A brief overview of Circle Stages – notes from ’07

I’m cleaning out the office.  I am moving my book writing area from home to the office.  My office space is packed to capacity.  So it’s time to rearrange, and clean things out.  I found a page of  notes I made for a training.  These notes are my ideas on explaining what happens at each of the 4 Restorative Justice Circle Stages.

Getting Acquainted– Setting Intention and Tone.  Bringing a transition in from Individual to Community.  Practice Listening.

Building Relationships – The unfolding of stories, connecting to others, realizing we are more alike than different.

Addressing Issues– Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution

Taking Action– Transformation, leaving with new perspectives, reflection time on the the Circle.  Identifying of the tasks or change to take place.

My notes also identify the components of Service LearningPlan, Implement, Reflect.  SCVRJP helps students at UWRF in completing Service Learning Requirements, and we do this with Circle Process.

Are you a Circlekeeper?  Do you use these stages?

Working with local schools

I was visiting our local high school today, and doing a Safe Teen Driving Circle.  There is a life skills class teacher that has us back each semester.  I bring a speaker and facilitate a Circle, introducing students to Restorative Justice.  Today’s Circle was as good as any I’ve ever done.

I asked kind of a silly question for us to get acquainted, “if you were any food on the Thanksgiving table, what one would you be”  A few laughs and giggles when someone said they’d be the “buns”.  The ‘building relationship’ question was “who really listens to you”.  Then Jessica told her story.  Even after hearing this story for almost a year, and helping her work on, I teared up today.  It’s hard not to when she shares such details and gets emotional herself.

The students had some strong reflections about hearing the story.  A few had similiar expereinces they could really relate to.  As the last round round in the Circle was about what you thought of the Circle and anythign you needed to say to leave in Peace, I jotted down the following comments:

It was easy to open up.  It was a good experience, bringing everyone closer.  A real wake up call.  Very powerful, I like we had a choice of how to interpret things for ourselves.  It really opened my eyes and was reminder of what we have. 

  I really liked one student, reflecting on the Talking Piece, he called them “these little things” but was gesturing with it.  He shared how talking to these “little things”, made it easier to open up.  We were using a metal sand dollar today.

After the Circle in the Classroom, I had an appointment with the school principal to gather information on a new referral.  It seems harrassment and threatening behavior between 2 girls, one the old girlfriend and one the new.  It turns out one of the students agreed to participate in Restorative Justice, because she was aware of what it was from an earlier Safe Teen Driving Circle.

That really shows it helps to get involved proactively, so you’ve got a connection for when reactive approaches are needed.

 Happy Thanksgiving – Kris

A mighty fine Circle – the Park Potluck

Here’s the cast of characters:

College student, doing his internship

Law enforcement officer

Alternative School Teacher

Community Member, plants park flowers

High School Exchange Student

Elected City Official & SCVRJP Volunteer

Community Member & SCVRJP Volunteer

Community Member, lives by the park, emailed concerns to the Mayor a few months ago

7 students from the alternative school, 4 completed Circle Training, 3 new to the process

With me, that makes 16 people in this Circle.  The Circle was orginally an idea that grew out of a Circle Training that was held just ONE month earlier.  No kidding, from Oct 3rd, when it orignally came up to a November 6 Potluck and Circle.  Circle training really invites a change in perspecitve, it deepens your view of community.  It allows the space to speak a concern.  The students voiced concern over the area parks.  Being blamed for bad things that happened at the park.  It was obvious they wanted a place to speak these harms and needs.  Community members at the training knew there were community concerns.  I suggested that we hold a Circle.  Of course, my answer to everything is to Circle.

We meet, meaning the students the community volunteers, the teacher involved or a regular basis.  The first meeting I felt like I was hearding cats!  We use the Circle process, but sometimes the talking piece just isn’t enough to structure the conversation.  We met again, two weeks later.  The students had drafted a flyer and shared that vandals had also stuck at the park, spray painting inapporpriate messages.  That evening the students and their teacher helped me co-lead a Circle with a confirmation class.  After that we all went to a Coffee Shop, open mic night and circle question planning.  The Circle was a week away!

