' hats have come off. No one told them to do this; they just understood that this was a moment to show respect."