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How to Use Dialogue Circles to Foster Inclusion in Your Classroom

Madeleine Clays has been a public school teacher in the U.S. for twenty years. She is passionate about education.

Community circles are an effective way to teach students valuable life skills.

Community circles are an effective way to teach students valuable life skills.

What are Dialogue Circles?

Dialogue circles—also known as community circles—are meetings in which students sit in a circle facing each other and engage in conversation, facilitated by their teacher, on a specific topic.

The purpose of community circles is for students to share and listen to one another's thoughts, feelings and ideas. They're a way to foster inclusion—a sense of belonging for all students—regardless of cultural backgrounds and life experiences. They promote unity within a class and can help prevent or reduce conflict among students.

Since students normally enjoy talking about themselves and being heard, dialogue circles can be very popular in a classroom. They're an effective way to start the day, as they set the tone for the rest of the period. Almost without exception, my students look forward to dialogue circles and often refer to them as their favorite part of class.

Technology and social media leave many students feeling lonely and disconnected.

Technology and social media leave many students feeling lonely and disconnected.

Students Yearn for Interpersonal Connections

So many students today, regardless of age and socioeconomic status, are hungry for attention. Many are being raised by single parents who are overburdened with work. Parents often get home late or work night shifts so they sleep during the day. This leaves them with little to no time to connect with their children.

In addition, technology has made real-life interactions infrequent for many students. They spend hours every day playing video games or on social media sites like Facebook or WhatsApp. Research shows that the amount of time spent on social media is directly linked to depression.

Whenever I have dialogue circles with my students, I can see in their faces the craving for interpersonal relationships. They yearn for somebody who will notice them, listen, and make them feel that they matter.

Taking the time to hear and show an interest in what they have to say can mean the world to many of our students. It's also a powerful way to boost their confidence which can help them succeed academically.

Listening to your students is a powerful way to show them that they are important.

Listening to your students is a powerful way to show them that they are important.

Benefits of Dialogue Circles in the Classroom

Dialogue circles teach students valuable skills such as:

  • listening to others without interrupting
  • respecting others' points of view
  • patience (they have to wait their turn to talk)
  • putting their thoughts into words
  • speaking in front of their peers
  • feeling empathy towards others
  • confidence
  • being part of a team

Community circles can also encourage students to:

  • practice higher level thinking skills
  • use their imagination
  • support each other
  • understand why others behave the way they do
When facilitationg dialogue circles, it's important to sit in the circle with your students. Being at their level helps build trust and rapport.

When facilitationg dialogue circles, it's important to sit in the circle with your students. Being at their level helps build trust and rapport.

The Teacher's Role in the Dialogue Circle

My fellow teachers, we are the key to successful dialogue circles with our students!

Model What You Want Your Students to Do

We need to model everything we want our students to do. This means that as we participate in the dialogue circle with our students, we need to display good listening skills, patience and all the other attributes we want them to exhibit. They are watching us.

Our students will feed off of our level of interest and enthusiasm in the discussion. If we're not into the dialogue, we can't expect them students to be. They will follow our lead.

This doesn't mean we have to bounce off the walls with excitement as we guide the discussion. It does, however, mean we need to believe that what we're talking about is important and that we value our students' contributions.

After you ask the discussion question, answer it yourself. Be honest in your response—your students will know if you're not and it will be hard to get them to share their personal thoughts if you haven't done that. Remember that you're showing them what you want them to do. That includes opening up and at times making yourself vulnerable. Your students will appreciate your sincerity and willingness to let them into your life. They always love hearing our personal stories!

Facilitate the Discussion

As the teacher, you're in charge of ensuring that the dialogue goes smoothly. Make sure that each student finishes saying his part without interruptions from others. Depending on how many students you have in your circle, you may need to limit the number of sentences you allow them to use in their response (such as to three or fewer) so that all participants have a chance to speak.

Gaze around the circle occasionally to ensure that the rest of the class is paying attention to each speaker when it's his turn to talk. However, try to focus on each speaker as much as possible as this is what you expect your students to do.

Thank each one after he shares, and include his name. For example:

  • Thank you, Pablo.
  • I appreciate that, Sarah.

This communicates to each of your students that you value their individual contribution to the class discussion.

Dialogue circles help you build rapport with your students and may lead to more class participation during instructional time.

Dialogue circles help you build rapport with your students and may lead to more class participation during instructional time.

How to Lead a Dialogue Circle: 10 Basic Steps

  1. Sit in the circle with your students.
  2. Hold a ball or other item. I use an inflatable globe. It's lightweight and easy for them to catch.
  3. Pose your selected question aloud.
  4. Allow think time. This is important—students need time to process the question, then to come up with their personal response.
  5. Answer the question yourself first. You are modeling to your students what you expect them to do. You are also sharing your personal thoughts with them which builds trust and rapport.
  6. Gently throw or pass the ball or item to a student. (I use popsicle sticks with students' names on them so it's random and fair.) He or she now answers the question while the rest of the class listens.
  7. He or she throws the ball back to you.
  8. You throw it to the next student, he/she speaks, then throws it back to you.
  9. Repeat.
  10. When everybody has had a chance to talk, sum up what was discussed and thank your students for sharing their thoughts and feelings with you and the class.
An engaging story or novel you're reading in class can generate deep questions for dialogue circles.

An engaging story or novel you're reading in class can generate deep questions for dialogue circles.

Make Connections With Novels and Stories You're Reading in Class

You can choose any topics for your dialogue circles.

I like to make connections between a novel or story we're reading in class and our topics of conversation. This is because I like to take my students as deep as I can into whatever it is we're reading in class. I want them to feel what the characters feel and to think about what makes them tick the way they do. Literature is a wonderful way to come up with some great questions for your class dialogue circles!

For example, we recently read the book Dream March in class. It's about Martin Luther King and the march that took place in Washington D.C. in 1963 to advocate for civil and economic rights for African Americans in our country.

Some questions I came up with, based on this book, for our community circles are:

  • What does it mean to be a hero?
  • Who is your hero and why?
  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • What does it mean to be brave?
  • What cause would you be willing to die for?
  • What do you want people to remember most about you after you die?
  • Tell us about a time you saw an injustice. How did it make you feel?
Dialogue circles can help students learn to get along better with classmates who are different from them.

Dialogue circles can help students learn to get along better with classmates who are different from them.

Other Topic Ideas for Dialogue Circles

  • What is your best memory?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
  • If you could have one wish come true, what would it be?
  • What do you think is more important, to be rich or to be kind? Why?
  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? Why?
  • What do you think is the most important characteristic a friend should have?
  • What does it mean to respect someone?
  • When do you feel sad? (any emotion can be used to replace "sad")
  • What most makes you angry?

Weekly Circles: Building Community to Foster Academic Achievement

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Madeleine Clays

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