The days were going by fast, the word about the Circle was circulated between volunteers, and the students made flyers, took personal time and hung these around town.

I walked in the gym and was nearly moved to tears!  The students had a Circle of chairs.  The Center was ready with our ribbon circle from training, and the talking pieces made at the same training.  Was I ever pleased to see some new students, concerned and willing community members and public officials.  We ate together a sweet little potluck of sub sandwhiches, tuna salad, mac and cheese, chips and salsa, cookies, pop, water and juice.

I guided everyone to the Circle.  The students did great!  I felt nervous and maybe said more than I needed to get us started.  One of the young people added “Circles are a strong container and can hold alot of emotion”.  How very appropriate.  She read her opening which was very aware and focused on personal responsibility.

The mood was light, and connections made in the first stage as we all shared what our favorite piece of playground equipement was, when we were kids.  We each took turns sharing what a perfect day at the park would look like, to us.  Different perspectives, but the connections deeped and the process was going well.

I became a little concerned about time, and moved right into the third stage.  addressing issues.  I simply asked how people are impacted by vandalism, fighting and just bad stuff at the park.  Personally I learned alot.  Someone that cares for the park even became tearful and suprized herself at the emotions that surfaced in sharing about this.  We got to understand that money going to repairs doesn’t leave money for upgrades.  We learned everyone wants a clean park, shared by different groups and generations.

We learned our young people don’t have a place to go.  We learned that calling the cops isn’t a good idea, for fear of retaliation or revenge.  We learned groups can be intimidating whether they mean to be or not.

The problem solving and taking action stage included smiling, being friendly to others.  Filling the space with good, to keep out the bad.  One person realized that a young person being offended by the vandalism and also being blamed for it, would be a real negative.  That showed me she considered the shoes of another.  When law enforcement thanked a teen, her expression said it all.  I did have to ask later “Did you ever think you’d be thanked by the Police”.  She said she almost fainted. 

I don’t feel like my words are conveying the POWERFUL experience we had.  At the end of the reading I said “handshake, high five, or hug to somebody else in the Circle”  people immediately followed that action.  It was really really energizing to see. 

The person that keeps the flowers, she now has 3 young people helping her on the next gardening outing.  The students may form a group that helps label the plants for educational purposes.  As a group we may take part in a “adopt a park” program.   The conversation was inspirational.  A young person commented, next time I tell someone to stop doing something bad at the park instead of saying “hey don’t, someone might call the cops”.  I’m going to say “Hey don’t, that hurts someone else’s feelings”. 

Together we showed we care about our park, students, community members, public officials.  It was a mighty fine Circle!


Circle Phase 4 – Taking Action

The final stage of a Circle Process, deals with leaving the Circle.  The goal is to have everyone reflect on how they experienced the Circle.  It is a chance for a final, say in what you need, so you can leave in Peace.

I often share that you don’t leave a Circle the same as when it started.  I use a skill called “foreshadowing”, predicting or lighting the pathway where a Circle can lead.

One of the magically aspects of Circle, is the bond that is created when people take the journey to be in Circle together.  You can literally see body language change, as strangers transform.  The process of learning about others, sharing a story and addressing issues all help you arrive at the end, feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I sometimes feel sad, or grief at the end of a two day training.  When we work on the this final, final round, I feel better.  Expressions of gratitute and ideas for applying Circle evolve.  I am reminded that my memories and the stories I heard will always be part of who I am.

In our Safe Teen Driving Circles and Underage Consumption Panels – we make sure to gather a public committment at the end of the Circle.  We have the talking piece go around, and everyone shares something they are going to do differently from what they gained in Circle.

In my college class I am always interested by how students close our Circle.  Almost every student has a different aspect of what they will take from the days class.  I was really happy to hear one of my student wish the class was in the middle of the week.  He said it was the highlight of his week, his favorite class.

The final closing you read is important.  My best closing ever came after a long and emotional Circle, to come up with recommendations for the court.  Two young people and their parents, probation officer, community members and restorative justice volunteers were in Circle with me.  The young people did a large amount of damage to a cemetery.  I had an instinct to tell people to stand when I finished the reading.

As this group stood, I was directly across from one of the victims that was particularly cynical about the process being helpful.  The look on this “Grandpa’s” face was approving, supportive and even quite impressed and moved by the process.  It brought me to tears then, and typing about it now has my eyes watery.  The next thing that happened, the “victim” side of the Circle went right into the other half of the Circle.  Parents were given handshakes, the young boys were given pats on the shoulder for participating.  That was amazing.  It was just a gift for me to ask people to stand when we finished.

Finish strong, look for the miracles even as Circles end!  Oh sometimes I say “Handshake, High Five or Hug!”

–Peace – – Kris

Social Skills Built in Circle – the opposite of negative bonding!

I learned a new term today “negative bonding”.  It was explained to me as connecting over gossip, toxic topics, it was an “ah ha” moment.  When I googled “Negative Bonding” the first article said “Everyone knows about “Negative Bonding Patterns”.  I thought “oh my gosh, WHERE have I been!?”.  The next sentence said:  You may not know what they’re called, but you know what they feel like.

That’s exactly what happened 12 hours earlier, before I googled the article.  When my friend explained it, I knew what it felt like and exactly what it is.  It leaves me feeling icky.  Gossiping, complaining, not being in good integrity with my language, all negative bonding.  I feel like I’ve gotten better at not negative bonding, the older and more I’ve been in Circle.  Since Circles focus on Values, very little reference to negative bonding.

Thinking about it further today, I realized you can negative bond with yourself.  That’s the “Kris Wrecker Voice”.  The one in my head that says “you can’t”, “they don’t like you”, “your being being bossy”.  Its best to not bond with that voice.  Or if I do bond with it, I take a good look at my behavior.

It gets confusing because bonding, feels good.  What if all you’ve learned or been exposed to is a “negative bonder”.  I bet you can think of a person that you know who is like that.  With this sitting in the back of my mind today . . . I realized the social skills that can be developed in Circles.

There are many skills that get developed in Circles and today, I realized its a way of connecting and way of bonding that is not negative.  You create “positive bonding” in Circle, you focus on values, values are positive.  You speak from the heart in Circle, not what you think about someone else.  Some people find this harder than others.  I enjoy the connections that grow in Circle, people open up and then realize others are more like them, connecting.

So like my friend today, I’m going to work on avoiding Negative Bonding.  In a Circle last week, one young person had a row of magnets.  As they were pointed together one way – they wouldn’t connect, then turned around, they clicked together.  She said this is conflict and pushed the wrong ends together, she said “then you have a Circle” and she lined the magnets to click together.  That is a young person that understands positive bonding and how a Circle works.

Peace – Kris

Photo of the week – values

My best guess is 1,350 plates.  I put a brand new stack of 150 next to this stack, tried to accomodate that the big stack is less compressed.  I’ve missed the plates for a few circles.  Each plate has a value written on it, and by someone I’ve had the pleasure of being in Circle with.  That’s thing about Circles, I don’t ever leave one disliking anyone.  The good of a person always finds its way in Circle.

I believe in the very very important task of identifying values in a Circle.  I also believe we should use consensus early on in a Circle and all commit to honor the values.  Its a great first stage, I like to say “it lets us all know how are going to treat each other”.  One of my students did her paper on the concept of Values and she said Circles would “worthless” without them.

It’s a joke now in the office about my stack of plates.  I love what they represent, my committment to living in values, my committment to Circle and mostly to the wonderful task of bringing Circles to other people.

— Peace – – Kris

Guest Post – Catherine, 3rd Grade teacher

Catherine posted this story as a comment and I am moving it to a post.

Peace – Kris


Here is my circle story of the day. I teach 2nd grade in an urban Minnesota school. I open each school day with a circle (Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting Circle) and end each day with a Closing Circle (15 minutes). The Closing Circle provides a chance for students (and me) to process what went well during the day, and what maybe didn’t go so well. It also gets my students ready for learning the next day. To my surprise the Closing Circle has also been a powerful proactive tool for solving small problems before they become a classroom disruption or become a distraction to student learning.

I asked the question, “What is something that didn’t go so well today?” When passing the talking piece one little boy responded, “Well, reading buddies didn’t go very well for me today, because I didn’t get to take my turn reading. My reading buddy didn’t listen to me read because she was busy coloring her own story instead. So that really made me feel bad about reading buddies today.”

Everyone in the circle knew who his reading buddy was because the buddies are assigned and stay the same for the entire month. Needless to say, everyone in the circle looked directly at the young girl (Sarah) who was obviously the offending buddy. The boy then passed the talking piece to his neighbor who said, “Wow, Kelly (not real name) that must have really hurt your feelings. I am sorry for you.” The talking piece continued around the circle with children making comments back to Kelly about how they felt about his missing his turn to read. When the talking piece came to the Sarah”offender/buddy” she just looked wide eyed at Kelly and said, “But I just wanted to color. I didn’t know he would feel bad.” Then she passed the talking piece.

When the round ended I took back the talking piece and said, “Well, it looks like we have a problem to fix. How can we make Kelly feel better? Let’s pass the talking piece and see if we can help Kelly and Sarah fix this problem.”

A little girl started the talking piece with this statement, “I think that Sarah needs to say sorry to Kelly.” The talking piece continued around the circle with each student making suggestions such as, “Sarah needs to tell Kelly she won’t do that again.” “Sarah can make sure that next reading buddies she gives Kelly a really long turn.” Etc.

By the time the talking piece got to Sarah she was looking like a deer with headlights shining in her face. She looked at everyone and said, “I guess I better give Kelly his turn from now on so I don’t hurt his feelings. Sorry, Kelly.”

This was an amazing process because Sarah at age 7 had no idea that her actions had hurt Kelly. She is an average 7 year old who is still “all about herself”. Empathy has not developed within her yet. It never occured to her that someone else might not appreciate her actions. She was not being mean…it just hadn’t occured to her. It was very obvious that her peers holding her accountable made the difference for her and helped her understand what she had done and why it was important that she promised not to do it again.

Prior to using circles I would have taken Sarah out into the hallway and had a private respectful conversation about hurting people’s feelings. She is a nice girl and would have nodded and gone back into the room without really understanding or internalizing anything new. In the circle process her peers and the victim helped Sarah to internalize her actions and develop empathy. It was a raw experience and very eye opening for me. In the past I have used circles for problem solving but now with the daily closing circle a new process is developing….pro active problem solving of small issues before they become major issues.

I am looking forward to more experiences of this nature. And with 7 year olds…nothing surprises me anymore!

Circle Process with storytellers

At SCVRJP we run our Underage Consumption Panels, Safe Teen Driving Circles and Victim Empathy Seminars all in Restorative Justice Circle Process.  Depending on the emotional depth and participants I will run a Victim Offender Conference using RJ Circle Process.

I completely lean on the principles outlined Peacemaking Circles, by Kay Pranis.  The stages as I explain them are 1.) Getting Acquainted 2.) Building Relationships 3.) Addressing Issues 4.) Taking Action.  I will post other blogs on each of these stages.

I have found it crucially important that as a keeper you are aware of these stages.  Setting intentions and letting the Circle know how it works, is helpful in the consensus element.  The more I can transistion the operation of the circle to the participants the deeper the process.  Just recently it occured to me that no tears had emerged in the Circle Training (very different from Circle).   I asked a “building relationship” storytelling question, and the tears appeared.  It was very healing for me.

The stage that I introduce a speaker is the “addressing issues”.  I turn the talking piece over to a guest speaker.  Often times these speakers are volunteers that help with Victim Impact Panels, speaking to an audience in a classroom style setting.

I’ve seen that speakers prefer the Circle process for sharing.  They get immediate feedback, and feel more connected to the audience.  I think the SCVRJP speakers are just amazing, and in part, because they have the “speaking from the heart” experience from Circles.  I met an experienced speaker, she volunteered for years talking about how her daughter’s tragic death, caused by a drunk driver.  After experiencing a Safe Teen Driving Circle, she approached me.  She shared that the Circle process was very different and much better than just speaking at students.  She said that students would sit an listen, unengaged, because they just needed to be there to get their driving permits.  In Circle they are completely engaged.

In traveling with a speaker, after a storytelling circle, he shared he prefers to speak to people in recovery.  We held a Circle to demonstrate the process, hoping eventually to do more circles in this setting.  I had our speaker come and tell his story.  He volunteers frequently and is a remarkable speaker.  I thought he would role model storytelling in the Circle.  He also accepted questions from others in the Circle (the talking piece was in the center), this allowed the speaker to be a role model about living in recovery.

When I use a storytelling in the Circle process, I make sure the round following the story is a “reflection” on what we just heard.  It is important for listeners to make the content relevant.  We know from brain research that helps us remember.  Sometimes I go two rounds, and reframe the question. 

The “taking action” stage is a time to reflect on our Circle experience and make a statement relevant to what we will take from the Circle.  In Safe Teen Driving Circles, I make sure the students state a “public committment” a specific behavior they will do as a result of hearing the story.

Safe Teen Driving Circles

The Allstate Foundation approved a grant to SCVRJP in 2007 for the “On the Road Together Safe Teen Driving Program”.  The number one cause of death for people 18-24 is car crashes!  Depending on the study 40-60% of those crashes involve alcohol.  SCVRJP & Allstate partnered with MN Twin Cities Public Television to produce a documentary on Safe Teen Driving.  You will soon be able to purchase this documentary from SCVRJP.  The Allstate Foundation provided a second grant to SCVRJP and we will be working with Living Justice Press to publish a manual for duplicating these Circles in your own communities.  Click on the Kare 11 link to see a story on these classroom Circles. 


I did one of these Circles first thing yesterday and the students responded so positively.  It was a group that has a “Pay if Forward” project and the students really gave voice to wanting more Circles and Restorative Justice in their school.  My day started and ended with a Circle yesterday!  I showed this Kare 11 link to my students at UWRF.

The Safe Teen Driving Circles follow the four phases of all Restorative Justice Circles 1.) Getting Acquainted 2.)Building Relationships 3.) Addressing Issues 4.) Taking Action.  We identified values, wrote them on paperplates, made a committment to honor these and then did another round to get acquainted.  Lately I have been asking what flavor of ice cream people would be.  My favorite answer so far . . . the entire Cold Stone store!

The Safe Teen Driving Circles are a great way to introduce students to Circling, to help a speaker with storytelling and to allow students a chance to speak individually.  All of our participants have completed evaluation forms, in 15 months we have reached 241 students.  Please contact me if you have any questions about this program.  If you would like to pre-order your manual, contact Living Justice Press http://www.livingjusticepress.org.

Teaching In Circle

I teach one class a semester at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls.  The first class I taught was the Spring semester 2008 and the class that started on September 8 is the second group of students.  Next semester I will teach an advanced class in Restorative Justice.

I love teaching this because we hold the class in Circle.  I have really come to enjoy the look on students faces as I ask them to round up the desks and sit all facing each other.  I like to watch the non-verbal reactions as I talk about speaking and listening from the heart.  I feel really blessed to have been in so many circles that my confidence about the process is so strong.  Maybe faith in the process is a better word than confidence.  My faith in the process is very strong.

We made introductions, identified our values, made a committment to honor the values while we were together.  We assigned opening and closing readings right around the Circle.  I was more relaxed with this being the second class I’ve taught.  I really took the time to appreciate each individual and to know we’ll become quite connected.  I can still picture each person from last years class.  One thing that really stands out is how much I feel I know the essence of their personalities. 

I am going into this semester feeling positive about the process, based on the final papers that last semesters students did.  They had some really super things to say about how they learned in the process.  I think the structure from rows to circle really engaged and encouraged each of them.

The interactive format made the information relevant to each person, since each individual weighed in on our topic.  The students quickly learned that storytelling was alot of fun and they wanted to do that assignment a second time.  I still do powerpoint lectures, and we watch videos, but with Circle we offer a talking round and a reflection round.  When one of my guest speakers didn’t offer as much time for this the students didn’t care for that.  They became empowered in our classroom.

One of the students has informed me that he is friends and does things with one of his classmates.  Apparently a friendship developed in class and he is quite certain that wouldn’t have happened without the circle process.

One thing for sure, the student share this experience together and that creates the common bond.  It’s similiar to when victims/offenders/community members have a process together.  There is a bond at the end because they have completed the journey together.